Born into a family of teachers, miners and musicians, Jayne Almond, chief executive of equity-release lender Stonehaven, has come a long way since she was awarded an educational scholarship to Roedean School at the age of 10.
Her schooling led her to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford but instead of opting for a civil service career like many of her peers, Almond launched herself into industry, starting as an operational researcher for oil giant Shell.
Almond did not want a job that would stymie her ability to problem-solve. “If I were not in business, I would have liked to be a forensic scientist or working in counter-terrorism.
“The English Oxbridge education is not designed to produce people who have the can-do attitude you need in business. Instead, it encourages smart alecks who make snooty, if intelligent, criticisms but their comments do not provide solutions or produce positive activity that takes things forward.”
As a senior partner at LEK Consulting for a decade and a half, Almond helped fresh business ideas come to fruition and oversaw impressive growth which took the firm from operating with just five staff to having offices in 18 countries.
In 1999, she felt it was time to leave the world of consulting. She says consultants are notoriously difficult to manage and the tendency of some people to be prima donnas was irritating. “Consulting pays probably the best money and it attracts the smartest graduates with first-class degrees from Oxbridge but they do not like being told what to do. You have to persuade or encourage them.”
Working for Lloyds TSB and then Barclays, Almond found herself frustrated by the constant struggle to overcome convoluted decision-making processes, a slowness to embrace new products and bureaucratic, administrative and IT prioritisation delays. “I am not by nature a patient person. I want to do things now, not be told why it will not work or why we have to wait.”
The solution was to start her own business. Stonehaven was piloted last August and has been running since October. As chief executive, Almond faces different challenges to those she had before. “Rather than handing the legal work to the legal department, you have to be much more involved yourself. There are far fewer people you have to manage in a smaller firm but greater responsibilities.”
With an ageing population, inadequate pension provision and vast sums of capital locked up in homes, Almond believes the structural conditions are right for the equity-release market to blossom.
“As people age and their wealth declines, they are forced to continue working or downsize. Why shouldn’t an 80-year-old be able to release the equity he or she is sitting in? We should have a more sophisticated use of property. It should be seen as an asset class like any other. But homeowners are not aware of the uses their property can be put to or types of shared equity products available. They do not realise they are sitting in the answer to their problems.”
Almond’s grandfather was a trade unionist and mine worker, and she still sees herself as a socialist. She sees equity release not only as a business opportunity but also as a way of helping out elderly people with low incomes. “With equity release, you are helping to transform the lives of ordinary people and their families.”
However, equity release still suffers from the bad reputation it gained in the 1980s. “One of the reasons that Barclays did not embrace the market was because it was afraid of the risk to its reputation,” she says.
To some extent, she believes the hangover from this period remains but improvements in the design and sales process mean that equity-release products are much safer and more mature today. “Tighter regulation from the industry and the FSA means that problems such as negative equity and misselling have been dealt with. The sales process is now very defined, fixed-rate products are available, independent legal advice is encouraged as the norm and customers are always advised to consult their family members before taking a decision.”
She says that relatives tend to welcome equity-release products rather than opposing the loss of real estate. The relief of knowing that parents will be secure in their retirement can also be sweetened by bequeathing a lump sum when it is needed most.
“These days, children may be 60 before they inherit a property but they really need capital when they are 30 or 40 and trying to pay off debts or get on the property ladder.”
With greater flexibility in product provision, including drawdown facilities, equity-release customers can get a one-off lump sum or secure a lasting income into retirement. “It suits a variety of needs. People might need to pay off debts or want to buy a second home in Spain. They might need to pay for healthcare or home improvement or the holiday of a lifetime.”
With a team of 50, more than 100 product options and 1,000 advisers signed up, Stonehaven has ambitious plans.
Almond predicts the industry will be worth at least £5bn in five years but is she afraid that if her past employers and other big institutions make a serious entry into the market, they will be too powerful to compete with?
“No,” says Almond. “We are encouraging them to offer more equity-release products. The more that enter the market, the more respectable it becomes and the more consumers will be attracted to the product. At Stonehaven, we can still stay ahead of the rest in terms of innovation and offering cutting-edge products.”
Born: 1957, St Leonards, Sussex
Lives: Chelsea, London
Education: 1967-75 – Roedean School, Sussex; 1975-78 – BA in politics, philosophy & economics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford
Career: 2006-present – chief executive, Stonehaven; 2003-05 – managing director, Barclays Home Finance; 1999-2003 – group marketing director, Lloyds TSB; 1984-99 – senior partner, LEK Consulting; 1976-84 – financial analyst, Shell.
Likes: Golf, tennis, opera, classical music
Dislikes: Internal politicking, her daughter smoking
Drives: Mini Cooper
Favourite book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Favourite film: The Long Good Friday
Favourite album: The Very Best of Maria Callas
Career ambition: Building an ethical and cutting-edge business
Life ambition: Not getting obsessed by work and having a good time
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…
Crime-solving as a forensic scientist or counter-terrorist investigator