The equity release market has endured a tough time over the past few years. In the aftermath of the credit crunch, many lenders pulled out of the market due to problems securing funding and Stonehaven was among the long list.
In 2010, the company suspended lending but one year later it secured a backer. “We lost a funder for a year but we never stopped believing in the role equity release can play,” says Stonehaven managing director Georgina Smith.
The market is starting to improve. Figures from the Equity Release Council in January revealed 2012 was the most successful year for the equity release market since 2009, with market value increasing by 17 per cent from £788.6m in 2011 to £925.7m last year.
And Smith believes the sector will continue to grow. “We would not be doing this if we didn’t think equity release was going to become really popular.”
Smith may not have worked with Stonehaven at all had she followed her initial career path. She studied zoology and genetics at university before entering the world of marketing. “I am quite a chatty person and I like doing things and being creative. You can’t do that in science,” she says.
Smith became a brand and marketing manager for healthcare company SmithKline Beecham before taking on the role of brand and communications manager for Lloyds TSB, where she was responsible for the branding of the Lloyds and TSB merger.
While at Lloyds, Smith received a call from mobile phone network Orange, offering her the role of UK brand director, an opportunity she had always dreamed of.
She worked as brand director for a year but she was at a loss what to do next until a former colleague told her about her plans to set up an equity release lending business.
Stonehaven launched in 2006, with Smith heading up the role of sales and marketing director. She says the aim for the business was to create products that consumers really wanted.
“We wanted to create a whole new set of products people genuinely want rather than what banks are willing to fund. It was a brave move but absolutely the right way to do it. What you are left with is products people want to buy rather than products we have got to sell.”
In 2011, Smith was promoted to managing director. “Working there for five years, you get to know how the business is run. You sit in board meetings, see the profit and loss and how the operations work. I wanted to do the bigger role and use everything I had learned from the business.”
The equity release market has seen gradual growth recently but Smith says Stonehaven has not seen the growth it would have liked. She says funding as well as the amount businesses can lend is still limited but feels there is a positive outlook for growth, saying consumers need equity release to fund retirement.
“You can see from the number of enquiries and the amount of advisers registering with us that they can see interest among customers. I get the feeling it is at a tipping point because everybody needs to find a solution for customers because they have not got the pension they require or need.”
Annuity rates have been on a downward spiral and more people are looking to equity release as an alternative to annuities. Smith says because of this, equity release is seen as more of an acceptable option for customers and this is what will drive the market.
“More people have started to say equity release has changed their lives. If you get enough people talking about it, you will see the market take off.”
Smith says although there is a lot the Government can do to promote equity release as a retirement option, she believes high street banks offering this as a solution would be the best advertisement possible.
“It would start to get the profile it needs to really take off and for customers to see there is an option for them. The banks could do a lot more than the Government.”
Smith says there are plans to continue growing Stonehaven as a lender but the business is also looking to other areas for growth. It will launch Onyx Servicing, an outsourced administration service for other lenders in the equity release market.
Smith says Stonehaven has already built up a reputation for providing good servicing for its customers and this, alongside the team and the systems in place, are the ingredients for a successful servicing business.
“It is very different to us being a lender and we want it to be seen as such. We absolutely believe in the equity release market and we want to launch different businesses within this market and use the expertise we have developed. This is a logical next step for Stonehaven as a business.”
Smith feels this specialist service, which will launch in August, will set it apart from other equity release lenders in the market.
“When a customer passes away you have to be sympathetic and you can get it so horribly wrong. We get excited about doing it really well and being different from all our market competitors.”
Smith remains positive that equity release will become as popular as any other mainstream mortgage.
“It is encouraging to see some growth but it is nothing compared with the potential of this market. We should be looking at £5bn next year and £10bn the year after because the problem out there in terms of what equity release solves is so huge.”
Born: Bristol, UK
Education: Cardiff University, BSc Hons in zoology and genetics
Career: 2011-present: managing director, Stonehaven; 2005-2011: sales and marketing director, Stonehaven; 2003-04: UK brand director, Orange; 1997-2003: head of brand & communication, Lloyds TSB; 1995-97: senior brand manager, Smithkline Beecham; 1991-95: Graduate Programme, ICI Paints
Likes: Sunshine and time with my husband
Dislikes: Being bored
Drives: Silly to drive in London so enjoying being car-less
Book: One Day by David Nicholls
Film: Anything that makes me laugh
Album: Back to Black by Amy Winehouse
Career ambition: To make equity release mainstream and for Stonehaven to lead the way
Life ambition: To always be happy
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…on a beach!