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Pillars of wisdom

There was a time when Spain was a country rarely lauded for excellence. Its soccer team was trophy-less, Rafael Nadal was an unknown and its banking industry was unremarkable in global terms.

How things have changed. Despite a still fragile local economy, its global surge is best reflected in the incredible turn-round seen at Abbey for Intermediaries over the past two years. Gone is the time when service standards were among the worst in the industry and its intermediary leadership was sanctimonious and aloof.

When profiling a lender’s report card, I look at four key cornerstones – service and technology, products, risk appetite and its people.

AFI has upgraded in all four of these disciplines and probably its most lauded achievement lies in the service turn-round wherein it bravely rationalised the number of service centres and made sensible realignments to its BDM coverage. But the one cornerstone which has caught my eye of late has been the calibre of its management team and a remarkable transition from a slightly adversarial relationship with brokers to one where there is genuine consultation on change programmes and new initiatives.

At the head is recently appointed Miguel Sard who, like many of the Spanish execs parachuted in by Santander, manages to combine an engaging charm with a frank and single-minded strategic vision which all layers of the team appear to be bonded to. This vision is forthright – to be our lender of choice. The AFI key account team comprises approachable individuals who are self-confident and who can draw on experience in the specialist lending circles. Let’s face it, complex or nearprime is today’s specialist lending.

Some readers might well say AFI has enjoyed an uneven playing field with cheaper funding available to it compared with its state-hamstrung competitors in LBG and RBS. That is a fair observation but an organisation still has to get it right because while generosity can build the temple, the pillars all still need to be properly constituted and balanced. A critical pillar is its risk appetite where, again, AFI is a differentiator.

In Bill Grey, the risk identity has a human face. Decisions are made on a commonsense approach and there is a refreshing candidness in its desire to give brokers a quick yes or no answer.

Underpinning these approaches are the benefits of operating the world’s biggest branch network. Across 14,000 outlets, it is impossible not to be learning things which others cannot. Despite such a branch footprint Santander still places the intermediary at the nub of its thinking.

AFI’s supremacy could even widen – and without it having to get into a pricing war with its arch-combatants. The pending buy-to-let proposition will get a good reception from brokers because service standards are so secure. We will probably see further enhancements in its technology.

Possibly the most exciting outcome of this resurgence may be the onset of a golden era where LBG also re-emerges to go toe to toe with AFI.

Almost like Nadal and Federer, by 2013, we could see two goliaths slugging it out and that would only be good news for intermediaries.

Kevin Duffy is managing director of Mortgageforce

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