As part of Santander group, Abbey’s high-street operation and Abbey for Intermediaries have been able to continue lending, even as the credit crunch took the wind out of the sails of some of their competitors.
“With a well funded, well capitalised parent like Santander behind us, we have been able to make really significant strides in the market over and above what we were making anyway.”
Okey says Abbey for Intermediaries is poised for a good year although he admits that he has become slightly less bullish than three months ago.
“I am pretty certain that our market share will be up and I am as confident as one can be in what is a very troublesome market that our gross lending versus last year will be up.”
Okey has been managing director since 2005, having joined as director of mortgages and protection. He previously spent several years at Bradford & Bingley running subsidiary Charcol but he was not always in the mortgage business.
He spent five years in advertising before “getting somewhat bored” and was looking for a change of career when his father-in-law, who was a broker, suggested he consider financial services.
“Of course, my view was why on earth would I want to be a life insurance salesman? You must be joking.”
However, his father-in-law arranged introductions to several companies, inclu-ding Allied Dunbar which he joined in 1988. He stayed there for 12 years and followed this with an 18-month stint at Sun Life when the company was embarking on a turn-round. Halfway through the three-year plan, the Canadian parent had second thoughts and decided to pull out of the UK market.
He joined B&B at a time when it was changing from being solely a manufacturer to being a whole of market distributor under chief executive Christopher Rodrigues. He was appointed managing director of mortgage broker Charcol and was also director of all mortgage distribution at B&B.
When Rodrigues left, the B&B board decided to move back towards being a manufacturer and divest itself of non-core businesses, including Charcol. Okey agreed to stay until a buyer was found but he found himself looking for a new challenge.
He says the move to the lender side was not too great a culture shock. “I think the reason I joined ultimately was because I had both manufacturer and distributor experience. To be an ex-broker and to go and join a business that sells the bulk of its products through brokers gave me quite an advantage in joining the Abbey business at the time.”
Since he joined Abbey for Intermediaries, he says the business has made real progress in addressing one of the most important issues for brokers – service standards.
“We have cracked one of the real ills of the Abbey business three-and-a-half to four years ago, which was service. We have improved our service to intermediaries multi-fold. There is loads more to do but what we have done in the market in the last few years has put us in a strong place. We have enhanced our reputation.”
Technology has been behind part of this but Okey says there is more improvement to come. Santander has invested heavily in a new platform for the Abbey business and although this has been introduced for the direct channels, it has not yet been rolled out to the intermediary channel.
“Once we get that into play, into next year, intermediaries will start to see improvements in our service offering.”
Despite his efforts to improve conditions for brokers, Okey does not agree with them on all counts. He says the issue of dual-pricing has been blown out of proportion and dismisses any suggestions that it has damaged relations between brokers and lenders as a whole. “I think that is a gross exaggeration of the situation.” Okey does not consider Abbey to be a dual-priced lender, as the current controversy defines the term, and points out that there have never been different rates for direct customers and for intermediaries for loans of the same LTV.
“We have been very clear. At the same LTV, we price all our products the same.”
But he says different pricing is a legitimate marketing practice that goes on in all market conditions and, in fact, brokers have been the beneficiary of dual pricing in their favour until recent months. He also points to the use of exclusive deals for intermediaries, which Abbey for Intermediaries recently reintroduced for some partners.
“We are dual-pricing with some better than direct priced products for intermediaries. Every now and again, there will be some better priced products through the direct channel than through intermediaries.”
Okey says while Abbey is set for a strong year, the attitude of the business has never been growth for growth’s sake. Aside from a brief excursion into 100 per cent mortgages Abbey mostly steered clear of sub-prime and specialist lending and is now reaping the benefits. He will not give any details of its arrears but says some lenders which were involved in these sectors will be experiencing a downturn in the quality of their books.
“We do not have that brick on the tail of our kite. While we may not have reaped the previous years’ upsides or perceived upsides of those segments, we are delighted to be free of them at the moment.”
He adds that Abbey is wary of a rush to grab market share. “Achieving our business plan this year is not just about gross or net value. We are very conscious of the business we are taking on at the moment and treading a path very carefully between growth, business levels, market share, margin and business quality.”
Despite the difficulty that some brokers are having in finding competitive deals for their clients, Okey says brokers remain central to the business he runs, whether this is through offering more exclusives for intermediaries or simply just being in the market and able to lend.
Education: “Yes, I was”
Career: 2005-present – managing director, Abbey for Intermediaries; 2001-05 – director, Bradford & Bingley and managing director, Charcol; 2000-01 – Sun Life; 1988-2000 – Allied Dunbar
Likes: Music, food, all sports but particularly Birmingham City Football Club
Dislikes: “Dislike is a bit strong but frustrated with people who do not live every moment to the full, push boundaries and recognise that this is no dress rehearsal”
Drives: A luxury coupe
Favourite book: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
Favourite film: Scent of a Woman
Favourite album: Forever Faithless by Faithless
Career ambition: “To grow and develop each and every day in some small way”
Life ambition: Health, wealth and happiness
If I wasn’t doing this … “I would be in Ibiza mixing and playing tracks for the masses”