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Toby Strauss

Takeovers, name changes, flotation – it has been quite a year for mortgage broker John Charcol.

At the helm with B&B chief executive Christopher Rodrigues et al is enthusias-tic sailor and CharcolOnline managing director Toby Strauss, an e-commerce and consulting whizz brought in toset up the broker&#39s online operation in November 1999.

As a member of the John Charcol board, he admits he had mixed feelings when Bradford & Bingley made an approach earlier this year. “The strategic fit was an attraction but I wanted to keep our independence. Over time, I have become more and more impressed with their vision.”

What is the fit? Bradford & Bingley wants to cast itself in a new mould, namely as an intermediary rather than as a lender. Strauss says this strategy is being driven by people having to provide for their future and becoming more financially discerning. He believes a high-profile IFA can take advantage of their desire to have a selection of providers.

The first step towards achieving the B&B master plan is the introduction of mortgage broking into the B&B branch network. Charcol has the mortgage broking know-how while B&B has the brand awareness.

The brokerage, which will be known as MarketPlace at B&B, is being piloted at several branches in the North-west and South-east but will be available through all branches in the first half of next year.

Strauss says: “People trust B&B but not for choice in terms of mortgages. MarketPlace will establish trust, advice and choice.”

Charcol will be using its expertise to train B&B staff. Former John Charcol managing director and now commercial director of B&B distribution Ian Darby has been entrusted with the job.

Strauss explains: “In recent years, Charcol has been known for providing mortgage advice but our roots are a broader range of products.”

Last week, John Charcol rebranded in a bid to go back to those roots and become known for being a financial adviser rather than just a mortgage adviser. John Charcol has become simply Charcol and the offline and online businesses are being brought closer together.

The name change will be backed up by a multimedia advertising campaign which went live last week. The TV leg of the campaign startsat the beginning of October and informs people that there are three ways of transact-ing at Charcol.

“In the office we say there are now two brands, multiple channels and one platform.”

The two brands are Charcol and MarketPlace, the channels are branch, telephone and online and the platform is the web platform. The range of channels will enable Charcol to reach as many different audiences as possible.

But will the traditional B&B customer take to the internet? Strauss admits the majority are more comfortable with face-to-face advice and, for that reason, the internet launch of MarketPlace will be at a “later date” than the branch version, when people are more ready for it.

There will be a mix-and-match element to the new organisation, with one arm of the structure referring customers to another arm should it be more in line with their needs. Charcol advisers will aim to tackle the more “complex” customers.

So much change and res-tructuring is bound to have repercussions for the staff of both B&B and Charcol. Strauss insists it is mostly good news for staff and there are no plans for sweeping redundancies, despite three Charcol branch managers losing their jobs last month.

“Most of the changes are about opportunity and the fitness of people for the role. Of course, some people do not like change but we have a shortage of staff if anything. We want to expand the number of both the Charcol and B&B advisers.”

It seems the mix-and-match philosophy will apply to jobs as well as to distribution. Strauss sees advisers being slotted in at the “appropriate” level for them. Charcol and B&B are also planning to put advisers through a training programme, currently at planning stage for the Market-Place pilot, in a bid to get more up to AFPC and Certified Financial Planner level.

Another string to Charcol&#39s bow is the new fund supermarket being launched by B&B. This will allow CharcolOnline to offer a whole host of products as well as mortgages. First is shares, soon to be joinedby bonds and, in time, protection, annuities – and stakeholder. “A lot of people will be interested in stakeholder instead of FSAVCs and the self-employed,” says Strauss.

It is also all change on the personal front for the 40-year-old Strauss. His partner Cress-ida is expecting their second child and they are moving house to another part of Chiswick.

Their relationship was cemented on the high seas when they went on a sailing trip for 18 months which took in France, Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean and the Azores. Sailing has been a lifelong love – his parents met in a sailing club – but Strauss has not had much time for it in the last year.

A busy time lies ahead, compounded by B&B&#39s flotation on December 4. Strauss does not think this will upset the organisation&#39s ambitious plans.

“We are focusing on executing our strategy. I do not think we will be bought by a provider because that will take us back to the beginning. When we demutualise there are ways we can protect ourselves but that is for the B&B board to decide.”

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