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How to use these challenging times to grow your brokerage

In 2014, Chris Booth caught wind of an unmissable opportunity. At the time, he and his other business partners were running a successful full-service financial advisory business, Announcer Mortgages (now Infocus).

When they were offered the chance to buy an undervalued client book, an acquisition that would allow them to increase their footprint and further diversify their business, they decided to try to pull together the funds to make it happen. Knowing the book would eventually appreciate, they hoped to engage, convert and grow as many clients as possible before selling the book at a higher multiple.

Chris Booth, Head of Lending, In Focus

Chris Booth, Head of Lending, Infocus

Finding funding

Having pooled their income streams, Chris and his partners shopped around for lenders to fund the purchase. Unhappy with the options available to them, Chris spoke to the Executive Director at his aggregator who facilitated an introduction to TrailBlazer Finance’s Managing Director, Jeff Zulman. Using a specialist trail book loan from TrailBlazer, Chris and his partners were able to borrow against Announcer’s mortgage trail book, rather than risk personal assets, in order to free up the capital to buy the book.

In the end, we proceeded with the loan purely because of Jeff and the team. They made themselves physically available to us throughout the process and it gave us great confidence, both personally and professionally, that we were making the right decision with the right lender.

Making growth happen

At the time of purchase, Chris was working with another part-time broker. While the business didn’t convert quite as many clients as they’d bullishly projected, they did manage to sign on around 500 fee-paying full-service clients from that book alone. By the time he and his partners decided to sell the business three years later, Announcer had increased in size to three full-time brokers, their client roster had more than doubled and the business had grown by almost 130 per cent in terms of the underlying trail. They subsequently sold the business to Infocus in 2017, repaying any remaining debt and banking a tidy sum.

Words of advice for brokers looking to grow

While Chris is the first to admit the industry is in a very different place in 2020, post-Royal Commission and mid-COVID pandemic, he would do it all over again. As a small business success story, does he have any advice for other brokers seeking to grow their business through acquisition?

Using borrowed money is a good way to acquire clients and build your business quite quickly. You have a warm opportunity to call which makes it so much easier than building a book from scratch. Would I buy a mortgage book right now? Absolutely yes, the multiples are good, even though the market has some unknowns after the Royal Commission.

Acquisitions done properly absolutely work. However, be ready for it to take far longer than you’d expect to work a client book effectively. Ultimately, you still have to win the hearts and minds of the clients. One of the biggest learnings from the financial planning industry is that they didn’t try to win the clients. You have to call and build relationships, be proactive and be positive. Building those relationships is everything.

Let us help

If you would like to find out about how we can help your business grow with our unique loan products for brokers and other white-collar professionals, please contact us on 1300 139 003 or at [email protected]

Five tips to help you prepare your business for what comes after COVID-19

Words of advice for mortgage brokers and planners from an eternal optimist, TrailBlazer Finance Managing Director, Jeff Zulman

I am a person who thrives on stress. This is often much to the ire of my wife and family – work and otherwise. However, there are certainly times when the added clarity provided by a productive burst of cortisol can help shape the path forward when others are understandably mired in anxiety and indecision.

The COVID- 19 pandemic is, of course, a disaster on a global scale. Yet, perversely, it provides each one of us an opportunity to adapt, modify, seize the opportunity that change affords and ultimately thrive. The challenge is to retain enough presence to see the opportunity, even in a crisis situation.

My focus, as a businessman and financier, is on the things I can influence and change in order to prepare now for what will inevitably follow.

By way of example, my team has instituted daily Zoom “stand-up” calls. Previously these daily physical meetings were simply rapid-fire sessions designed to ensure we were all on the same page. Today, our Zoom calls not only ensure that clear communication continues, but they have become a vital vehicle for team engagement.

Of course, mortgage brokers and financial planners are well acquainted with working from home or small offices; coffee shops their second meeting room. Now we are all adapting to a world where young and old alike have a new litany of words in their Lexicon: Zoom, Hangouts, Webex. And there’s plenty of upside for our new virtual reality. We can bank the time savings gained from not sitting in traffic and commuting to client meetings, and in doing so improve productivity as well as increasing the frequency and depth of interactions – cut through the superficial and connect on a deeper level. When we deal with how people are feeling, just as much as what they are thinking, we can drive more genuine, long-lasting engagement.

So how do you identify those areas where you can retain control, adapt where you need to and identify and seize opportunities, however small?

What can you do to prepare for what lies ahead?

1. Embrace your learnings and see them as opportunities.
This time of crisis will ultimately forever shape and change the way we do business. As the founder and MD of a small business, by design, I have been able to build and scale my business so it can operate virtually. Most in the broking and planning community would find themselves in a similarly fortunate situation. There is a chance many businesses will never look back from having remote workforces. I will certainly encourage my team to continue to work increasingly from home– provided they remain goal-focused and productive. I see these six months as a training ground for a new, more virtual tomorrow.

2. Sniff out inefficiencies and solve them.
Process improvement. A lot of us despise the term, and like even less identifying, designing and implementing process enhancements. But all of us know that there is only upside if we can get it right. Think about how to do things better, faster and cheaper. Are there out of the box software solutions you can use to solve ineffective client management systems or product delivery? Where can you automate workflows and repetitive tasks? What gaps need to be plugged in the way you do things so you can do them better?

3. Futureproof. Adapt your business model.
A common cause of anxiety is around concentration risk and subsequent exposure. Diversifying your business – products, verticals– it takes time, cost and energy, but this sort of transformation has the potential to drive tremendous top-line growth and defray risk. It doesn’t mean you have to become an expert in a variety of new financial services yourself. Rather seek out others who have a similar profile, work ethic and value system as you. Together provide a broader range of services. Remember that often 1+1=3. We have helped countless clients build value in their businesses by embracing a more diverse revenue model through acquisition of established books of business, mergers, or funding the hiring of additional skills and expertise to target new markets.

4. Cultivate your relationships.
One thing we will come out of social isolation bearing is an appreciation for the strength of our relationships. We are seeing some of the best and worst, but largely the best, from other people, Governments and businesses, as we grapple collectively with the ever-changing situation. Collective goodwill and compassion are at an all-time high, so now is the time to reflect on how we can pay that forward in our personal and business relationships. People will remember how we responded during this time and it will colour the way we move forward.

5. Above all, prioritise.
Fight your battles and direct your energies where they most need to be focused–be that towards your families and well being, finances, clients or communities or, most likely, a combination of all of the above. Be kind to yourself and do what you can. Structure, routine and exercise help me keep moving forward. Where you can, try to prioritise and set realistic goals – it can be a good way to reclaim a sense of control.

I don’t know how long this will last, but I do know that the world will not come to an end in three to six months. It may be battered and broken in places and undoubtedly there will be a period of rebuilding, but ultimately many will emerge from this wiser and stronger, and certainly more resilient.

And we can help. We are here to do what we have always done, assist other small businesses to survive and thrive through uncertainty and beyond.

Just remember, you are more adaptable than you realise. Stay safe, be well and take care.

We’re in it together. Find out how we are responding to COVID-19

We are a small business who serves small businesses. We were founded for that purpose and have been doing so for almost a decade, and so we recognise the importance of being agile and responsive through the cycles. We currently find ourselves in a time of unprecedented uncertainty and are committed to helping our clients and future clients come out the other side.

For our existing clients, if you have been impacted directly by COVID-19, we will work with you to help you navigate through the challenges ahead based on your unique set of circumstances. We are also currently in discussions with our funding partners to understand what relief they will provide that we in turn can pass on to our clients.

At an industry level, we will champion ongoing support and clarity around critical issues – such the impact of repayment holidays on trail commissions – by working with our strategic partners from across the mortgage broking, financial planning, accounting and property management sectors.

We appreciate you may be looking for information about how we are managing through this event and in the future and we commit to keeping you updated.

Please get in touch with myself or the team if you have any specific questions we can assist you with.

Stay safe, be well, and take care.

Jeff Zulman
Managing Director & Founder, TrailBlazer Finance

Will you be swimming between the flags this year or will you drown under debt?

I started my year with a scary experience. Whilst ocean swimming early one morning with friends beyond the breakers, I lost my form – and then my nerve. With my friends out of sight and shouting range, I decided to make my way back to the safety of the beach. However, to do so meant battling through a churning, dumping swell. I felt totally out of my depth. When,  finally, I made it unsteadily to the shore, I was shaking, heaving and questioning my choice of hobby. Fortunately, it was just one bad day at the beach for me. I could chalk it up to experience and I was back in the water two days later. I am one of the lucky ones.

While listening to a recent podcast with Accountants Daily, My Business Editor, Adam Zuchetti about small business tax debt, I had a flashback to that experience for an entirely different reason. Adam reported that a staggering 20 per cent of Australian small businesses are currently on an ATO payment plan. That’s some 800,000 small businesses who are financially overwhelmed, many of whom are drowning in debt.

One of the more shocking revelations from the piece is the comparative level of SME (small to medium enterprise) tax debt when compared to corporate Australia. The former cohort owes a whopping $16.5 billion with $1 billion contested. Meanwhile, their corporate counterparts owe just $1 billion and are locked in disputes for six times that amount. This points to the glaring discrepancy in resources between the two segments and the ability of the big guys to fight back, whilst the little guys are often forced to roll over and get carried out to sea. Moreover, it hints at the ongoing role corporates play in stretching payment terms to SMEs, thereby contributing to SMEs failing to meet their tax commitments.

It also highlights the pervasive fear of retribution small businesses feel towards the ATO.  This fear is now exacerbated by harsher penalties for missing tax payments, single touch payroll and new laws allowing the ATO to disclose tax debts to credit bureaus as part of comprehensive credit reporting. You may even have read recent press reports of harsh treatment on calls by outsourced “assistants”.

Daily, we also see a lack of understanding and education about the role the ATO does provide in easing the burden of tax debt – such as payment plans. Often SMEs mistake this for some form of back-door, inexpensive funding which, of course, it is not. The ATO is not a quasi-bank. This cocktail of fear, misunderstanding and concern about being sucked under contributes to murky and scary waters for SMEs who are struggling to meet their tax commitments. It can get in the way of proactively putting in place a plan to better manage debts by matching asset and liabilities and using recurring income to service longer-term, fully amortising debt.

I have started several small businesses myself and empathise with how easy it is to go a little off course and get sucked in out of your depth.  Suddenly you are fighting the rip, rather than working your way clear.  Progressively exhausting yourself and depleting your resources, unable to find a route to swim clear. We understand that an ATO payment plan is a sign of a struggle and that the struggle is real for small business.

Sometimes small business just needs someone to give them a break; throw them a life ring or give them financial support until they can catch their breath. There’s no shortage of new fintech lenders who have plunged into the market, particularly in the vacuum left by larger lenders. Some offer fast access to cash, but beneath the surface, their interest rates are so high they will inevitably cause an already weakened swimmer to drown under the additional debt burden. Have they helped the problem? Almost certainly some have, certainly in terms of addressing short-term cashflow needs. Are they solving the problem? Not really. The core issue of late payments will have to be addressed by government and regulators in due course.

The ATO will need to do more to educate small business about how they can help. In the meantime, the role of advisory services and prudent lenders in educating their clients about funding their businesses in a sensible way is more critical than ever.

As we swim out and greet 2020, will you be swimming responsibly between the flags or are you already a little out of your depth? As a sign of our commitment to small business, and staying afloat generally this summer we will donate $100 to Surf Lifesaving Australia, from each SME loan made to a financial planner, mortgage broker, accountant or property manager.

How a loan against your trail book could help someone treasure books for life

In our business, we often get enquiries from people who think we deal in second-hand literary books. At TrailBlazer Finance, we actually buy, sell and lend against trail books – which are not even close to story books. But these mistaken phone calls to our office became the catalyst for us to support a charity which is doing life-changing work for people who often can’t even spell B-O-O-K.

A few years ago, our Managing Director Jeff Zulman read John Woods’ remarkable book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children. Jeff was inspired by how one person who recognised the power of words went on to establish Room to Read, a non-profit organisation focused on girls’ education and children’s literacy in Africa and Asia.

We later discovered that one of Room to Read’s annual fundraisers was a long trail walk in Sydney. There are too many coincidences here, Jeff thought to himself. We make money from books – albeit not literary ones – so why don’twe help others to read, write and benefit from books. In that moment, TrailBlazer Finance’s support for Room to Read was born.

According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, over 750 million people worldwide are illiterate. Two-thirds of them are women and girls. “World change,” says Room to Read, “starts with educated children.”They’re right: educating girls is much more than a gender equality issue.

As Damon Gameau’s recent documentary ‘2040’ makes clear, educating girls is a vital weapon in the battle against climate change. Why? Because empowering and educating women and girls means they are more likely to marry later and have less children, which leads to a lower population and less pressure on resources. In a recent Sydney Morning Herald article, Elizabeth Farrelly wrote that the film 2040’s “most surprising [moment] is the thought that the sixth most effective weapon (of a hundred) against climate change is educating girls…educating girls is worth 105 gigatons of Co2 due to its effect on fertility, population growth and land management.”

So now, your books – your trail books – are helping those less privileged than us to learn to read and delight in the power of words and literary books.We donated 100% of the proceeds from ourrecent webinar for mortgage brokers to Room to Read. This impressive organisation – which to date, has benefitted 16.8 million children and their communities – means that when you take a loan from TrailBlazer Finance, you’re also giving back: helping to combat the scourge of children’s illiteracy, to educate underprivileged girls and even to fight against climate change. Your trail book is valuable in more ways than you might have imagined.

What do mortgage broking trail and pinball have in common?

A pinball machine sits in the reception of our offices. For stress relief, I am rather partial to the occasional game. It struck me that pinball is an ideal metaphor for mortgage broking: brokers are like the ball – constantly being bumped around at the whim of big external players, bounced off the bumpers to help others score points. For some brokers, the potential abolition of trail might spell “Tilt” or even “Game Over”.

But never fear, for what I’ve always liked about pinball is that it has five balls. So even if you suffer a loss, if you understand the game and how to play, you can keep playing. Here are some tips from a “pinball wizard” on how to play on in the current environment, and perhaps even earn bonus points and an extra ball.

1. The UK trail experience
In 2014, trail commission was banned on new products in the UK. Two years later, it was completely abolished. Yet concerns over churn have seen UK lenders pay retention fees to brokers, to encourage consumers not to switch lenders. In effect, these ‘retention fees’ are just another name for trail commissions. So even if trail is abolished in Australia, it seems likely that trail will reappear in another form – another ball.

2. Federal election pressure on the ALP
The Liberal party’s turnaround in their stance on trail clearly shows the power of political pressure. With the ALP still planning to remove trail for new loans from 2020, the Liberals’ win in the recent NSW state election could lead Labour to reconsider its position, as they try to win votes in the upcoming Federal election. Notice that the ALP rhetoric is starting to shift – they recognise that bumping the machine too hard could lose them lots of credits.

3. Our exclusive revenue projection calculator
We have built an indicative revenue projection calculator which is available here. Our modelling indicates that even if trail is abolished on new products, many brokers’ income will actually improve in the medium term due to the combination of larger upfront commissions, coupled with grandfathered trail payments. Think of it as a period of double scores and more points for playing on.

4. The FOFA experience
Even if the ALP wins the election and abolishes trail, they’ll have to enact legislation to this effect, which must then pass through the Senate. In the case of financial advisers, the FOFA legislation was supposed to be passed relatively quickly but ended up taking over 18 months. And even then, it was watered down from the original proposal. In short, even if the current trail regime does change, it is likely to be some time before any changes take effect. So there is time to play until the credits expire.

At TrailBlazer Finance, we’re optimistic about the future of the mortgage broking industry. We’re playing on, writing more loans than ever to help mortgage brokers grow their business. Whatever happens to trail, the game isn’t nearly over. In fact, I can see smart players racking up some pretty big scores.

Whether you’re a mortgage broker, financial planner, real estate agent, accountant or equipment rental broker, we can support your business goals and needs.

Contact Us

Suite 401, Level 4, 59-75 Grafton Street, Bondi Junction NSW 2022

1300 139 003

[email protected]