Established brokerage Mortgage Force responded to the pressures of the global financial crisis by merging with Smartline, proving that a strategic partnership can be a powerful thing
WHEN THE global financial crisis hit, many of those organisations that found themselves struggling to cope began looking for a way out.
Many brokerages pulled out of the market altogether; others sought safety in numbers and looked for the opportunity to consolidate. One of these brokerages was Western Australia-based Mortgage Force, which merged with Smartline in July 2009.
Two years on, it would be hard to say the move has been anything other than hugely successful. With a loan book of $10.4 billion and over 200 franchisees nationally, the combined businesses – operating under the Smartline banner – carry considerable weight within the industry. Smartline has now established itself as one of the nation’s biggest and most recognisable branded brokerage groups.
“Our monthly and annual volumes are a lot bigger than they were, which indicates the merge was a great success,” says Smartline’s managing director, Chris Acret. “Today, we are writing approximately $230 million monthly – totalling about $2.7 billion annually.”
A MEETING OF MINDS
Loan volumes aside, the merged business has seen additional benefits typically associated with having a strong, truly national team.
“Each business operated differently in some areas and had slightly different ideas and that’s turned out to be a positive for all concerned,” Mr Acret says.
“As a result, it has made us reassess our thinking, given us all some fresh ideas and enabled us to take the best from each business. Two years on, it is still a work in progress, but we are now much more of a cohesive team and starting to get the cultural benefits of being a national business,” he says.
The marriage has been so successful, in fact, that Smartline is now “receptive” to further mergers.
“We need to keep growing as a group,” Mr Acret says. “Our long term goal was always to have 300 high quality advisers and realistically, it will be difficult to achieve that just through organic growth.
“There’s no doubt that it is a much more difficult environment than it was five or 10 years ago, so many groups must be questioning what is the right next move for them.
“We’re receptive to looking at further mergers or acquisitions that provide win-win opportunities for all involved.”
THE IMPETUS FOR A UNION
Mortgage Force had been operating successfully in the lending industry for approximately 18 years when the global financial crisis hit, and so the company’s proposal to merge with Smartline surprised many industry pundits.
However, according to Neil Pinner, the brokerage’s former managing director, no amount of experience could prepare Mortgage Force for the shocks of the crisis.
“At the time we started discussing the possibility of a merger, the mortgage broking world was in the process of considerable change,” he says. “We believed we needed to improve the technology on offer to our brokers to provide them with greater levels of support to manage and grow their businesses.
“In the face of changing relationships between banks and brokers, we also felt that being part of a larger group would make us more relevant to the banks and we felt that was critical.”
To get closer to those goals in very troubled times, Mortgage Force set its sights on Smartline, a branded mortgage business with a national presence that resonated well with consumers.
The merger of the two groups was announced in early 2009.
BEDDING DOWN THE CHANGES
The merger was relatively seamless due to the high level at which the two companies communicated and because of their good cultural fit, according to Mr Pinner.
“In initial discussions between the two groups, it was obvious that there were synergies in terms of culture and focus on our people and we both felt comfortable there was scope to build one really strong group,” he said.
Senior management spent an enormous amount of time talking to the group’s franchisees and brokers throughout Australia in an effort to ensure they were engaged with the process as the merger went ahead.
“That was very gruelling and time consuming on occasions,” says Mr Pinner, “but it was what we all felt needed to be done.
“Change can be confronting for many people but because we took the time and the effort to explain the rationale behind the move, people soon recognised the benefits.
“Any merger is hard work and we’re probably still ironing out a couple of minor issues, but I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that within six or seven months of the merger we had bedded down most of what we wanted to achieve and were operating as one cohesive business.”
Smartline’s Chris Acret agrees, adding that communication involves a lot more than sending out a group email. It needs to include sitting down with people and taking the time to talk things through, listening to their concerns, input and feedback.
“It might take a lot of time and effort to do this, but there is no substitute,” he says.
“In the Mortgage Force/Smartline merger, both businesses had been operating for a long time – 18 years and 11 years respectively – so each had its own culture and way of operating. The move to become one business with one way of operating was a big change for people.”
The newly merged company was, however, able to build a level of trust with its brokers reasonably quickly and to show them their intentions were good, Mr Acret says.
The other major challenge, in addition to communication, was keeping the newly-created company operating and growing as the merger was bedded down.
“There’s no getting around it,” says Mr Acret. “A merger is extremely distracting for any business so the staff had to put in a huge effort to essentially do two jobs at once – merger integration work and their normal support roles.”
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