When you think of the finance firms that are at the top of their game, chances are, you’d expect to find them in the major cities. But, one Wagga Wagga-based business finance company is making waves in the industry for its expertise in the agrifinance world. SME Adviser caught up with NSW Broker of the Year Ian Robinson and Brad Sewell of Robinson Sewell Partners, to learn how their business is flourishing in a dynamic regional market.
What attracted you to the mortgage broking industry and the agricultural sector in particular?
Brad: I've got about 25 years of experience in commercial finance. I was a bank manager for about 15 years, and worked predominantly in the agricultural sector. I did a stint with ANZ, I’ve worked with a franchise, and I've worked on cattle stations and sheep stations, just to get that practical side.
If you’re going to get involved in agriculture, you need to understand the production systems that go with it. So, it's a little bit different to say, consumer lending, and some of the commercial lending where it's very cash flow orientated.
Ian: Getting into brokering was a way of amalgamating all of my professional and personal experiences. Borrowers in regional and rural Australia tend to be completely underserviced and don’t have access to our types of services. None of them are really available to the metro regions and the cities, so we're giving that reach and availability to remote areas where there are some very large and exciting and savvy and innovative businesses to work with, which is where the opportunity is for us.
How did it all get started at Robinson Sewell Partners? How did you two first meet?
Ian: I met Brad by chance when he was working under a franchise model. I was actually out barrelling down one of the freeways and I saw his car with his agribusiness finance number, so while I was tailgating him, I called him up and we had a long chat and that was the first discussion we had.
It certainly became very apparent right from the very start that we had the same philosophy and, I guess, culture and attitude towards assisting buyers.
Brad: I started a broking business back in 2009 and then, in 2010, Ian and I met and decided that by joining forces and having two very different skill sets, we could achieve a lot more together than if we were just self-starters. So, in 2010 we formed a company and got started and it's been going very well ever since.
What advice would you give to other brokers who are considering such a business partnership?
Ian: What we’ve found, and it's very apparent, is that there’s strength in numbers. Working with a united front certainly gives us a lot more depth and experience and pedigree in our team. It gives us both geographic exposure and penetration, and it gives us the level of support that you couldn't be able to exceed as a sole trader.
Which regions do you both cover?
Brad: I started in Wagga, but I'm now in Dubbo, NSW. We generally cover two different parts of the country. Ian tends to cover southern and south-east Australia and I tend to cover the northern Queensland, northern NSW, and Northern Territory. We’ve also got a few clients we share in parts of Southern Australia.
Although sometimes we cross paths, [having different jurisdictions] just gives us a bigger footprint, by the fact that we are 500 kilometres apart. It just gives us that capacity to cover a lot more ground.
Why did you decide to branch into writing commercial loans?
Ian: With our experience, we have just lived and breathed writing commercial loans, so we understand the feasibility and the connectivity between borrower and bank and what's required from a policy directive, and the sensitivities around that in the terms of behaviour. So, that's one of the main reasons why we gravitated toward that. But the other one, which is probably the main one, is that it's an area that excites us. It's an area that we're passionate about. We're not a private enterprise ourselves, but we love other people in private enterprise. It's what gets us excited about getting out of the bed in the morning and working with really savvy operators.
What sort of small business lending do you do?
Ian: Generally, the majority of it is either agribusiness or commercial lending, in the small- and medium-enterprise space. Between $1 to $50 million is where we focus. We do a lot of equipment finance for our clients and different types of funding solutions for the business. So, capital and trade finance as required.
What’s most exciting about working in this space?
Ian: Undoubtedly the people and the network that you meet in the journey. We have made some incredible friendships with our clients and client advisers, and also having the opportunity to network with all of Australia's banks and the people within them. It's been very rewarding with the relationships that get built out of it.
How important are finance brokers to rural businesses and farmers?
Brad: They're becoming increasingly important and popular. There has been, just in the last 12-18 months, a relatively marked increase in the number of brokers coming into the agribusiness market.
What do you find the most challenging aspect about being a broker in this market?
Brad: Probably one of the most challenging aspects, but also the most rewarding, is the travel. Ian and I cover a huge part of Australia and we do a lot of it by driving. It’s nothing for me to jump in my four-wheel drive and drive for 12 hours, 1,000 kilometres... and that's only the start of the trip. Typically, each month, I'll do a five to 10-day trip and I might do 3,500 kilometres in that week, and I'd like to think I can see maybe two people a day if I'm lucky.
So, that can be challenging because it can be a bit gruelling but it’s also very rewarding. I love listening to the great Australian hits and watching the countryside, I don't have traffic jams, I just have wide open roads and a lot of really good hospitality at the end of each day.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Ian: It's been probably one of the most rewarding and fulfilling journeys in the sense that we actually feel like we're making a tangible difference in the marketplace. We're finding that we're not only saving farming families’ livelihoods in some circumstances, but also helping the industry grow and become more efficient. Being able to invest and being a part of that journey on an intimate level with the owners of the business, is one of the most rewarding tasks that we could be a part of. It's a privilege and we're very humbled and very lucky to be in a position to be able to do that.
Brad: The people have to be most rewarding part of the job. We have just got the best clients in the world. Just straight people, and you’ll find it’s not hard to find them in agriculture, and I could say that a large portion of our friends are our clients.
I'm going to a bush wedding for one of my clients, and it's going to be in a shearing shed. Quite often we stay overnight with our clients, we form quite close bonds. We get invited to christenings, and to some extent you become friends and part of their extended family and friends. So, that's highly rewarding. And there’s just great scenery. It's pretty hard to beat sitting on the veranda watching the sun go down with a cold beer in your hand.
What does the future hold for Robinson Sewell Partners?
Ian: We’re looking to grow, it’s something that’s already in motion. We essentially launched it right at the end of last year at the Christmas period. It's a corporate partner, private enterprise-type equity model as opposed to a franchise model, so they are coming on the same basis as Brad and I. And it's very exciting because it does give them a platform to perform at their best and compete. And they can get rewarded accordingly.
We've got ourselves a corporate partner on board. We're looking to grow right across the eastern seaboard and then, eventually, across Australia, and we've spent about a year and a half investing into the platform before launching. It's definitely a committed journey that we're on.
Ian Robinson and Brad Sewell tells SME Adviser about some of their more memorable clients and their experiences working with them.
Ian: One day I had a guy who wanted to buy a pig farm, and he's quite a large beef operator in his own right, with a strong balance sheet, but for some reason he couldn't convince the bankers that he had the experience to run a piggery.
He's a colourful character, which put a few bankers on the back foot, just in the way he presented himself. But he certainly had the pedigree, he just needed to present himself.
So, I formalised the process a little bit more and made it more palatable for the banks to digest and understand. Now we've got him funded on a fairly major piggery. He's definitely one of the more colourful clients, but also one of the most profitable, and he's going now through a massive expansionary phase on the back of it all and on the back of a successful funding.
Brad: In 2016, a series of geographically-diverse finance deals meant that I ended up driving 9,350 kilometres in three weeks. This is how it went…
The first trip was to see a series of clients in western Queensland (Charleville-Blackall-Windorah-Longreach-Emerald). The temperature in Queensland was a relatively comfortable 35 degrees, and my wife Jodie had joined me to help with the driving, and to meet some of our existing and prospective new clients.
During this trip, two urgent property purchase deals came up in the south-east corner of NSW (Bombala and Delegate). After a quick stopover at home (Dubbo), I headed to the south-east, where exactly a week after being in Queensland, the temperature was four degrees and blowing a gale (and I sat next to a log fire doing cash flows with clients).
During this southern trip, more work came up in Queensland (Roma and Injune), so after another short break in Dubbo to change clothes, I headed back to Queensland to complete that work.
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