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In the spotlight with Rob Clifford

First published by Financial Reporter

You’ve been in charge of Stonebridge Group since the retirement of Richard Adams in July. What shape is the business currently in?

It’s in excellent shape. Richard deciding he wanted to move into a non-executive role here was obviously a major milestone in our 31-year history but it’s been a big part of my life since 2015 when we first invested in Stonebridge.

Richard had built a very capable and loyal management team and between us we have added even more talent to that top team over the last couple of years. So I’m blessed with an experienced and committed bunch of colleagues who are delivering record-breaking business results. Our 2019 half year results, in particular our year on year growth, are amongst the best in the history of the business. What pleases me most is how so many of our member firms are growing their businesses, hiring more advisers and gaining local market share, despite the macro-economic challenges.

What are your immediate ambitions for the business? What new services/opportunities will you be delivering to your member firms?

We plan to do more of what we do brilliantly – we have a fantastic, market-leading platform here. Firm owners and advisers benefit hugely from being part of our ‘family’, so our primary aim is to continue to make sure our 300-plus member firms prosper and grow, knowing they are in very safe hands.

Our five-year plan has very ambitious adviser and lending numbers with a clear plan to invest in resources to achieve that. This will be a business growing to over 1,000 advisers in the plan period.

Much of our development roadmap for new services and opportunities relates to the functionality we are designing and building into Revolution, our wholly-owned technology platform, which mortgage advisers tell us is one of the best systems they’ve used in the sector.

How do you see the future of the network model?

The importance of consumer protection and the highly regulated regime are not going to recede. I strongly believe that the nature of mortgage advice being delivered by knowledgeable, local experts is definitely sustainable. It’s a high-quality solution for consumers and it’s why the intermediary market share is now an eye-watering 75% of all mortgages. It’s clear that customers want to have an adviser and obvious that advisers need regulatory protection, commercial support, great technology and the raft of other competencies that a good network delivers to its members. I see a bright future for our business model.

What are the biggest challenges facing mortgage intermediaries right now?

The economic and political uncertainty is not helping many industries, particularly the property sector and mortgage brokers aren’t immune. That said, our very recent consumer research tells us that the typical mortgage customer is fed up of waiting to see what happens with our exit from the EU and needs to get on with life. Brokers always need to balance the demands of running a business with the myriad of legislative and regulatory requirements – that compliance burden is a significant threat, particularly if it increases. It can be a double whammy of complexity and cost. Being a member of a network mitigates much of that such that I think we will see a movement of broker firms from DA to AR.

Given the latest Mortgages Market Study Final Report from the FCA, do you believe we are seeing a regulator ‘rowing back’ from the pro-advice agenda set out in the MMR?

I’m not at all sure that was the regulator’s intention but it certainly gives an impression of endorsing ‘execution-only’ which I wholly disagree with. The first principle of financial regulation is consumer protection and the FCA also has a number of statutory obligations and aims including encouraging competition.

The demand for professional mortgage advice is unquestionable. Consumer choice is extensive and the sector is highly competitive. Consumers seek out advice and work hard to get it, when DIY mortgage selection has been an option for decades – with or without today’s digital tools. It would be a major retrograde step to allow consumers to regard the avoidance of impartial, qualified advice (for a very low cost) as a sensible outcome.

If you could see one headline about the mortgage market during the rest of the year, what would it be?

‘Boris scraps stamp duty and makes mortgage advice compulsory’, would certainly be a good one but I’m perhaps asking for too much. So a more sensible answer is, ‘Lenders continue to back the intermediary market as broker share rises to 90%’. That would be great news to read – both for consumers and mortgage brokers.

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