Boldly going into a bright future

It\'s been up and away for Savills Private Finance since its foundation and it is not lowering its sights yet, managing director Mark Harris tells Barney McCarthy

On the day Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind by stepping onto the lunar surface, a small step for the mortgage industry was being taken in a hospital in West Yorkshire. Mark Harris, managing director of Savills Private Finance, was born in Bradford on July 21, 1969 and says he would have been named Neil in a tribute to the American astronaut had he not had a cousin of that name.

The Harris family moved to Surrey while Mark was a toddler and he took his first steps in the financial services industry when joining NatWest straight from school.

Harris says he always had an interest in banking and finance and was persuaded by a friend of his father to take the plunge at 16 rather than stay at school and take A-levels.

“Joining the industry in 1985 when it was buoyant stood me in far better stead than if I had taken A-levels, gone to university and entered in 1990,” says Harris. “Trying to start a career during the recession would have been tricky and entering in 1985 meant I had a few years’ experience before the difficulties began.”

Within a year of joining NatWest, Harris found himself on a management programme that involved taking on various roles before becoming a lending officer. He worked in that position for four years before becoming an independent financial adviser, having already passed business to insurance advisers and provided leads as part of his previous role. Becoming an IFA was somewhat easier in those days.

“Those were the days when all you had to do to become an IFA was pass a 20-minute test,” he says of the qualifications required in the late 1980s.

After spending 10 years with NatWest, Harris left in 1995 to join John Charcol as a consultant. His stay was a relatively brief 18 months as he joined the Savills Private Finance launch team in May 1997.

“Savills was then an introducer for John Charcol but decided this was not bringing in enough business and so planned to launch SPF,” Harris recalls. “When I resigned from John Charcol they said I would be back within six months and having people doubt the proposition gave me all the more resolve to make sure it was a success.”

Joining Harris in the SPF launch team were Mike Boles, Stuart Robinson, Alex King and Mark Chilton, overseen by Duncan Young. Young moved on soon after and Chilton left in 2001, but the rest of the original team remain.

Harris says that with the backing of Savills, SPF was always going to be a success but that nobody could have envisaged how big the company would become.

“If it had remained a small organisation we would still have made a go of things but it has just gone from strength to strength,” he says. “That success has been down to a couple of things, including a low interest rate cycle and a buoyant property market. Those factors, combined with good decision-making and a bit of luck, has seen us arrive at where we are today.”

SPF has become one of the largest brokerages in the country and has 20 offices nationwide. Although SPF has a reputation for being focussed on London, it has premises from Brighton in the South to Edinburgh in Scotland. Estate agent Savills has a 60-branch network and Harris says this gives the group a tangible geographical presence and also helps SPF in setting up in different areas.

“When we wanted to open in Cambridge last year, Savills already had an office there so the infrastructure was in place,” explains Harris.

“Although it is useful having that resource there, Savills doesn’t generate many leads for us – only 8% of our business comes through Savills. We are building SPF independently.”

While SPF has 20 offices, it is constantly evaluating areas where it doesn’t have a presence with a view to expansion.

“Although we are in all the principal cities and most of the areas you would expect us to be, we are always looking at different places and we will go there if we can get the right people,” says Harris.

He highlights Cardiff and Newcastle as two areas SPF could be interested in and says that while business can be conducted online and on the telephone, it is important to have a physical presence when operating in local markets. The average property sale SPF deals with is around the 1m mark and Harris says it is characteristic in high net worth cases that clients want to see the people they are dealing with.

As well as growth within the UK, Harris also has his eye on Europe. SPF has a six-strong international mortgages team that operates from a London base but Harris says it is not unrealistic that SPF could open offices in mainland Europe in the next few years.

“With the infrastructure Savills has and the strength of the brand, it is not unreasonable to say that in a few years we could be talking about offices in Madrid, Rome and Lisbon,” says Harris. “That’s not just the fantasy of a bored managing director, it’s a genuine possibility.”

SPF is owned 75% by Savills and 25% by SPF staff. Looking to the future, Harris says possibilities include a sale or a flotation.

“We will continue to run our business correctly and see where that takes us,” he says. “If you run your operation with a sale in mind you effectively take your eye off the ball and things can go wrong.”

Harris also says SPF will not recruit extra staff “just for the sake of it” and that potential investors or buyers are not interested simply in the size of an organisation, but the strength of the management team and profitability.

He says lenders being more open with their facts and figures would be a positive step for the industry. “At some stage or another we have all rounded up figures to present a stronger picture,” admits Harris. “But I would love to see an honesty table and have lenders present information on what they are doing and with whom. You might not even need permission to get this – banks have the information and it’s up to them what they do with it.”

Harris says it is interesting to compare the predictions of companies with the reality. The mortgage market is said to be worth around 250bn but he suggests if you add up what companies report they are doing, that figure pushes a trillion.

While SPF has a reputation as a high net worth broker, it is also keen to emphasise that it handles different sized cases. In areas such as London and the South-East the average deal may be larger and smaller mortgages perhaps referred to other brokers, but SPF’s provincial offices rely on normal applications to survive.

Harris says SPF welcomes all types of business and has expanded the buy-to-let it handles but will never specifically target first-time buyers. However, SPF expanded into the affordable homes market last October with the acquisition of Sherwins Mortgages Services. An SPF Sherwins arm was created to capitalise on government plans to provide more cost-effective properties around the country.

Away from the industry, Harris is a self-confessed sports nut and is a Crystal Palace supporter for his sins.

“I go to Selhurst Park whenever I can, but it can be a painful experience,” he says.

He says he plays golf to an average standard and can often be found in the gym located a stroll away from Savill’s City base. His socialising has been curtailed since the arrival of his two children, Katie, four, and Jack, two.

“There’s so much work to be done in the week that I like to spend as much of the weekend as possible with my kids,” says Harris.

With regard to his future at SPF, Harris says he has the capability to steer the ship for a good while yet. In fact, he remains so committed to the cause he would still wish to work at SPF even if he was demoted.

“I’ve got a few years left in me yet,” he says, “But if they were to sack me as managing director tomorrow, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather work as a broker than here.”

The company works hard to keep its staff happy and offer them opportunities to develop their careers. The future looks bright for SPF and its amiable managing director and, as Armstrong and his cohorts may have agreed, the sky’s the limit.