Interview with: Jamie Simmonds
Welcome to our Interview with series, we sat down with Jamie Simmonds, the CEO of Access Bank UK. We asked him about the property relationship between Nigeria and the UK and what makes the relationship so special.
Access Bank Nigeria has seen great growth over the last 10 years and is now firmly positioned as one of Nigeria’s leading banks. When did you expand in the UK and what was the rationale behind setting up the UK office?
We started the work to obtain the licence in the UK at the beginning of 2008. We were authorised by the UK Regulators in August 2008 and we opened our doors for operations in October 2008. The creation of the OECD hub at this stage was important to the Group as they continued their rapid but sustainable expansion. Prior to The Access Bank UK there was a lot of value leaving the Group because of the amount of transactions such as letters of credit that needed to be dealt with from an OECD perspective and these were being given to competitors including other Nigerian Banks. Whilst our Trade Finance business is the largest element of our UK operations our Commercial Banking and Asset Management units are also key to the business.
The first five-year plan was built on a gradual increase in revenues as awareness and recognition of The Access Bank UK was established. We are regulated by the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and we operate as any other bank in the UK environment. We are independent within the Group with our own capital and regulatory requirements. If someone asks us to confirm a letter of credit, it is the equivalent of asking any other OECD approved bank.
Towards the end of the first five-year plan we extended our offering to include discretionary wealth management solutions in-house. We are managing bespoke portfolios for our ultra-high-net-worth and high-net-worth clients while investing in stocks, shares and bonds on a global basis. We also met a growing need for our customer base, which is predominantly Sub-Saharan Africa, with a particular focus on Nigeria, that wanted to invest primarily in the London property market. This recognised that we are a natural provider of this type of finance. We have continued to expand that and in the last two years our book has grown and is now in the range of £50-100 million either drawn or waiting to be drawn. We are competitive in the market place lending on investment properties up to 65% of their value and up to age 70 for both buy-to-let purposes as well as owner occupation. We offer a competitive fees and interest rates and work with a number of firms that know the market well.
We are selective with the firms that we work with in order to provide an end-to-end service for our customers looking at the London market. We are able to put them in touch with professionals with whom we have a long standing relationship and we have a panel of solicitors who know the market very well and who can help customers through some of the legal requirements. We also access valuers that can provide customers true market prices when it comes to the property in question. We will look at properties outside of London but it tends to be the exception to the rule.
Where do the Nigerians like to buy in general?
There is a focus on prime and super prime properties in the north of London such as St John’s Wood and Edgware. At the moment it is mainly buy-to-let investments with advances ranging from £100,000 up to £9mm. We have now expanded our services to provide owner-occupied mortgages.
Many of our Nigerian customers use their property in London as a base for themselves and their family. In addition they are also building a property investment portfolio on buy-to-let terms.
Do people ask your advice about where to invest in the property market?
No as we tend to find that most customers either already have a clear view on where they want to invest or are using the services of a professional search company.
What about the lengths of mortgages?
Our buy-to-let property loans are available on a repayment or interest only basis of typically up to 15 years, whilst our residential mortgages loans are available for a term typically up to 25 years. We will lend to the age of 70.
Are your customers exclusively Nigerian? Can you lend to anybody within the UK?
No they are not exclusively Nigerians but we are a wholly-owned Nigerian bank and that is our natural market. The key thing for us is that we are not a transactional bank. Our relationship-based approach focuses on understanding our customers personal and business financial needs and developing products and services in response to meet those needs by leveraging our knowledge of businesses in the Nigerian and Sub-Saharan African marketplace to inform and tailor our approach.
How important is transparency?
Transparency is critical to us and we will not deal other than on that basis. The regulations are rightly strict – this is why our approach is relationship-based and not transactional. We will not entertain a customer unless we are absolutely certain that they met our ‘know your customer’ requirements and there are no money laundering issues. This is how we have built our creditability in the market place as a respectable bank and a responsible partner for our customers. We take our customers privacy very seriously, we operate under the UK Data Protection Act and as such do not share customer data with any other parties not even our own parent company.
Is the market cooling slightly at the moment?
There is some evidence that the rate of increases are slowing. However it very much depends on the purpose for acquisition i.e. rental or for residential ownership and also the location.
What is your advice to potential Nigerians looking to invest in the London property market?
Come and see us! We will work with you to give you the right solution. We have a team of dedicated relationship managers who will help guide you through the whole process from property search to application and finally completion.
What does the future hold for The Access Bank UK and what are the keys areas of growth?
2014 was the most successful year since the formation of the Bank in 2008. We grew profits year-on-year by 137%, the fastest rate of growth that we have achieved to date. It was a transformational year and what we are intent on doing is building on the range of solutions that we have in place for customers and that very much includes the property market. In addition to our Lagos representative office situated on the Osborne Estate, Ikoy we have also established a Dubai marketing representative office located in The Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). We have worked hard to build a sound reputation and we enjoy a good relationship with all of our key stakeholders. The next challenge will be to build on this through sustainable, controlled growth. This will ensure that The Access Bank UK will continue to deliver valued goods, services and support to our customers.