"It’s important for brokers to recognise the voice they have": David Castling, Atom Bank

We spoke to Dave Castling, head of intermediary distribution at Atom Bank, about the approach the bank takes for both commercial and residential brokers, current opportunities for advisers in both the mortgage and business lending sectors, and how intermediaries can help drive positive change in how this industry operates.

Related topics:  In The Spotlight,  Mortgages,  Commercial
Rozi Jones | Editor, Barcadia Media Limited
26th January 2024
David Castling Atom Bank
"Brokers are absolutely crucial for commercial customers, particularly in the current climate."

FR: Tell us about your role at Atom bank and also a little bit on your background?

As head of intermediary distribution I am responsible for our business development function in the bank. This covers our telephone BDM and field BDM teams for both residential and commercial lending. I’ve been with Atom bank for eight years now, and in that time have held a variety of senior roles across intermediaries, originations and operations. My background over the last 20 years is predominantly in intermediary sales working for lenders, insurers and mutuals and even a stint running a brokerage.

FR: Your role encompasses both residential mortgages and commercial/business lending, can you briefly explain Atom Bank’s proposition in both markets, plus how the sales team supports brokers in each sector?

The approach we take for both commercial and residential brokers, and the support we offer them, is broadly similar. In each case we have a field team who will build relationships, deliver training, source new firms and troubleshoot cases, and they are ably backed up by a phone team at our head office in Durham.

Brokers are, and will remain, critical to Atom’s success, so we prize delivering the best service we can. In terms of our proposition, we have really leveraged our technical expertise to deliver exceptional mortgage lending capability, combining a great prime and near prime product suite that is well priced with super speedy processing. Our commercial lending proposition is squarely aimed at under-served SME markets with expansive criteria and competitive pricing, and our next aims are to deliver technology that automates and delivers exceptional experiences for our business customers.

FR: As we move into 2024, what do you see as the opportunities for brokers in both the mortgage and business lending sectors and how are Atom seeking to help them maximise these?

There are undoubtedly opportunities in the commercial space. It’s clear that there is still plenty of demand for lending from SMEs; the complications come when they are only looking to raise relatively small sums. Some lenders have pulled back from this area of the market, preferring to focus their efforts on high value targets, but lenders like Atom are well placed to support these underserved clients.

Brokers are absolutely crucial for commercial customers, particularly in the current climate. There is a big role for advisers in navigating the market, certainly when you consider the uncertainty and potential instability when it comes to funding lines for non-bank lenders, while it’s equally vital for advisers to help facilitate a great experience for clients by ensuring cases are fully packaged prior to submission.

On the residential side, it’s likely that brokers face a hectic time. We are already seeing frequent rate changes, and this will hopefully release some of the pent up demand from would-be buyers who had put their plans on hold.

The ability to move quickly is going to be absolutely crucial for intermediaries, as they try to support clients through these shifting sands. Borrowers want certainty, to swiftly get a handle on where they stand, so working with lenders who can deliver a speedy service is important. It’s something that we have worked on at Atom, to the point that nearly one in four applications now go through on the same day. By offering a swift resolution to clients, there’s a real chance for brokers to secure those clients for the long-term.

It’s worth highlighting, too, the importance of communication here. Brokers have an opportunity to shape this market, by working with lenders who want to listen, who want to use the feedback from intermediaries to adapt their products and processes to better serve this generation of borrowers. I think it’s important for brokers to recognise the voice they have, and to use it to help drive positive change in how this industry operates.

From an Atom perspective, we are determined to do more. The £100 million we raised in new equity capital last year has been earmarked for scaling up our lending in these spaces, and helping to raise the bar.

At our heart, Atom wants to be faster than other lenders, easier to work with, and deliver better value.

FR: The last few years have been tough for SMEs and the word unprecedented has probably been used too often for the liking of most businesses. How do you see the outlook for SMEs in the next year and what are their likely finance needs?

What’s really encouraging is that so many SMEs are still looking to invest and grow. In our most recent SME Pulse survey, over half of the commercial brokers we spoke to had seen rising appetite from their SME clients for external funding, in many cases with the intention of purchasing a new property for the business.

The reality is that these firms are the backbone of the UK economy and need the support of lenders in order to reach their potential, yet all too often struggle to do this. It’s not an easy market for borrowers - and perhaps in some cases for brokers - to navigate. That’s where lenders that take a bespoke approach, and treat each case on its merits, can prove such useful allies.

There are clearly further challenges ahead for these businesses though. We are heading into a changing political landscape, not just domestically but globally with so many countries going to the polls this year. This will inevitably have an impact, but could open up opportunities as well as present difficulties.

There’s also the more general shifts taking place in terms of the make up of our high streets and town centres driven by a lack of investment and reduction in footfall. The ‘hybrid’ working environment of both physical and online premises is here to stay, and that is inevitably having an impact on the sort of commercial premises that are in demand. There is still demand for high quality, grade A offices but a retraction in older grade B and C. It’s perhaps no surprise that there is such a clear demand for mixed use properties that are ripe for full conversion to residential housing stock given the fundamentals of the residential market and the undersupply issue which shows no sign of changing anytime soon.

FR: You recently announced that 1 in 5 of your residential mortgage cases are offered on the same day. How is this made possible, what are you doing to improve this even further and how important is technology working alongside an experienced underwriting team to this process?

We did, and we’re getting even quicker with nearly 1 in 4 cases now offered the same day over the last six months. There’s no question that speed is important for everyone involved in a case. The client gets some certainty over where they stand and can plan accordingly, while the broker can turn their attention elsewhere rather than having to spend time chasing up updates on an application.

That swift service doesn’t happen by accident though. We have had a relentless focus on automation and the ways it can improve the mortgage process. In truth, the mortgage market has lagged behind other areas of financial services when it comes to incorporating technology in how we work, and so there is plenty of room for improvement.

At Atom, while we have incorporated aspects like the automation of income verification and property valuations, there has also been an educational side to things. Working closely with brokers around the cases we can handle, and which fit our criteria, means intermediaries are better informed on how to work with us and means the cases that do arrive are more likely to fit. That in turn helps improve how quickly we can provide a response.

It’s also important not to overlook the underwriters. Having an experienced team in place who understand what to look out for is crucial, and it’s that combination of the personal touch and the cutting edge technology that allows us to deliver such a rapid service.

That hard work is paying off, and we’re getting quicker. There is more progress to be made on this front, but we are leading the way in demonstrating what can be done when you challenge industry norms.

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