Interview with Bridging and Commercial, December 2023 - words by Elliot Topham
It's been 12 months since Tom Cantor became head of bridging finance at West One Loans - and successful ones at that, as the business has seen record origination figures in 2023. Elliot sits down with Tom to find out how he's been faring so far, and to learn how he steadily steers the company through the current market storm.
Elliot catches Tom via Zoom in between one of the many prior engagements that no doubt come with being the head of bridging finance. Tom was appointed to his position in September 2022 at the age of 30, after joining West One as an executive in 2019 before going on to spend time in the company's servicing division, amassing experience in underwriting, management sales and finance and operations.
Initially, his career had been destined for other regions of the finance world. He started as an internet at the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2012, rising to become an assistant director a few years later before moving on to spending more than a year and a half as an associate at Baylor Klein, an M&A advisory company for business within the consumer good industry - which offered him steady training and good footing for his roles later on.
However, Tom gradually sailed towards the specialist finance sector. "I was trained in investment banking, then met Danny [Waters, CEO at Enra Specialist Finance] and Emily [Gestetner, CFO at Enra Specialist Finance] and had an interview with them. I came on board without truly knowing what I was getting myself into, and it was always sort of 'come along and see where it takes you'," he recalls.
Despite this seemingly open attitude regarding his career destination, Tom was in no way nonchalant about where he wanted to be, even as he let the current of the specialist finance world steer him. "When I joined West One, I remember thinking that if I could get to head one of the divisions within the following few years, that would be quite an interesting place to be. And through quite a lot of hard work and probably a bit of luck, that happened."
Now as head of bridging, a far cry from his days on the graduate programme at RBS, Tom sees the experience of those around him as a great advantage - but this also brings its own issues.
"For me, the biggest achievement and possibly one of the biggest challenges was [that] West One is synonymous with bridging finance and, when people think of specifically bridging at West One, they think of Danny. Coming in and trying to make that role my own and establish myself as head of bridging, when you're in the footsteps of someone like Danny is very difficult, but he's helped me enormously, and I feel like I'm starting to make it my own," he states.
The company's people and reputation aren't just a reminder of the experience and expertise that surround him - they also shape the direction in which Tom chooses to steer his division, and he sees no reason to stray from its current course.
"The reality is, it wasn't really about trying to reinvent the wheel, because the position of bridging division at West One within the market was already well established, and it would have been wrong of me to come in and start thinking about new and different ways to do that. I think what I was very conscious of doing was just making sure that we maintained that position because it's a very, very competitive market," Tom elaborates.
Merge and grow
However, Tom's tenure has not been a standstill. His role of "solidifying" West One's position - as he sees it - has included merging the BTL and bridging divisions and extending coverage across the country to under-represented areas.
It can be argued that, so far, Tom has been successful in this. In July this year, the bridging division contributed to the company's record £190m in originations - its highest figure since its establishment. "Achieving record months in terms of organisation isn't a secret in itself, and that was true not only in bridging in July, but also across the whole business. Amid the market conditions, to deliver a record month is something I'm proud of," says Tom.
West One's bridging and development divisions have their own ambitious targets for 2023, with the aim of originating £1bn in short-term lending in total. This follows a record-break previous year, with bridging contributing to West One's overall short-term lending completions - which increased by 13% year-on-year, reaching £915m. And while Tom sees his role at West One through somewhat modest eyes, he can take reassurance that, since taking the head of bridging role, the division's loan book has grown by around 25%.
As Tom sees it, the strong position achieved and maintained by West One comes from not shying away from making calls before the competition - something Tom finds imperative, especially with the uncertainty in the market, exacerbated by high interest rates.
"We are always on the front foot with our risk appetite. So, repricing at a time when interest rates were going up - we didn't sit back and wait for two or three months to see how the market played out. We repriced as soon as we thought it was the right time to do it, and that happened to be before our competitors did. This was counterintuitive, really, because it meant that our volume and our position in the market were unattractive for a period of time," he explains.
"In our opinion, there's no point writing loans which don't make economical sense. We're very dynamic and flexible, and coupled with the fact that we have an extremely strong capital position, that really puts us in a good spot."
Even with the wealth of knowledge and expertise surrounding him, his first year as head of bridging brought its own difficulties, often outside of his control.
"Coming into this role in [those challenging] market conditions has probably given me the best grounding has probably given me the best grounding to learn and allowed me to manage all the possible risks that could appear at any one time. It's been a baptism of fire," he states.
The global financial and geopolitical climate isn't lost on Tom. Even with three years of experience in the bridging industry, the past 12 months have been a learning curve. Like the company he works at, he too must adapt to a time of uncertainty. "It's given me a great appreciation of just how many factors contribute to the performance of not only the bridging sector, but also the wider housing market," he adds.
Selling short-term security
With uncertainty also comes opportunity, particularly for bridging finance - according to Tom, people have been opting for short-term funding to tide them over, while they wait for the longer-term markets to stabilise. "Because people aren't really investing in that sector in the way that they were 12-18 months ago, that gives an opportunity for bridging," Tom says.
Regardless of how the specialist finance industry and the wider economy will fare, Tom has one priority as head of bridging - he wants his team to trust and feel confident in him as a leader, as he strongly believes this is key to success.
"When I say and do things, they know that it's going to happen. I am not afraid of making decisions, whether they're easy or tough. I don't shy away from having difficult conversations with people, while always being honest and fair. It sounds quite straightforward but, if people have confidence in you and trust you, they believe in you more, and that helps. You establish longer and deeper relationships with people, which, ultimately, is what the whole business thrives on."