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Interview: Avant to build on Irish mortgage coup

Avant Money boss Chris Paul is ready to become a catalyst for change in the Irish financial services sector

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Chris Paul

Chris Paul

Chris Paul

Working through political coups in South East Asia might not be for everyone, but for Chris Paul, chief executive of consumer finance firm Avant Money, it was just another day at the office.

Before the financial crash of 2008, Paul was leading American Express' operations in Thailand. One morning, he spotted a few new sights on his commute into the capital city of Bangkok.

"There were roadblocks and tanks on the road," he says. "But it was all calm; kids were on the tanks having their pictures taken. Bridal couples were coming out of temples and climbing on the tanks to have their wedding pictures. It was all a bit strange and surreal, but you never felt in danger.

"You kind of get used to it," he adds with a laugh. "Oh look, there is another coup - great."

Following his six-year sojourn in South East Asia, Paul must have thought he would be back on more familiar soil for the rest of his career - among the hustle and bustle of the UK's thriving financial services market.

Paul's time on foreign soil was not over yet, however.

In 2017, the bright lights of Carrick-on-Shannon in Co Leitrim beckoned. The promise of heading up Avant Money, which was then called Avantcard, was an attractive proposition.

"I needed a little bit of convincing," he said. "I needed a bit of persuading, but once it became clear what exactly the opportunity was and the role I would have, not just to take over and keep things ticking over, but to really have the opportunity to fundamentally transform the business - that was enough to convince me."

"I've not looked back; I don't regret it for a moment," he added.

Avant Money, which offers credit cards, personal loans and mortgages, has moved at pace during Paul's three years in charge. Between being taken over by Bankinter, one of Spain's largest banks, acquiring Tesco's Irish credit card portfolio and forming a new strategic partnership with An Post, Paul has been kept busy.

This year has been tough on the Avant Money business, with Paul accepting it didn't quite hit its targets over the year.

The 250-employee strong company decided to look after its customers who were hit by the pandemic.

It offered payment breaks not only on its loans but also on its credit cards.

"We had a good year as a business, but financially it was a challenging year," he says. "We were not able to meet our planned numbers, but we did OK in the circumstances."

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Despite the results, Paul is basking in the glow of Avant Money's most recent achievement - entering Ireland's mortgage sector last September with the lowest rate on the market.

The three-, five- and seven-year fixed-rate mortgages, which start from 1.95pc, are distributed through 20 of Ireland's leading brokers. They are focused on major urban centres with the broker network set to be extended further this year.

While commercial interests drove Avant's move into mortgages, there was also a "feel-good factor" for Paul, knowing it could bring much-needed competition for consumers.

"I would love it if we were a catalyst for change," he says. "I think we will be. Whether it is us or I think there are going to be other players entering the market in due course. Things are set to change.

"It's insane. I think it's nip and tuck between Ireland and Greece between which Eurozone country consumers pay the highest for their mortgage. I'm genuinely pleased that we have been able to do it.

"It does beg the question why it has taken us to do it," he asks. "Why hasn't anyone else done it? It's still early days, and I still think we can do a lot more. I'm glad, and it's great that Irish consumers are getting a better deal at last."

Paul says the market reaction has been great. Avant Money has already received €200m worth of applications for its mortgages, with the switcher market a burgeoning source of demand.

"That is where we are finding a bit of a sweet spot, which is not constrained," he says. "First-time buyers and movers, there is some impact with [house prices, availability and Covid-19] going on."

Mortgages might be Paul's new baby at Avant, but it is by no means his only offering. The firm has long been known for its Avantcard credit card business, while it is also making inroads in personal loans.

Paul said the personal loan business remained strong through Covid, with people now taking out debt to refinance rather than for going on holidays.

Avant's credit card business had been hit hard by the pandemic, however.

"Spend is down, and repayments are up," he says of the credit card business. "That then is impacting on balances and outstanding debt our customers have with us."

"There is all this talk of revenge spending when things open up again - people hitting the shops, going out and dining every night of the week. We will have to see. It will come back. It is just how long."

A career in financial services appealed to Paul from a young age. He grew up in Whitley Bay, a town in the North East of England, and was offered the chance to go to university when he left school.

Paul rejected those offers, opting to join an accelerated development programme at Yorkshire Bank's branch in Newcastle.

"I decided there was no guarantee at the end of university where I would end up," he says. "This was the first step into a career. I started off in Newcastle, just retail banking."

After a couple of years at the branch, he thought he would take a leap of faith if he was to further his career. Paul moved to London, hoping to land a job in the financial services mecca that is the City.

While in London, Paul landed a job with American Express, where he learned his craft. During his 12 years with the US financial giant, he got to travel the world, landing prominent roles in Singapore and Thailand.

"I came out knowing infinitely more than when I joined," he says.

At the end of his 12 years with American Express, Paul returned to the UK. He worked helping some friends and former colleagues at a consultancy, before working with Barclaycard.

In 2017, he received an unexpected approach to head up Avant. The firm appealed to him more than anything could in the UK.

"The question I get asked sometimes is why I do what I do in Ireland," he says. "I could do what I do in the UK and sleep in my bed most nights. Carrick-on-Shannon, as wonderful as it is, it's not Paris, Milan or New York. It's a provincial town. I could do what I do in the UK, but without any job satisfaction at all."

Ever since taking the top job, Paul has been kept busy. Avant has gone through multiple changes, expanded its product offering and propelled itself into new, exciting partnerships.

In 2019, Avant Money, which US private equity fund Apollo owned, was sold to Bankinter. Paul felt good about the Spaniards from the off.

"The big question was who it would be and what were they going to do with the business," he says. "There was a couple of different ways this could've gone. Someone could've bought it and stripped it over time and squeezed every last ounce of value out of it.

"I got the sense that Bankinter would be a good owner and fit," he adds. "It went through, and we've been part of them since. I don't think there is a single colleague who doesn't feel that it has been a good outcome."

The completion of the acquisition hasn't been the only bit of deal-making Paul got involved in while heading up Avant.

In April 2018, Avant acquired Tesco's Irish credit card portfolio, consisting of 27,000 customer accounts, for an undisclosed sum. It also secured a partnership with An Post, offering An Post branded personal loans and credits cards through the national post office network. The partnership had been an "undoubted success", he says.

"Their [An Post's] ambitions are as big as ours. They have big plans in terms of what they want to do. It's exciting to be part of that journey with them, and I think they are excited about ours."

While Paul acknowledges he wants to focus on mastering the markets Avant Money has entered, he still has his eye on more.

Paul believes there will be more partnerships signed by Avant Money with "household names" in future.

He also hopes to enter new areas of consumer finance though believes these opportunities are unlikely to happen in the short-term.

"In the meantime, we will be busy with what we have," he says.

The mortgage business has got off to a great start. Paul says Avant deliberately started with a few urban centres and is plotting its next moves into other areas over time. It hopes to be up there with the big players.

"We will grow, and we will become more accessible to other parts of Ireland over time," he says. "It's not cherry picking. We know which parts of the market we want to play in and that's what we will go after.

"We want to be a scale operator and have a sizeable market share, but we won't be everything to all people."

Reflecting on his three years in charge, Paul acknowledges the firm has been in a state of "aggressive growth" for a long time.

Paul hopes to make Avant Money a catalyst for change for consumers, citing the mortgage product as a step towards making that a reality.

"We can make a real difference, become a real player challenging the big incumbent banks," Paul says.

"Even the most conservative view of what the next five years might look like is exciting. If you take the more bullish view, it's really exciting."


CURRICULUM VITAE

Name

Chris Paul

Age

55

Position

Chief executive officer of Avant Money

Lives

West Sussex, England

Education

St Anselm's Roman Catholic High School, North Shields, England

Previous experience

Worked with Yorkshire Bank, Visa, Europay International, American Express, Insight Consultancy, Citibank International and Barclaycard,

Family

Wife - Denise

Children - George (20), Holly (18), Harry (16) and Charlie (14)

Pastimes

Competitive obstacle running and reading. Also a Newcastle United fan and, more recently, Sligo Rovers.

Favourite book

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the creator of Nike by Phil Knight

Favourite film

Kevin and Perry Go Large


BUSINESS LESSONS

What is the best bit of advice you could give someone looking to enter a career in financial services?

I would say never compromise on your values. Establish your values early on.

There will be temptation and pressure sometimes to do something that would compromise on your values. Don’t do it.

What you achieve is important, but how you go about it is equally important. We all need to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror at the end of the day and feel good about ourselves. It’s a slippery slope.

Sometimes the path of least resistance and the easy option is tempting, but don’t. Once you’ve done it once, you’ll do it again and goodness knows where you may end up.

The other thing I’d say is be nice. I’ve seen it happen, nice people get on in the workplace and then stop being respectful. Why? I genuinely don’t get it. I’m no saint, I have my moments, but you can get a lot more done with a carrot than a stick.

In terms of managing teams, how do you get the best out of people?

I have no ego. Always hire people smarter than yourself. I’ve seen people not do that and they become unstuck. Always hire good people who are smarter than you.


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