CLINCHING THE number one spot is only half the challenge; the other half is holding on to it. In George Karam’s case he’s not only kept the trophy in Parramatta; he’s actually added $109m to his total volume, enabling him to stay ahead of his competitors. Yet despite his evident success, Karam’s clearly been shaken over the past year, and he’s surprised to be back at the top. “I’m more stoked than at any time I’ve been in the Top 10; it has been a very challenging year,” he says.
As with so many other brokers in this year’s Top 10, Karam was caught at the centre of the pull back of banks from property development lending, or as Karam himself puts it, “over the last 12 months there’s been a fundamental shift in the property development finance-broking dynamic”.
While many banks have curtailed lending, according to Karam the problem owed just as much to confusion. “Either [developers] were turned down or just experienced a lack of transparency because the lending appetite or credit policy wasn’t communicated effectively by their bank manager or to their bank manager.” Other brokers have looked to non-bank, international and hedge fund lenders, as had Karam, albeit “with varying degrees of success. With some of the lenders we start doing quite well with them, then they find out they’re doing too much of that type of lending or they’ve lent out more than they can.”
By getting out there and having “robust discussions” with lenders, Karam was able to fi nd those funders. However, the experience raised some integral questions of Byblos as a business. Having Karam both as a figurehead and the only broker was the first problem: there simply wasn’t the time for him to do both. Karam feels it’s time for a radical solution. “We’re going to pull the process apart and put it back together again: what are the critical points where we really need people at the top of their game to be involved in?... if you’re taking on too many clients so the experience of each client will be diminished.”
Byblos is trying to adopt the approach used by many residential brokerages, whereby different staff members will handle a deal at different points rather than using the single-person, cradle-to-grave approach. This approach is relatively new in the commercial sector, however, and Karam believes the transition will only succeed with staff training and improved technology. “That’s why we’ve made significant investments into the technology and CRM, to make it specific to the commercial space.”
Those investments include a brand-new CRM system housed in a brand-new office. “[Technology] doesn’t take away from the craft of commercial mortgage broking; not at all,” says Karam. “With the amount of leads we’re getting through, with the amount of information we have on file, [technology’s role is] allowing you to distinguish the good from the bad, and allowing you to hone in on where you spend your resources and where you allocate them.”
Bolstered by new software, the brokerage is diversifying beyond its “private property banker” brand of previous years, explains Karam. “What we’re trying to do now is trying to meet more of the needs of our client base. Whilst property finance is still in the DNA, and so is the development lending, as you can see by the numbers … we’re now attracting a wider range of clients.” As well as offering other types of commercial finance, Karam is setting up a residential lending division under a separate brand, although Byblos has long written its own white label home loans through its mortgage management business. Even the core Byblos brand isn’t safe: Karam hints that a major rebrand is currently underway. By 2017, Byblos Finance could be winning a whole new set of awards and Karam’s reputation could extend far beyond the commercial space.