An Aussie leader
Aussie’s James Symond has worked his way from the bottom to the top. After starting on the floor (literally), he has made it all the way to the CEO’s seat.
“I really did start from the ground up,” says James Symond, CEO of Aussie Home Loans. “My first job was sitting on the floor for two days sorting boxes of mixed second hand stationery we had bought from an auction house.”
That was back in 1992, when a 19 year old James was asked by his uncle John to help him out for a week as he started a new mortgage broking business. That new broking business, Aussie Home Loans, would soon become one of Australian business’s biggest success stories and James would ride that wave to the top.
Looking back at the firm’s value proposition and the consumer demand for such a service in Australia, it’s easy to accept Aussie’s unprecedented success. That wasn’t always guaranteed though and, as in any new business, its success was built on hard work.
“Growing pains are part of any successful company’s journey and we were not immune,” Mr Symond says.
“We were a consumer champion and disrupter well before this world of mortgage broking even
existed. However, that meant for many years we had to deal with many detractors, including those
from the banking community, while also trying to keep afloat as a small start-up.
“We overcame these hurdles by being resilient and staying focused on providing the best possible service for our growing number of customers,” he proudly states.
The use of the word “we” is clearly no accident. Mr Symond is quick to lavish praise on the whole Aussie team, declaring its staff to be the company’s greatest asset.
“Systems and processes are always an issue when a business grows as quickly as we did. However, I
would say the hardest part was to ensure we had the right people in the right positions, people who had the ability to grow with us and build a sustainable business,” says Mr Symond.
“We’re still focused on that,” he says. “Right now, we’re building a world-class headquarters in Sydney to help us continue to attract and retain the best staff, while also continuing to invest in our technology, systems and products to give our brokers the tools to build the best businesses they can.”
Rise to the top
From his humble beginnings sorting boxes on the floor, Mr Symond has managed to forge a path to the
top. “From there (the floor), I spent time working in the back office as everything from a lending officer to a call centre operator. Eventually, I went on the road to become a field salesperson with the group in
Western Sydney, which I loved.
“I took on a range of senior roles, which included moving to both Brisbane and Melbourne and building those businesses for Aussie, until I eventually became head of sales when I was around 25 and finally reached my current position as CEO.”
Mr Symond doesn’t shy away from the fact it was his own uncle who started the business and led Aussie for so long. He is quick to state, though – as he should be – that he has demonstrated his ability
at every stage of his own career development to run the business in his own right.
“John certainly has been an incredible mentor to me and statesman of the group for all these years. He threw me in the deep end to see if I could survive and ensured I worked across all roles as we were building the business.
“I think the original plan was to ensure that I was ‘match fit’ to jump in the seat if the opportunity arose, but it certainly wasn’t set in stone as part of a long term plan. Whilst I was prompted to throw my hat in the ring for the position, I still had to go through the same rigorous process as all the others to convince the board that I was the right person.”
There’s no doubt that being that “right person” is something that Mr Symond has worked hard to be, through both on the job training and more formal education.
“While I was obtaining invaluable experience at ‘street school’, I also attended business schools such as Harvard and Columbia along the way to ‘try’ and smooth my rough edges,” he says, adding that a well-rounded apprenticeship has been invaluable in his personal development.
Leading in his own way
Every leader must develop their own leadership style, but for Mr Symond, following in his own uncle’s
footsteps, this has been of particular importance. Of course, he has taken a lot of practical advice from his mentor but Mr Symond says he has looked elsewhere to find his own way of leading.
“I have been fortunate to have met various prominent business people and other well-known personalities over the years; however, it’s the everyday person who truly inspires me,” he says.
“It may be a stranger, friend, family member or colleague. I gain inspiration from those around me and the successes or struggles they face and how they handle them.”
To sum up his views, he draws on a favourite quote from the much revered American author, poet, playwright and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.
“There’s a quote that I have loved for a very long time – ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’,” he says.
“In a business sense, the very best leaders ensure you feel like you are on a crusade and that your part in it is invaluable.”
Mr Symond says this is something he continually strives to achieve, particularly given the nature of Aussie’s business with storefronts and personnel located right around the country.
“Coming from growing and leading a very large sales team, I understand the importance of keeping the team motivated and all heading in one direction. I have always worked hard, but this is what I love doing so I don’t differentiate between business and pleasure.”
So how would his staff describe Mr Symond’s leadership style? “Straightforward, inclusive and
driven,” he says. “These are probably the three most common themes that have been echoed to me in the past … However, my team may throw in a few extra adjectives today, I guess,” he adds, joking.
Considering Aussie’s continued rapid growth, Mr Symond says there is only one thing he now wants, and it’s very simple. “Growth, growth and more growth,” he says. “We haven’t touched the sides of the opportunity as yet, in my opinion.
“While we settle around a couple of billion dollars per month in home loans, we only have around a 10 per cent share of the mortgage broking marketplace. We are working towards building this share much higher.
“For us to achieve our vision to be the ‘best home loan provider on the planet’, it’s all about strongly
increasing our distribution points around the country. For our vision to become reality, we must continually invest in the systems, support and people, so that anyone who interacts with Aussie becomes a raving fan.”
Whilst he admits his plans for Aussie may sound ambitious, Mr Symond believes the company is well placed in the right market to do huge things in coming years.
“Mortgage brokers now provide well in excess of 50 per cent of the mortgage flows in Australia, with many predicting it will hit 60-70 per cent, like the UK, over the next five years. This has happened simply through the choice and service a quality broker provides.”
Aussie giving back to Aussies
There are a lot more people than just the shareholders who hope this growth is achieved. The Symond
family is well known for their philanthropic efforts and, according to Mr Symond, those efforts won’t stop.
“I think that anyone who is in a fortunate enough position to give back to the community, should do so,” Mr Symond says.
“We are in that fortunate position and we back a range of charities, as well as the arts, in support of which John has led the way.
“Most recently, we have directed our attention to Ronni Kahn’s OzHarvest group, in which I have
taken a personal interest. It is an amazing charity that focuses on food rescue and feeding millions of homeless and disadvantaged Australians. I am actually cooking for 1,000 homeless and disadvantaged
people in March and helping them to raise $1.5 million in the process. It’s an exciting organisation which we are delighted to be associated with.”