In this edition of PROSPA’S The Long Road, Tales of Regional Brokers, Michelle Lewis from Easy Loans in Darwin, imparts some small-town wisdom and proves that even in the finance industry, ‘slow and steady’ can still win the race.

Moving to Darwin from Adelaide 13 years ago, Michelle now considers herself a local in what she describes as a transient town. And if community connection is anything to go by, she is as local as they come.

Preferring an ‘old-fashioned’ approach to broking, Michelle says while the cutting-edge industry advice is for brokers to take a more digital approach to dealing with clients, text and email will never replace sitting down with someone and looking them in the eye.

And with bank branches in Darwin few and far between, Michelle says providing that professional attention is not only effective for her, it’s also important to ensure locals aren’t disadvantaged by a lack of services on the ground.

Little wonder how Michelle took home the Regional Finance Broker Award at the 2019 MFAA State Excellence Awards SA/NT.

MFAA: How long have you been a finance broker and how did you get started?

Michelle Lewis (Easy Loans, Darwin NT): I’ve officially been a finance broker coming on five or six years now. I started getting my accreditations back in 2013. I have actually previously worked at both Westpac in Adelaide in their mortgage centre for a good 12 years and also TIO, which has since been bought by People’s Choice Credit Union. I was there for a good 5 years. It was at this point that Easy Loans offered me a position with their team. I had been working with them as a broker support person through the bank, and had got to know them well and vice versa, then they offered me a job and I thought, let’s give it a go. So that’s how I started in mortgage broking. I’ve been working in the residential home loan lending industry now for 23 years. Easy Loans prefers to employ experienced bankers, so when we come on board as a broker, we’re coming in very much aware of banking policies and procedures, we understand the lending process and can hit the ground running.  

I never wanted to work front-end for a bank, I didn’t really like the whole cross-sale concept with set targets to be met. I struggled with the fact that what if it isn’t the right thing for the customer, and yet I’m forced to sell a product because that’s my job. Whereas I think finance broking gave me the option of being able to do a whole package for the customer and not being limited to just one product, one option or one bank. I could go with a product that more appropriately suits the client as I had multiple options to consider. This helped me achieve the goal of home ownership with my clients with a number of resources and tools on my plate, rather than just one. That gave me the satisfaction of offering people home loans and the enjoyment of helping them achieve their goals and reach their dreams. It’s the part of the job I love, helping people realise their dreams. It’s good fun, very rewarding.

MFAA: You recently received the Regional Finance Broker Award at the 2019 MFAA State Excellence Awards SA/NT. Congratulations. Can you tell us a few of the ways you are connected to your community?

ML: Outside of work, I’m involved in my local church, the school with my kids, and then also Easy Loans is involved in different charities that we donate to and get involved in depending on the circumstances. From a business perspective I’ll drop in and visit the real estate agents and the developers and the builders on a fairly regular basis and just sit down and have a chat about how things are going and what I can offer them as a broker. Some of those builders and developers I work with quite closely and actually get referrals from, other ones I just drop in and say ‘hi’.

I think it’s important to be there and available and provide the resources I have to assist them as much as I can in their world, and in return they share their resources and knowledge with me to use back in my world. It’s a win-win for our all our clients.

MFAA: Can you elaborate a bit on your connections to charities and local sport?

ML: It’s all about our local community and the suburbs we live in, so we work with a couple of sports teams, netball, equestrian, and football teams. We raise money for kids at Christmas, we recently donated prizes for the award-winning chickens at the Fred’s Pass Rural Community Show in Darwin, we generally get involved in the Biggest Morning Tea, we’ve actually done a couple of those where we’ve invited customers and referral partners along. We try and keep our hands in different things depending on what’s going on and what’s applicable for us. We have sponsored the Waratahs, which is an AFL team up here as well. Most of us have been in the Territory for 10, 15, 30 years or more so some of these guys remember Darwin when it was small and everyone knew everyone. I’ve been here for 13 years now, so seeing as it’s a very transient community up here, you’ve got Defence coming and going, teachers coming and going, once you start hitting the 10, 15-year mark you’re definitely considered a local.

MFAA: So what does a local Territorian get away with that perhaps a visitor doesn’t?

ML: I think there’s just a ‘settled-ness’ that comes with being a local up here. It’s home, so you take the ups and the downs, and once you become a local you’re probably a little more country-style than you are city-style. You notice every January, February, March when the new people move up from down south to start their new employment or contract, and all of a sudden they’re pushing around trying to get everywhere quickly, they’re generally moving at a faster pace, whereas the locals realise it’s only going to take you an extra 30 seconds if you don’t rush or the drive will take 20 minutes whether you rush or don’t rush. So you’re a bit more relaxed the longer you’re here as you start to realise you might as well enjoy life that little bit more and go at a bit of a slower pace. Like when I recently went to Adelaide for the MFAA Awards, walking around the city everyone was walking so fast and I didn’t remember walking that fast when I used to live down there full-time.

Darwin’s definitely not country-country, but it’s the way I like it now, time to stop and say ‘hello’ and get to know people in my local area, time with family but still offering opportunities. 

MFAA: Darwin seems to be quite a unique community with a unique identity. Does that affect the way you go about your work and the way you connect with your clients?

ML: It’s difficult to say because I don’t really have anything to compare it to, but I do feel like we are moving towards a more electronic age. You always hear it being promoted through training sessions in diversification, it’s all about internet and Facebook and online application forms and a lot of interactions.

I use email a lot, don’t get me wrong, and we do automated marketing and that sort of thing, but I still feel like, and I don’t know if its unique to Darwin, but I still feel like people want to talk face-to-face, and as much as we try and say the new generation, the Gen Ys and whatever comes after them, are all very computer savvy, I think there’s still an element where face-to-face meets a need that electronics can’t match.

When you’ve got a first home buyer that has no idea of what’s going on, there’s only so much that can be communicated by phone and email. Sometimes you just need them to sit down in front of you and write it on paper so they can see it, visualise it, touch it, and there’s something about that. I speak to a lot of builders and real estate agents and there’s still value from their perspective when you do a face-to-face with them and you don’t just pick up a phone or send an email but actually take time out of your day to actually sit down and talk to them face-to-face. That’s the same as I am with customers. Once I’m up and running I do tend to use emails and the phone, but initial interviews I tend to find people prefer to catch up face-to-face. We get a lot of customers because they like the fact that we give them the time of day and that attention.

MFAA: Are there any examples of any interesting loans that you’ve facilitated or something that you would only see in Darwin or in the NT?

ML: I think the newspaper’s the only thing that’s really, really unique. It’s never quite the same as the rest of the country. I think one of the things we struggle with more is the size of blocks that we want to sell up here, and distance. Some people are living 50km out of town and you’re on a 5 acre block and the mortgage insurer really struggles with the concept that 5 acres out of town is not really rural. We’re actually only 50km from Darwin, you can’t buy 5 acres in Melbourne or Sydney 50kms out of there, so we kind of get limitations put on it because of the distance and where its located. And I think other regional parts of Australia would have that issue. Or we’ll have people with X number of mango trees on their block and it will be certified commercial even though it's not enough to get income from. So we get a few issues because these things go through a Sydney or Melbourne credit department who just aren’t able to see things through our eyes and understand the difference. We’re two per cent of the market share in Australia so it can be challenging sometimes.

MFAA: What would you say you love most about the job and doing it in Darwin?

ML: I love helping people achieve what they want to achieve and seeing them do it. A lady I’ve been helping, she lost her partner a couple of years ago, went through a really difficult time and I’ve been working with her for two years to build a house, which is happening at the moment. There’s another first home buyer I worked with for over 12 months just to help her with her savings. I think the feeling that you get when you manage to help pull together resources to help that person achieve their dreams, or you’ve educated them on the path and to see the smile on their face when they finally get to move into that home from whatever purpose or background they’ve come from. I love the results, through the ups and downs, the bad days and the good, the changes to policy and all the rest. You still see people achieve a dream or a goal and that’s amazing. Then they send me photos of their kids in the pool, just loving it, so that’s what makes it worthwhile.

MFAA: What are your plans for the future in terms of business but also with the community work that you do?

ML: I think still being active in the community and being seen in the community helps me to find out what people need and trying to help them reach their goals through Easy Loans is something I will always enjoy doing. I’d like to think I would be pretty happy if I could just keep doing what I’m doing, helping people keep moving forward and realise their dreams. 

MFAA: Do you have any final message you would like to tell the readers?

ML: One thing about being in Darwin that’s unique is the lack of banking on the ground. We probably give people opportunities that you may not have in other cities where the local bank branches are more prevalent. So, it’s great to help people out and make sure they’re not disadvantaged by being in a regional area. Easy Loans offers clients a means to access many banks on many platforms that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.