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Eye of the tiger

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Maybe it’s the isolation or perhaps the enviable lifestyle, either way, the boom state of Western Australia is overflowing with innovative and successful businesses that are headed up by entrepreneurs such as Anne-Marie Syme. As a driving force in the finance sector – on both a local and national level – Ms Syme has redefined the way business is done in the mortgage and finance industry.

Growing up in Perth as one of eight children, with three older brothers, Ms Syme was “the oddball” in her family, having pursued a corporate career path. So did she display early signs of the entrepreneurial spirit?

“No, but I was always a go-getter, a high achiever in sport and music, and my family were very supportive,” she says. “[My brothers] were also very protective, so having boyfriends was extremely difficult – they had to get through the mafia first to date me!”

Finding a niche

After many years managing a pharmacy, where Ms Syme honed her leadership skills on “young women who were always pre-menstrual and used to steal a lot of stuff”, she then branched out into retail banking at BankWest, which led to being introduced to the concept of mortgage broking – a service that particularly appealed to Ms Syme, who by then was a working mum.

“[The industry] was fledgling then – in 1990-1991 – there were probably 40 people all up,” she says. “And then when Aussie Home Loans came to Perth, I ran it for John Symond – it was a great grounding experience for eventually starting up on my own.”

When Ms Syme left Aussie to set up her own company, a number of her team came with her. “Little did I know that the person that I was going into business with was a drug addict; I had come out of very reputable companies in finance and got mixed up with this delinquent.”

With the help of some friends, Ms Syme bought her partner out before he could do any real damage and changed the name of the company to The Loans Café, which broke ground when it combined the seemingly simple concept of a cup of coffee and a home loan. As one of only two women at the time who were running mortgage brokerages, Ms Syme’s idea was met with disbelief – people didn’t think it make sense – nowadays it’s common practice.

“What do consumers want? What sets you apart? Anyone can have a ticket to compete in the arena of business – the product might be the same, but deliver it in a different manner and it just works,” explains Ms Syme. “I was really appealing to the first home buyers who were completely out of their depth and didn’t know how banks worked, and I wanted to deliver it in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere so I themed it up with banking memorabilia.”

Getting the word out

A consummate networker, Ms Syme has built her business up through key contacts and government organisations and, additionally, contributed to the growth of mortgage broking as a former president of the industry’s peak body, the Mortgage & Finance Association of Australia. During her tenure, Ms Syme introduced a huge social sector for participants, in the form of balls and sundowners – which the eastern states had never heard of – the latter now being a regular event across the country.

“I think women are really fortunate, we’re a natural networking crowd – even if you’re shy. The simplest thing to do is to hover around a group of people, get someone’s eye [and] raise your eyebrow. Then offer your hand and introduce yourself. You’ve got to have a bit of guts.”

Sounds straightforward enough, but Ms Syme says overcoming any nerves is the easy part. What you do next is the key to making a real connection. “Just bringing business cards back is not enough,” she says. “On the back of the card, I make a note of who they are, what we talked about, and then I send them a [handwritten] card. So what does the receiver do with it? They put it on their desk for at least two weeks, show everyone around the office and their immediate thought of the person that sent it to you is quadrupled and they’ll never forget you.”

Ms Syme has taught this practice to her staff and keeps blank cards in the office at all times. So what about passing on other skills, such as leadership? There is a constant debate about whether people are born leaders or they can, under the right circumstances, be taught how to lead.

“Leadership is definitely something that can be taught – but you need the confidence and the people skills to truly lead. You also need to be able to deal with conflict because the more staff you have, the more conflict there is.”

It’s the latter skill that Ms Syme says is her downfall – conflict is not something that she likes to deal with – “I’m always the good cop and I hire a bad cop”. When she has been confronted with a tough staffing situation, Ms Syme says it’s important to spend time finding out what isn’t working. “If someone doesn’t work out because they don’t have the skills for the job, then you didn’t hire well. It’s usually a personality conflict in the office, or something has happened to them in their personal life – you’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”

Western star

Ms Syme is now involved with six different companies, including The Loans Café, and is always looking for opportunities so she can realise the value she’s built up over the years. At the same time, though, her focus has shifted on some levels to the more meaningful things in life.

“You need to be able to switch off, that’s a talent in itself and if you don’t, you’ll burn out,” she advises. “I turn my phone off on the weekends, but I’ll check it twice a day rather than having it ringing in the background. If it’s a real emergency and if they’re clever, they’ll find another way to contact you.”

Looking towards the future, Ms Syme hopes to be retired by the time she hits her mid-50s. “I’d never retire full stop – retired to maybe sit on public boards because it’s not a full-time job. [Perhaps] non-executive director type roles where you get a bit of income and some responsibilities that come with that. That appeals to me.”

And another thing she’ll never do is relocate permanently to the east coast. When Ms Syme became executive director of FAST, a national mortgage aggregator, it was presumed she would be moving the head office in Sydney. Her response was straight to the point: “I said, ‘Well, no, I can commute and I don’t mind computing. Perth is my home and if [internet marketing guru] Michael Cheney can commute, then so can I’.” 

Published on: Monday, June 29, 2009

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