I remember the day, it was a Tuesday, in October 2014, and I found myself in Mayfair, Central London along with my business partner James. We had been going back and forth to London at that point, wearing the shoe leather for a number of years, with one goal - to convince London based funds and investors that Northern Ireland was a fantastic place to invest their money. The huge challenge at that time was that Ireland and Irish banks were still in recovery mode from the property crash and impacts of the global financial crisis, and although the rest of the UK was starting to recover, the picture in Ireland was a lot more challenging.  

Starting your own business is tough going, it’s not for everyone, and I think one of the key characteristics of any successful entrepreneur, is what I refer to as, having the stickability factor. Having that desire to keep going, the resilience not to give up and to keep knocking doors.  If you examine some of the familiar sayings associated within this context, “for every door that closes, another one opens”, “another no, means you are closer to a yes”, “if it was easy, sure everyone would be at it”, and so it goes on. 

As someone who loves a good quote, I have hundreds to rely on throughout most days, and I would suggest anything that helps you make progress in life or in business should be utilised.  Back to that Tuesday in London in October, 2014 – we finally got a “Yes”.  As the exact details of the deal are commercially sensitive, I can share that we were able to agree a deal that was a game changer for our new funding business, Clearpath Finance. The deal meant we would be bringing over £100 million of new money, to the N Ireland economy for one of our clients, which would allow them to take back control of their business again. 

Fast forward a few years and Clearpath has continued to grow and has now over fifty different lenders on our platform, provide an all-Ireland funding solution, and we are recognised as the primary alternative lending platform in N Ireland, having brought over £160 million of investment into the region.  

I have always been of the mindset that with problems comes opportunity, and if you find a problem that is big enough and you identify a solution, then you have the basis of a good business.  Everything is cyclical, what goes up must come down, which is why I feel the better entrepreneurs out there, are agile individuals, open to change, and nimble enough to spot trends earlier than most, and review their offering in such a way that there is always a demand for their product.  

At Clearpath, I think it would be fair to describe our team as a group of highly vigilant professional individuals.  Vigilant in relation to the economy, the ability to observe what is going on, and then set out how we are going to take our range of services to the market in terms of our value-add proposition.  

If we look at this in today’s context, the funding situation is a lot more positive today in Belfast for example as opposed to 2015.  There is plenty of funding out there, however the main challenge being most of the funders in the market today for example will only go to 60% loan to value for asset backed lends in N Ireland.  This presents a major problem in itself as there are many solid deals, which are higher up the LTV curve, but because most of the lenders won’t go beyond the 60%, they may not get done.  

If you look at the cocktail of funding options available today you can really split them up into three sections.  High street banks which for the most part have pulled back yet again from lending to SME’s, predominantly due to Brexit and the ongoing political paralysis at Stormont.  They are doing some lending, but don’t really have an appetite at the present time, and their credit teams are seriously cumbersome and turning down more deals than they are approving.  

We then have the alternative lenders of which there are a few.  On the whole, these companies have been a breath of fresh air for our local economy and they are doing deals and getting money out the door.  The only observation I would make is that they all offer a similar product, in terms of pricing and loan to value, which means for me, they are missing a trick or two.  On a personal level I think it’s of huge importance that you have a number of unique selling points for any business, and in terms of the alternative lenders in N Ireland, the obvious USP would be to go up the LTV curve and take more of a commercial view and risk on the deals available.  This would mean a lot more business getting done.

Outside of the alternative lending firms operating here, the rest of the lending space is filled with largely private investor money.  These entities are normally the most commercial to deal with, will take a view on a deal, and will go up the loan to value curve for asset backed loans.  The price for this though will be the cost of funds and in the last twelve months for example we have bridged a number of deals on behalf of our customers between 15- 20% cost of funds.  It’s important to add that 20% money doesn’t work for the majority of people, I get that, but for those deals it does work for, it gets them done.  

I would describe the business environment today as difficult.  There is a lot of global uncertainty going on given the ongoing events in the middle east, the trade wars between the USA and China. Brexit fever is now hitting new levels and nervousness within the EU project and the impact and uncertainty the world has to endure under the leadership of Trump in the States, is making life difficult for most.  

The USA is a huge economy with incredible power and influence. In the next 30 years it is projected that China, USA and India will be among the three most influential economies and countries across the world.  All of this is important and if you own a business, I feel it is crucial to pay attention to what is going on across the world, as ultimately a lot of these mega-political events will have more of an impact on your day to day business than you might think.

Right now for me the key to business is to remain vigilant to everything that is going on both locally and internationally. I also think it is super important to engage with people of different areas of expertise than yourself, so you always have a good feel for what is going on.

This will allow you to stay ahead of the game and be much more prepared for what the future might hold, for you and your business

Conor Devine is a chartered surveyor and member of RICS.  He runs a number of businesses in N Ireland under the GDP Partnership banner to include the premier lending platform Clearpath and debt advisory practice GDP Equity Experts. 

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