The Interview… Kay Westgarth, head of sales at Standard Life Home Finance

In the latest of our series of interviews with key industry figures, The I spoke to Kay Westgarth, head of sales at Standard Life Home Finance.

Westgarth talks about the first six months since product launch at the later life lender and how the firm aims to further improve market standards.

Standard Life Home Finance launched back in September and began rolling out products in October. How have the first six months gone?

I think it will probably come as no surprise when we say that we have been extremely busy.  While recent figures from the Equity Release Council highlighted that a record amount was released in 2021, customer numbers did not quite reach the same levels. 

Instead growth was driven by people releasing equity for big ticket items such as house deposits or mortgage repayment.  

At the same time as playing our part in servicing this demand, we’ve also been building strong relationships with specialists, networks and individual firms. 

The reception has been really positive and advisers like to be able to add a well-recognised brand to their offering.           

Walk us through the offering, what are your core products?  What features make your offering different?

When we launched, we offered a range of 11 product options which is smaller than some of the big guys like Legal & General and more2life but we are innovative and perfectly formed. 

Recently, we added to this when we identified a need for a higher LTV product option and launched the Horizon 780 and 800 products.

We are particularly proud of our market-leading product features which helped us secure a 5 Star rating from Defaqto.

This includes allowing clients to move home without ever needing to pay an early repayment charge – either by repaying the loan or porting the plan to a suitable property.  

With the best will in the world, we know that things do change so these types of flexibilities are important. 

Our rates are also very competitive and while they are increasing as with other lenders, we are fighting to keep them market leading.

Standard Life Home Finance is looking to push the industry to be better. What needs to be done?  Is it all about education or are there some areas that lenders need to focus on?

We are in a unique position in that while we are a well-recognised brand and have the expertise of Key Group supporting us, we do not have the legacy back books that some other lenders struggle with. 

This means that we can seriously consider whether the “traditional approach” is fit for purpose or whether this can be transformed. 

At the heart of this is the commitment to understanding what products, support and flexibilities individual consumers need – now and in the future. 

This is something of an obsession and underpins how we approach everything from underwriting criteria to adviser support.  

We are keen to engage with the industry to help us understand what needs to change and we will be asking advisers for their views over the coming months.  Consumer education is certainly something we believe is important, but we think there is more opportunity to shake things up across the industry.

What are the longer term plans for SLHF?  Are you going to be launching any new innovative products?

While I would love to tell you everything we’ve got planned, I suspect this would be the last interview I was allowed to do if I provided details at this stage! What I can say is that Standard Life Home Finance is committed to pushing the industry to be better and this remains a key focus for us.

This includes service as well as product development – the launch of our recent new higher LTV plans is a perfect example of this.

How do you view the later life market’s prospects for the next 12 months?

The demographic drivers of growth that we’ve talked about in the past are still in place but we are also seeing pent up demand due to the pandemic and the high inflation environment we find ourselves in. 

Those who retired immediately prior to Covid-19 are keen to take advantage of the current freedoms to travel, support family and enjoy what they envisaged retirement might be. 

Others have a new perspective on life and want to retire early by repaying their mortgage or other borrowing. 

You’ve also got clients who are keen to help their children onto the property ladder or to achieve other goals. 

This has created a really positive headwind and barring any significant economic, regulatory or social challenges, I think we are going to see a good twelve months for this market.

When it comes to the later life lending market, there are some fairly well recognised names but what does the advice market really look like?  What about the smaller firms or sole traders?

The equity release market used to be dominated by a range of specialists but this is changing and we are now seeing a wider range of advisers submit business. 

This is a sign of a growing and vibrant market, so it is really welcome. 

As a lender, we are keen to work with advisers to help them provide the very best advice to their customers.

Have you seen more wealth management firms or traditional advice firms enter the market?  Are they starting to see the potential or have we got a way to go?

We are increasingly finding that wealth managers and more traditional advice firms are either adding a later life lending specialist to their team or setting up a referral relationship.  Interestingly, it is becoming a push-pull situation with some choosing to get involved as clients are asking for support while others are speaking to clients about their options and finding interest is growing via this avenue.  

You’ve probably heard this repeatedly but housing equity is often a retiree’s largest asset so it makes sense to consider this as part of holistic planning. 

This is finally starting to happen so it is a really exciting time for the market.

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