It’s been a busy few months for Belfast-based independent finance provider Northridge, which last year began both a programme to expand its presence across the Irish Sea and a new technology suite to aid dealers. Jared Fortune caught up with sales director Alan Carson.

NIIB, the asset finance subsidiary of Bank of Ireland, and its motor finance arm, Northridge Finance, work from the same Belfast hub, with the same set of processors, the same underwriters, system and score cards. As Alan Carson, sales director at NIIB and Northridge, puts it: "One company with separate brands."

While NIIB is focused on Northern Ireland and asset finance, Northridge is the independent car finance provider predominantly operating across all regions of Great Britain. And it aims to grow that operation.

As well as the launch of a new technology offering, 2011 saw Northridge begin a five-year plan to push for a greater share of the point of sale market, particularly in England, in which it has been active since 2003.

Alan Carson, Northridge Finance

Jared Fortune: How is your time and the company’s business divided and managed between NIIB and Northridge?

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Alan Carson: Well it’s all under the one roof, in central Belfast, here. The NIIB business is very Northern Ireland orientated and the Northridge business is very Great Britain orientated but everything sits under the one heading.

Obviously, from a sales point of view, we have a Northern Ireland regional manager, a north of England regional manager, and so on, and those guys are coming to report to me.

We’ve a big share in Northern Ireland, a medium share in Scotland, and a small share of the huge market in England. But, ultimately, we do more volume and business in England and Scotland than Northern Ireland so the bigger part of the business is now Northridge.

JF: What’s the market and business been like for Northridge since the start of 2011?

AC: We’ve seen things up quite a bit in 2011. Again, we’re up on 2011 during 2012. We found Q2 2012 to be fairly challenging but we’re looking forward to continued improvement.

JF: Why has it been quite challenging?

AC: I suppose, in general, the market has been challenging this year. Finance volumes are up through dealerships as we know, and we’ve seen that in the recent press, but probably the percentage being written through independent finance, well, that cake is getting a little bit smaller.

 It means guys like ourselves have to work that little bit harder and try to find the various niches, etc, to write as much volume as we can.

JF: What’s it been like for independent lenders in general?

AC: I would say it’s been a challenge. It’s difficult for me as they’ve all got their own story but I’d say the motor market in general has been challenged over the last couple of years.

Speaking specifically about Northridge, we’re reasonably pleased with the way it’s gone. You obviously always want to strive for a little bit more but we would probably have taken where we are now, at this stage, at the start of the year.

JF: Last year NIIB began a five-year expansion plan for the profile of Northridge among English dealerships. How’s that going?

AC:We have increased our number of supporting accounts but then at the same time, we have increased the number of field people that we have in the business. We recruited five or six additional field people booked in the last three or four months, so we’re starting to see the rewards of that.

New car registrations by region, past six months

JF: So do you think more people are coming to Northridge for finance over time?

AC:Definitely. We are growing our volumes; growing up through the existing quality supporters we’ve had for some time and growing a number of supporting accounts.

That very much is the plan for our business; you can’t just get support from your existing supporters, you need to drive them and that’s why the additional number of field people is obviously helping with that.

JF: Do you think the industry is over the worst of PPI?

AC:PPI wasn’t something we were involved in, in any great way. We never really relied or concentrated on that income in the past.

Therefore, as an issue or problem to our particular businesses, NIIB and Northridge, it’s not giving us any major concerns at all, because we do very little of it, but the vast majority of the claims we get or letters don’t have proper protection.

You’ve got to deal with it but, personally, to our business, it’s not an issue because of the very small percentage we ever do. I would imagine it’s possibly causing some others some major concerns.

JF: How did the NIIB plan to launch an improved technology offering in the second half of 2011 go?

AC:It went really well. It took us longer to get it in place than we thought, as is the case with any initiative like that. It’s still very early days yet. The feedback has been very, very good.

We’ve actually featured some advertisements and editorials in various magazines with specific feedback as to what our customers are saying about it.

The feedback has been very positive in terms of the terms of use, the speed in which you can input on it, and you can adapt it to suit yourself, so you’re getting proper feedback to the dealers on the information they’re looking for.

We featured an advert for it recently and quoted three large customers what it did for them.

JF: What does the product do?

AC:The product is our new online proposal system. Rather than a dealer fax a proposal, which may have been the case in the past, or propose it over our older system, it was a brand new system.

It was designed to capture the data and get it turned around very quickly and ease the deal for the dealer, and allow them to print the documentation and so on, so that was helping very much.

Obviously, it allows us less manual input which means we can concentrate on improving the service in other areas like dealer support facilities, for instance, or dealer payout facilities, so you can use that resource elsewhere.

JF: How are the stats looking?

AC:We’ve increased the number over our proposal system by probably about 70%, so it’s a big difference. The system we had was well past its sell-by date.

We’re getting a large percentage of dealers starting to use it.

Alongside the positive feedback, it’s looking good. It’s partly to do with the system being slick and easy to use and partly to do with it being long overdue.

JF: So with so much acceleration going on with that system, were the double-digit growth plans stated in 2011, feasible for 2012?

AC: We have achieved that in 2011 and we will definitely achieve that in 2012.

JF: What are your plans for the rest of 2012?

AC:Well, a little bit of the same. We want to bring out some innovative products towards the end of the year. There’s not an awful lot on it but it’s to do with giving dealers value around training for some of their senior executives or perhaps sales people within their organisation.

We’re looking at a very similar plan and what we can do to add value. We wouldn’t use it as an income resource; rather it’s about adding value to all you do. We would also plan to grow the number of users on our joint-venture proposition.

There is a superb facility there to enhance penetration even more without it impacting on the manufacture commitments dealers have.

And that’s an exciting thing: You’ve got a product that’s able to undercut what others have and create finance penetration for you.

It doesn’t steal away from the things you’ve got, which is a big thing when you’re an independent, you have to work for those manufacturer tie-ups and you can’t accept the others too much.