Profile - Ian Cornelius: Home truths for man behind one of industry’s ‘best-kept secrets’

He fell in love with Yorkshire and now Ian Cornelius wants to make a name for HML. Peter Edwards spoke to him.

HE is in there with former Test captain Michael Vaughan, Labour leader Ed Miliband and salsa singer Kid Creole.

While Ian Cornelius hasn’t played cricket for England, shouted at David Cameron over the dispatch box or – as far as we know – crooned his way through hits like Stool Pigeon and Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy, he is another high-flyer who made his name in Yorkshire after being smitten by God’s own county.

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For the Durham-born Mr Cornelius, the epiphany came on a sunlit early morning in the Dales when he was staying at the Red Lion, a former 16th-century ferryman’s inn in Burnsall. Out for a walk before breakfast, he realised he could happily make his home in this neck of the woods.

The best part of a decade later, and he is director of savings and unsecured lending at HML, Britain’s largest financial outsourcing company and part of Skipton Building Society.

Mr Cornelius, a keen gardener and conservationist, has more in common with his other adopted Yorkshiremen, however, than just their home. The executive, the cricketer and the Doncaster North MP all reached the top of their professions – the singer’s highest place was number two in the singles charts – with a mix of talent, grit and calm under fire.

Never can Mr Cornelius have needed that more than in October 2008, when paralysis in the wholesale money markets left his then employer, Bradford & Bingley, staring into the abyss. As director of retail products, he had been responsible for managing relationships with 2.9m customers, but now half of the group was about to be taken into state hands.

“My bit of the business got sold to Santander,” he said.

“It was a bizarre experience, I got called in Friday night or Saturday morning. They said we are going to be nationalised but Gordon Brown wanted to create some value for the taxpayer and wanted to sell the business before Monday morning. ‘He does not want another Northern Rock’.

“On the Friday, I was working for B&B and on Monday I was working for Santander.”

Not for long, however. The Spanish bank had indicated that its senior roles would be in London and Milton Keynes, Mr Cornelius said, and he did not want to uproot his family, so he took redundancy in February 2009, and set up as a business consultant.

Less than a year later, however, and he had a seat once again in a British boardroom, having been hired by Virgin Money, in October 2009.

In a busy 14 months as director of banking, he led both the negotiations to buy Church House Trust, the first step in Virgin’s ambitions to offer a full banking service, and the commercial assessment for the ultimately unsuccessful bid to buy the 318 branches which the European Commission forced Royal Bank of Scotland to sell after its bailout by British taxpayers.

In January of this year, he joined HML. It was not a leap into the unknown, however, because he already knew the business from his time in the early part of the last decade with Capital One, which outsourced to SML, sister company of HML (and now part of it).

The Skipton firm, which already provides outsourced mortgage administration services to more than 30 UK and Irish financial institutions and has about £43bn of assets under management, plans to become a “one-stop shop” for the administration of savings and lending products. Last year it, teamed up with Harrogate-based Nostrom Group, a software specialist, to target unsecured lending.

The figures Mr Cornelius cites to show the total size of the markets – £1.2 trillion for UK mortgages, £1 trillion for savings and £200bn for unsecured lending – show it can be lucrative for whichever outsourcing company is able to grab a slice of it.

“HML are almost the best-kept secret – one of the biggest financial outsourcing companies in the UK and Europe, but if you ask people in the market, they don’t know a huge amount about us.

“There is enormous potential to make HML bigger and better known. HML is quite well known in mortgages but mortgages have had a tough time over the past couple of years. But HML have grown a really strong operational capability – 1,500 people, invested a lot with systems and they have developed since Brian Brodie took over as managing director.”

Not everything at HML has gone completely smoothly, however. The company, which also has offices in Glasgow, Derry and Padiham, near Burnley, made around 200 redundancies last year.

It also recorded a “small loss” during the first half of 2010, according to David Cutter, chief executive of the Skipton, when it had to shoulder the costs of restructuring and moving into a new £16m headquarters in the Dales town, but is believed to have reached break-even point for the full year,

With Britain’s recovery looking uncertain, and the economy contracting in Q4 last year, there are still clouds on the horizon. HML has predicted 2,467 home repossessions in Yorkshire this year, with the impact of public sector cuts and continuing job losses being felt more in the second half, but Mr Cornelius is not a double-dipper.

He said tax rises and rising prices mean UK plc faces a “tough time” over the next three to six months but, even if we fall back into recession, “it will be short-lived”.

Now HML is pushing for growth. It had “a handful of product propositions” from potential new entrants to the banking market on the table when Mr Cornelius joined the firm, and it has received more approaches since then.

Its pitch is that it provides good quality management, such as collections, customer services and new lending, of sub-prime and specialist mortgages for affordable sums and, to back that up, HML’s website is adorned by endorsements of its technology, systems and leadership from the all-powerful ratings agencies, Fitch, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s.

“How do you improve savings and the cost of savings?” Mr Cornelius said.

“Most banks and building societies have under-invested in savings and savings technology, and it is difficult to get new products and good products out quickly. They have clunky legacy systems. If they change, they can offer much better systems.”

Mr Cornelius said HML’s specialisms means it can offer more sophisticated systems than those of banks or building societies, which are “trying to do everything”.

“We are focused on operational excellence. From my perspective, we do that better than I have seen anywhere else – dealing with customers over the phone and over the internet. A lot of banks and building societies are looking at outsourcing but there are relatively few places to go.”

Mr Cornelius hopes they will end up coming to Yorkshire, following the example of so many other bigger names. They never lived to regret it.

Ian Cornelius

Title: Director of savings and unsecured lending

Date-of-birth: 11/02/69

Education: Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, University of Manchester

First job: Credit analyst, Esso Petroleum

Car driven: BMW

Last book read: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson

Favourite film: House of Games, directed by David Mamet

Favourite holiday destination: Tuscany

Most proud of: My family