My Biggest Mistake: I was slow to start a success

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The Independent Online
DR ROGER GEWOLB, 55, a Chicago merchant banker, came to Britain in 1974 and set up Investors Lease Management, providing structuring and advisory services to banks and corporations. He bought the motor finance company British Credit Trust from the Bank of Ireland in 1994 and last September sold a majority stake to Nikko Europe. He remains chief executive.

MY WORST mistake was being over-cautious. Being a lawyer by trade, I took a long time to analyse the motor finance product and when we finally launched, we were deluged with business. Since last September, our business has increased: we were lending pounds 50,000 a week then, and we'll soon be lending pounds 1m a week.

BCT goes back 80 years - it started by financing London's black cabs - and nine years ago, it was the No1 used car lender in the UK. It was the largest sub-prime lender, serving people who were not the first choice of high street lenders. It built up a lot of goodwill during the miners' strike of the mid-1980s, saying to those who borrowed: "Pay us when you can."

At BCT, we specialise in people who have some kind of credit problem but who are potentially good customers. Our business comes from brokers, who help car dealers to process loan applications; and from finance companies who pass us their rejects and don't want "adverse" business. We pick our deals carefully which keeps the arrears and bad debts very low.

I began building a team of people, but I waited too long. I was extremely cautious about training them and we had plenty of dry runs. By the time we were ready, the market was waiting for us. When we hit it, we never had to make adjustments. Since September, we have grown from 15 staff to 60.

In this country, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who will lend at a reasonable rate to those people who have a county court judgment against them. It was still unknown territory. It was a huge untapped market, worth pounds 30bn to pounds 40bn, which was being ignored. I can't complain because we're tremendously successful, but maybe we could have started earlier and had a flatter growth curve, rather than having to work 90-hour weeks. We are roaring ahead now.

Interview by

Rachelle Thackray