Startup Stories: JK Finance

Startup Stories: JK Finance

“Modelling a top of the line service proposition in a way that encourages clients of all backgrounds to look past price and into presence and value for money.”

Tony van de Kerkhof

A little over two years ago, two NAB bankers decided that they’d had enough with the corporate bureaucracy of a big four bank. What they’ve built in the short time since is truly inspiring. Tony van de Kerkhof and Luke Jacobson are the entrepreneurial minds behind JK Finance, a personal broking firm that makes its clients feel like they have their own private bankers at their disposal (I know this from personal experience). I caught up with Tony recently and asked him to share the JK Finance startup story.

Motivation

To say that Tony and Luke had become disillusioned with life at a big bank would be be an understatement. Whilst careful not to be too critical, when I asked Tony what motivated him to leave the NAB he lamented the fact that at a big four bank someone else got to decide which clients you could and could not help. He explains:

“One of our motivations was seeing how many people we couldn’t help because we were bound by one bank’s policies. We were vulnerable if head office decided that it didn’t want to extend finance to a certain type of person or a particular type of business. When the bank shifted the goal posts there would be people who we could help that no longer had our support.”

Listening to Tony talk of those experiences resonated with me for two reasons: Firstly, it brought to mind some of the testimony given before the ongoing banking Royal Commission. How many people described feeling like the banks had changed the rules on them for no apparent reason? The second reason Tony’s comments rang true was because, as a client of his, I have seen first hand the lengths that he goes to when looking after his clients. Needless to say, the “profit before people” attitude of the big banks does not resonate with a person as customer focused as Tony.

So, after growing tired of seeing good ideas being ignored in favour of quick fixes and short term solutions to systemic problems, Tony teamed up with fellow banker Luke to establish JK Finance.

Early days

I’ve heard it said numerous times that most brokers seek the easy transaction – the residential acquisition or refinance, with no complications. That’s what generates the transaction volume that allows brokers (particularly those within a franchise system) to develop a profitable loan book. The JK Finance philosophy that I have experienced is diametrically opposite to such an attitude, Tony explains:

“The JK Finance philosophy is focused on providing expert level borrowing advice and service in partnership with the best players in the wider industry to every person who needs it, when they need it.”

What that means in the real world is that Tony and Luke embrace the difficult transactions, and relish in the opportunity to find each and every client a tailored finance solution that suits their goals. In the current lending environment, with the banks applying a lending squeeze, this “can do” attitude has helped the JK Finance team to thrive. Interestingly, there was such high demand for their premium service that they had to take on additional staff almost immediately and outgrew their office 3 times in their first 6 months, making regular moves into ever larger spaces in the business centre they occupy.

Tony van de Kerkhof
Tony van de Kerkhof

Approach to business

Clients

When you spend even a small amount of time with the guys, you can see how passionate they are about what they do. Over a few drinks late last year, I remember Luke was brimming with excitement as he told me about a transaction that the big four banks just would not touch – and about how he was able to package up a solution involving a number of non-bank lenders.

This client centric model has allowed them to build strong and stable relationships with referral partners, with Luke developing entrenched relationships with accounting firms and Tony building on his ties within the Chinese community (he lived in China for 4 years and is fluent in Mandarin).

Strategy

Given how relaxed they seem around each other, and talking about their startup, I asked Tony what makes a partnership like theirs successful:

“It’s like a marriage! We complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, I am prone to fly off the handle, whilst Luke is very measured and controlled.”

Added to that, the guys display a maturity beyond their years in the way they have gone about building their business. Unlike many startups, they did not try to do it all themselves when it came to putting in place a business structure and strategy:

“We had a good accountant and he helped us implement a good business structure. We have adopted a model that divides the financial rewards on proportion to the contribution we make to the business, so no one can feel like anything is unfair.”

Documents

This approach fit in nicely with their adoption of comprehensive partnership documents that document their business relationship, a process that was invaluable to them at the early stage of their startup:

“We spent 3 hours on the phone going over the basic particulars of our agreement, what’s fair what’s not. People might think it’s awkward to have this confronting conversation of “What If’s,” and if they find it uncomfortable I can’t recommend sitting down with a (potentially bearded) lawyer more. Remember, if you can’t have that conversation or put it into writing you probably shouldn’t be doing business with this person…Also, what about if someone dies? How does their estate benefit, or not, from the business? That’s the stuff the agreement is for, not just the day to day business operations. If you can’t think long term then ask yourself if the business partner is the right one for you.”

Something else Tony said is also incredibly important and never discussed openly: your spouses must get along as well, given how much time you will spend in each other’s company. Having acted on my fair share of partnership disputes, it never ceases to amaze me how many of those started out as personal disagreements (sometimes involving spouses) which then grew to affect the business.

Challenges

When I asked Tony about the challenges of running a startup, his response was so comprehensive that I feel compelled to quote him in full, he says:

“The hardest thing is balancing your passion for work, with your responsibilities and obligations at home. Having a business partner to share the burden is invaluable, and I honestly don’t think I could have done this on my own. Another challenge is you cannot get comfortable, you have to keep innovating and moving, momentum is death. If you stick to one path too long you can end up irrelevant, but differentiating between good change and change for the sake of change is hard, and often you’re too busy working IN the business to work ON the business.

Interestingly, when I asked about the current lending squeeze and the uncertainty of the Royal Commission, that did not register as a challenge in Tony’s book. He’s focused on the opportunity that lies ahead. In Tony’s view, change and complexity presents them with an opportunity, particularly as older brokers exit the market due to those changes.

Rewards

Having left the NAB because of its bureaucratic nature, it was no surprise to hear what Tony felt was most rewarding about running his own business:

“Seeing positive results from the changes and things you do in the business is the best. A tweak to process and you double volume? Yes please. Now that we’re through the hardest part, also spending time with my wife and kids more than I ever could have working for someone else, is super rewarding too.”

Luke Jacobson
Luke Jacobson

The Future

Not content to rest on their laurels, Tony and Luke have also founded their second startup – the Finance Family. The Finance Family was born from Tony and Luke’s desire to help people get into broking, particularly those with a desire to leave the big banks. The motivation is to allow brokers to work independently as much as they need to and be remunerated fairly for it.

“For us, we see it as a way to help others who may be in a similar position to the one we were, while keeping the branding separate to protect the goodwill and work done already in JK Finance, and also grow what we do in ways that the two of us can’t do alone.”

Professional advisors

Finally, I asked Tony what he valued most from his own professional advisors:

“We value honesty most, as well as a level of mutual respect. But honestly we also value good people, who are who they are and aren’t afraid of being that way. Most of our referral partners are good friends as well, and we are just as comfortable catching up over a drink as we are doing business.”

Reach out

Tony and Luke would love to hear from any readers interested in getting in touch. You can reach the JK Finance team at:

Online: https://jk.finance/

Email:hello@jk.finance

Phone: 03 8769 5601