1. Explain how you identify a new business opportunity.
Although Cherry Lending & Finance founder Nikki Berzin has had a colourful career history, including time at Mitre 10, ANZ Bank and even the Country Fire Authority, she’s retained some key lessons sourced from each of these pathways – one of which being that in the corporate world, employees can be limited with what they can do to help their customers.
With her own experiences in the Country Fire Authority and her husband’s two decade career in the Victorian Police Force, Nikki was acutely aware of the unique work and home life that emergency service workers had, and how the banking system was failing to address these gaps. Still wildly passionate about the finance industry, her plan was to eventually launch her very own business within this field, and Cherry Lending and Finance was born in 2017.
In what can be an extremely loud industry, Nikki identified a business opportunity to do things differently via focusing on the emergency services community, and applying a sense of warmth to the customer’s journey that they weren’t necessarily receiving from the big banks. Instead of saying no, Nikki’s approach to being an ethical mortgage broker is all about turning negatives into positives, and ultimately helping her clients to put their best financial foot forward through true commitment and collaboration.
By avoiding the ‘hustle’ mentality of the mortgage broking industry and instead opting to educate and empower her clients, Nikki focused on her beloved emergency services community, and soon expanded into the often overlooked demographic of first home buyers. Today, she still sees her earliest clients, as they continue to return to her for refinancing, investment property purchases, and even when they refer their friends and family to her. In turn, there are now even second and third generation Cherry clients.
2. Outline the tactics used to grow your firm from start-up, win new business, gain market share, and overcome competition to offer the best service possible in 2021.
In the early days of Cherry Lending, Nikki knew that it was important to avoid trying to be everything to everyone. Instead, she honed in on two particular groups of applicants: first home buyers, and emergency service workers.
As such, 98% of Cherry’s client base are now word of mouth referrals, and 70% of the business now stems from the emergency services. Nikki has partnered with other operators that specifically worked with this sector, such as Luke Lawlor from Emergency Service Property Advisors from the Mornington Peninsula region.
Partnerships such as this have generated significant referrals, and Nikki is all too happy to specialise in a small portion of the market if it means she can continue to generate happy customers, as her knowledge in how to effectively provide assistance for this community, who they should apply for a loan with, and how to best present their application is unparalleled.
In partnership with her strategically simple yet memorable branding, the latest introduction to the Cherry Lending & Finance team is ‘AVA’ – an AI driven customer service tool that will not only provide assistance for web visitors, but will also become a part of the ongoing marketing strategy.
The intention was to build a personality for the brand, with a scope that goes far beyond just a logo. Over time, the AI capabilities of ‘Ava’ will change how Nikki interacts with her clients in a virtual environment, and is ultimately a tool to help ‘future proof’ Cherry Lending & Finance.
To begin, ‘Ava’ has been introduced through the form of educational content including download guides, templates, social graphics and even animated Instagram stories and reels. While she currently features across the Cherry marketing and communication channels, she will soon even be hosting her very own First Home Buyers Interactive Workshop.
3. Describe your point of difference / unique selling points and how these influenced your success.
In a male dominated industry driven by an at times aggressive mentality, Nikki has opted to take a different approach. With only 10% of mortgage brokers being women, Nikki prefers nurturing over pushing, and this unique customer service experience has proved to be a breath of fresh air when compared to how her competitors do business, and takes enormous pride in breaking down barriers when it comes to perceptions of the finance industry.
While her logo and branding themes do indicate that Cherry Lending & Finance does loans differently, Nikki’s efforts linked to education and financial literacy have seen her develop as an industry thought leader and expert in the field. In fact, just a handful of her key achievements in this arena within the last twelve months alone include the following –
- Receiving ‘Elite Broker’ status with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia
- Guest speaker on the Kickass Radio podcast, a platform designed to empower more women to join the finance and mortgage broking industry
- Guest speaker on The Adviser’s Elite Broker podcast, telling her story from an angle of “from firefighter to putting out financial fires”
- Guest speaker on Connective’s ‘Compliance Fit’ webinar, which had close to seven hundred attendees
- Approached by BankVic as a ‘Broker Of Choice’ to go on pilot to offer BankVic product and services
- Ongoing partnership with Emergency Services Property Advisors (ESPA) to continue to specialise in helping members of the emergency services community
- The introduction of AI enhanced technology like ‘AVA’, by using the avatar driven software to provide better customer service and enhanced marketing strategies
Through making the most of these opportunities while still delivering Cherry’s signature world class experience, the business has continued to double its volume year on year, even while being up against the big banks with significantly larger resources.
4. Demonstrate a structured approach to your entrepreneurship, with clear objectives and associated results. In addition, highlight how you have engaged best practice and innovation to achieve success.
While Nikki always had a clear objective to be different to your typical bank, another priority was to deliver exceptional customer service. Instead of focusing on clients that were in a position to borrow and were ready to do so, Nikki also ensured that nobody was left behind, and that those who instead needed guidance and education were taken care of as well.
An area that Nikki has invested heavily in to deliver these objectives is marketing. Additions such as the educational content published on the brand’s website has been able to be repurposed across social media platforms, and has proved to be a way to attract and educate potential new clients, while still engaging with and providing value for her existing ones.
When following her own blueprint linked to best practices, Nikki knew that she couldn’t manage it all on her own forever. Instead, she engaged external organisations when necessary to better assist with Cherry’s customer service experience, before going on to employ key staff before the brand needed them, yet were necessary for future growth.
To ensure that new team members would accurately represent the brand and everything Nikki had worked so hard to build, the introduction of process manuals in preparation for new recruits was also completed long before their first day.
In addition, the roll out of AVA – who can only be described as Nikki in an avatar format – will use artificial intelligence to better service online enquiries or frequently asked questions, and ultimately help to solve consumer queries without sacrificing the customer service that Cherry Lending & Finance is known for. By thoughtfully embracing technology, Nikki has been able to deliver real world results for her clients and grow the business at the same time.
5. Detail one major obstacle that you faced in the pursuit of innovation and how you overcame it.
Within the mortgage industry, Nikki believes that one of the biggest obstacles that independent operators face is being left behind. While there are thousands of other mortgage brokers operating in Australia, small businesses also have to face off against the big banks – most of which have hundreds of staff, and thousands of dollars thrown at their marketing budgets.
While it may have felt like a case of David versus Goliath, these hurdles never dissuaded Nikki from making her mark in the sector, and she embraced her unique points of difference as a means to attract clientele that may have been disengaged or detached from how large operators approach the world of finance.
Ultimately, Nikki isn’t afraid to get personal, and her strengths have proven to be what the large scale enterprises don’t offer. From her branding, her website and right down to her overall approach at doing business, Nikki actively pushed the concept of putting the customer first. Sometimes that might mean working late on a Saturday night to finalise a contract, but other times it’s as simple as remembering a client’s birthday and sending a card.
When coupled with the fact that Cherry Lending & Finance purposefully specialised in servicing the first home buyers market and emergency services community, her reputation as a long term partner in finance quickly grew, and soon overcame any concerns about losing out to the big banks. In fact, word of mouth soon grew to become her most valuable marketing tool, and her customers appeared to be all too happy to do it for free.
By sticking to her ethics while continuing with her development as an industry thought leader via guest speaking on podcasts and webinars, Nikki has discovered that her biggest challenges have proven to be not as insurmountable as once thought.