When Scott and Fiona Roberts met 18 years ago, they became embroiled in competitive rivalry, and it’s this incessant striving to achieve which has since served them well, not only as husband and wife, but as business partners.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
This quote by Steve Jobs, made famous in Apple’s ‘Think Differently’ campaign, is impossible to miss as I walk into the boardroom at IBN Direct, where I am meeting founders Scott and Fiona Roberts – and it suitably sets the scene.
Scott and Fiona are round pegs in square holes, they are definitely not fond of rules, they are pushing the human race forward and if you ask me, they’re genius.
After almost 30 years combined working in banking and finance, and recognising there was a niche in the market, they tackled the risk head-on, although as Scott reassures me, it’s a calculated risk.
The pair met 18 years ago, at one of the major banks, Scott was working on the Sunshine Coast and Fiona was promoted to a position in Brisbane.
“I had a string of close succession promotions to get to that role and I was very cocky and I got to the first meeting and said, ‘that’s the targets?’ Which really irritated Scott because he’d beaten all the national records and was thinking – who is this little upstart?” Fiona says with a laugh.
“We fought like cats and dogs over the first meeting but when our boss made Scott ring and apologise to me, we spent three hours on the phone.”
“That was after Fiona told the boss I was the biggest a***hole she’d ever met,” Scott pipes in.
But among the rivalry was undeniable intellectual and physical attraction.
“I distinctly remember the first day I met Scott. He was wearing a maroon shirt and a tie that had a pool game on it and I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘crap I’m not ready for this’ – I just knew there was going to be something there. And here we are 18 years later,” she says.
Initially the pair entered into a long distance relationship, Fiona living in Salisbury, Brisbane and Scott living in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland.
“It was really good for us though because we had to talk a lot more. At that point we’d both just come out of divorces and were both so raw that there was no point in pretending to be somebody we weren’t. That honestly set us up to always speak our truth,” she says.
Scott and Fiona stayed at the bank until Fiona called it quits on 31 December, 1999, having been there for 10 years and Scott followed later in February, having clocked up 15 years.
They went into finance broking with a major national aggregator, where they became joint regional managers for the Sunshine Coast.
Scott then went on to become the state manager.
“We had one of the strongest states but they didn’t accept that Queensland was going so well because of the way we were running it,” says Fiona, “even though we were performing really well, they wanted us to operate by Sydney rules.”
Eventually, Fiona left and went to work for another bank, and again Scott was hot on her heels and resigned not long after. But instead, he walked into a recruiting agency, where they had a ready-made position as state manager for a rural finance company.
“Rural funding was totally different to anything we’d ever done before,” she says. “There were four major aggregators in Australia at that time, and we had a lot of people contacting us about private funding and solicitor funds and everyone kept saying, ‘no it’s dodgy’, but it’s not – you just have to have the right people and the right processes. You just need to be ethical and transparent.
“So Scott retained the contacts no one wanted anything to do with. He could see the niche in the market, and after spending six months in rural funding, decided it wasn’t for him, and went out and started his own business, Independent Broker Network.”
But in 2012, they had to “do a KFC” and go through an expensive rebranding because of the new ASIC laws preventing the word ‘independent’ in any marketing, and they became IBN.
“I always knew we’d be successful, because we’re both driven, I don’t think we settle for second best, and I don’t think we’re happy to be mediocre – we really strive to be the best at what we do”
“My first deal was highly complex and I knew which funder was going to do it,” says Scott. “It was a highly specialised sand mining deal, which no mainstream lender would touch, and I managed to set that loan and give myself a $50,000 pay day a couple of weeks later. Then for six months, I played a lot of golf and worked on how to structure our business.”
At the time, Scott and Fiona were working from home, finally earning the money they wanted, with the lifestyle they wanted and enjoying raising their now seven-year-old son Sam.
But incredibly, and mainly due to Scott’s business acumen through the GFC crisis, their business was growing at a rapid rate and three years ago, they were pushed to set up an office with their first employee in tow, a business development manager who had previously been Fiona’s boss.
“I went kicking and screaming to my first employee, but I found the more people I employed, the more it freed up my time to increase our income,” says Scott.
“We’d had fairly rapid growth in one year, we doubled what we did the year before and then we tripled that again the next year, so for us there was a lot we had to fine tune, in a very short space of time.”
With their clientele growing at such a great rate, Scott also had to get used to not knowing every file as intimately as he once did.
“Our biggest challenge has been getting the business out of Scott’s head, and on to paper – into structure and processes,” says Fiona.
“You can’t grow at the rate we were growing without having some clear guidelines on how it was going to happen. It was hard on us, it was hard on our relationship.”
Scott and Fiona run their head office on the Sunshine Coast with eight staff members, while operating offices in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
“I always knew we’d be successful, because we’re both driven, I don’t think we settle for second best, and I don’t think we’re happy to be mediocre – we really strive to be the best at what we do,” says Fiona.
At the time of our interview, Scott says he’s about to sign off on a deal that will quadruple their business and give them a strong presence interstate. But with that success needs to be a balanced lifestyle and that is something Scott and Fiona pride themselves on.
“We work hard to make ours a workplace of choice, we pay our staff well and we give them lots of benefits,” she says. “In return we have staff members who turn up early for work and go the extra mile all the time, so they’re totally invested in our business.”
Scott and Fiona complement each other perfectly – he is the ideas man, while she can implement those ideas into the marketplace.
“There hasn’t been a time when we haven’t worked together, so there’s always been a level of professional respect,” says Fiona.
“And we do believe we can change the world. By changing ourselves, we’ve changed the way the finance industry looks at private funding.”
IBN specialises in “commercial, development and short term business loans” and boasts one of the largest portfolios of private commercial funders in Australia.
“Most of our clients are very good clients, they just don’t fit into a particular bank policy,” says Scott.
“To give you an idea, most mainstream funders will ask for pre sales for developments. But for somebody who has a development, rather than selling their units or houses off the plan, which will reduce the price they can get for it, they’ll come to us and we’ll do the funding without those pre sales so they can have something that people can walk through. This means they can not only start their project sooner, with fewer hurdles, but also turn a bigger profit at the end.”
It’s no accident Scott and Fiona’s business has flourished, in the last 18 months they’ve introduced some of their personal philosophies to the workplace – like that message on the boardroom wall, burning essential oils in the office to help focus staff, and playing music to lift the mood.
“We believe how we live our life outside of work is the way we should be living our life at work too,” says Scott.
“We now do weekends better than we’ve ever done them before – you have to, you need down time,” Fiona adds.
“Most of the time Scott will be in the office by 7am and quite often I’ll get out of bed at 5am and start doing my work emails before Sam gets out of bed. Once I’ve had dinner I’m sitting down and doing more emails in the evening, so you have to be able to do weekends.”
Scott and Fiona have also integrated Sam into the business, he has his own little desk in Dad’s office, he has his own IBN shirts and occasionally comes along to conferences with them. Sam is a very bright kid, when he was six-years-old he was designing his own developments on Minecraft and is in the process of designing a website.
“But we balance that too, he plays a lot of golf with me,” Scott says, “every day we go and hit balls in the backyard – we’re lucky we’ve got a pretty big backyard, although he’s coming close to clearing the back fence now!”
Scott and Fiona also try to instill their morals and values until Sam reaches an age when he makes his own choices.
Always the entrepreneur, when Scott was 10 years old, he would pick and sell bucket-loads of grapefruit, or push the lawn mower around, looking for a lawn that needed to be mowed – filling a niche in the market.
“We’re trying to instill that into Sam, you don’t have to be given pocket money, you can think outside the square and work it out,” says Fiona.
“If I wanted something I had to go and earn the money to get it,” Scott says. “I grew up in a household, with my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother – it’s a different upbringing when your house is full of women.
“My whole family came from a working class background, so if you wanted to eat, you raised your own cattle, you grew your own vegetables, you didn’t waste anything. My grandmother had a big part in my upbringing, there was never a bit of food that was wasted, to the point she’d keep mouldy cheese because there was edible cheese in the middle.”
While Sam has had a “pretty cushy life” due in large part to Scott and Fiona’s desire to make sure he didn’t do it as hard as Scott did growing up, they’re balancing that by making sure he has a good work ethic.
And as they watch their little prodigy grow into what I can only imagine will be a successful businessman, Scott and Fiona are embarking on some exciting personal, business and charity ventures. It’s all hands on deck at the Roberts residence.