A year ago, JMMB Express Finance opened the doors to its first branch in Chaguanas. Today, with four branches in its growing network, Elson James, chief executive officer believes in the brand and his team. JMMB Express Finance is a separately registered entity from JMMB Bank, with the ability to offer lending for up to one year, up to the sum of $40,000. Its target customer is the person looking for alternative finance, especially when they cannot get it from the traditional banks.
“The fact is people are borrowing and they may not be getting the funds from the banks. They would go to Courts. If you want a fridge or TV, you can get it there on credit. Same thing with Standards. Or if you need $5,000 fast, Island Finance did a fantastic job over the last ten years creating that market. It's just that you would pay through your teeth when it comes to fees and interest rates. I also think the market has matured to a point now between people becoming more knowledgeable through social media. There’s access to financial education and advice.”
James said people between the ages of 25 and 45 is the company’s main target. “We are working with people who have a full-time job and are really trying to get their head above water.” And he knows what he’s talking about, not only because he was the company’s first employee but he has quite an illustrious career in finance both here and abroad. He was the regional credit director of Unicomer (which owns Courts, Lucky Dollar and Ashley Furniture) for five years. He looked after their 14 territories in the Caribbean, specifically on the credit side of the business. Before that he headed up Island Finance for three years. He also had roles in Citibank Trinidad, New York and Japan, as well as American Express in New York. “I moved back to Trinidad about ten years ago, I went back with Citi and then started my foray in consumer finance.”
With all his experience, James sees success as a brand or company coming from two sources. The first being to have competitive products and services and the second, for the brand to have soul. “When it comes to the product, we offer half the interest rates of our competitors. So that's off the top. The biggest thing for me is that JMMB has a soul and I know it sounds cheesy, but it makes such a difference and that's the biggest thing for me and my Express Finance team. Everything that we do, we have to do it with with soul.” For his team, it’s not always about the money but what’s best for the customer. He is committed to encouraging financial health and believes that every bit of credit helps improve credit score, even if you have bad credit.
“I think that there are a lot of people who don't even know that their credit is still being recorded. It’s only until it comes to haunt them and then it's bad. So many people make decisions when they are young and then you're really ready to do something serious like get a car or your first home. You go into one of the big banks and they say, no you have bad credit. Maybe you had a credit card that you didn't pay and that's still following you around. So one is the coaching to understand that from day one, even if it's a small start, it’s important to build good credit and to show you how.”
James acknowledges that within the traditional banking system people can borrow if their credit score is good. “And you get absolutely nothing, if your credit score is bad. So for us, it's one, to do coaching, the training and the educating of it all; and two, we help you to build it back. So you didn't pay off that credit card or your loan, we'll start you back with a smaller loan. We may speak to your employer and ask whether they would mind paying us through a payroll deduction or you open an account with us and then we'll take the money out. So this mitigates the risk for us, while we help you. And this allows you to start building again. Once you do that for nine months or so, then we can discuss giving you a larger loan. You can't erase the bad credit but you can build better credit by putting good credit on top of it. So if you have a jar with dirty water, the only way you can get clean water is by fulling it with clean water.” James believes in working with that segment of society that needs financial support and education. He sees an altruistic side in it as well. “Of course we are here to make money but we really want to be with our customers through every stage in life. Even the bad phases. And we know that we have to give to get.”
JMMB Express Finance now has 38 employees spread across four branches around the country. “We opened four branches in our first year. We will probably open our Tobago branch within the next two months. We are just about to sign the lease. So the next year is really about making sure that that process continues and really driving our online segment. We've done two additional parts of strategy for the loan business. One is that you can apply for the loans online. You can complete the application form and when you submit it actually goes straight to the credit team. So if you applied at 8 am, your application is there before the branch opens at 8.30 am. We really want to continue to do that so that you can do the full process from application to funds disbursement without ever having to come in to a branch. So you can see the money in your account and you've never stepped foot in the bank. So that’s what we are seeing for year two.”
James said one of the board members recently asked him if he still believes in the model that was Express Finance, a model that he pitched to JMMB Bank back in March 2018 and it simply said yes to it. And he still believes in that idea he pitched. “We don’t have to dig out the eyes of our customers. That’s the one thing that makes us unique and it is what is a priority for us here at Express Finance. We treat people like people. And everyone is different with different circumstances. It has been very rewarding in this first year.”
He remembers opening the first branch in Chaguanas, and seeing his idea come to life. “That first week, the volume was incredible. And that team was still small and even though we worked extremely hard and it was stressful, we felt so proud to see the first branch open and the reaction and to start helping people from day one. The biggest part for me that I'm really, really proud of is the team. I've seen the team grow in the last year and that's precious. I also have to thank JMMB because we had the idea and it wasn't that JMMB sought me out. I pitched it to the company and they decided to give it a try. And we started to build out branches, the team grew and I pitched every new staff member on what I saw as a guaranteed success. We were essentially a start up with big dreams and we are on track to achieve them.”
James says not everyone with bad credit is bad. “Yes we have fraudsters and we try to weed them out. But I genuinely believe that nine out of ten people have full intention to pay back and sometimes life just gets in the way for the vast majority of them. And then it goes back to that same coaching to understand that firstly you shouldn’t over borrow just because life can get in the way. It’s about being open with our customers and vice-versa so that they are educated on what their options are, and we help them where we can to not only provide the funds they need but improve their financial health.”
James, 46, is married and enjoys cooking and singing. “I’m a tenor and I’m a big Lydians fan.” Food is also a big passion for James. “When I finished my MBA at Penn State University, I then went to New York where I was stationed for two years then took up an assignment in Tokyo for two years.” Of course, his time in Asia was all about the food. His favourite sushi here (having eaten sushi in Tokyo) is at the Hyatt and he says bang for buck, it’s More Vino. “Even though I am back here, I still travel to get my fill of different things. So Asia for me is the food, New York I love for theatre, Miami I just go do some shopping and come back but after two or three days I'm always, always ready to come back home.”