A tiny West Midland internet start-up firm is aiming to change the face of lending by taking on the big banks - after loaning more than £70 million in three years.
Thin Cats was set up in early 2011 by former manufacturers Kevin Caley and Peter Brown in a direct challenge to the banking sector's so-called "fat cat" mentality.
The two former Sutton Coldfield schoolfriends say their peer-to-peer business model can help transform the loans sector and bring back a 'Captain Mainwaring' approach to lending.
The duo warn that banks who ignore peer-to-peer lending, which operates as an eBay-style facility for lenders signing up for interest rates of around 10 per cent, do so at their peril as SMEs struggling for finance seek alternative sources of money.
In three-and-a-half years Thin Cats, based in a barn conversion near the small village of No Man's Heath, near Tamworth, has loaned more than £70 million to around 250 SMEs, with nearly half channelled to Midland firms.
Thin Cats operates as a wholesaler of loan funds generated by individuals or companies which provide cash to the SME sector, with investors bidding directly on UK firms vetted for suitability by 'sponsors', including former bank managers.
The internet firm is currently the second biggest of its type in the world - in a tiny sector - but the bosses say peer-to-peer lending is here to stay as banks fight to recover from the bailout crisis of 2008.
Mr Caley said: "We behave like a traditional bank. We are trying to be the Captain Mainwarings of today, without the military stuff.
"Our sponsors are there to provide advice and, if things go wrong, they have got a common interest in salvaging the situation.
"The banks are run by a new generation of managers trained to operate as committees with credit checks.
"The old ones would go out to lunch with their customers, play golf with them, they knew their foibles and they knew when to lend to them.
"Now there is a credit scoring mentality. If you do not pass the score, you do not get considered."
Mr Brown added: "They have de-skilled the role of the bank manager and have pushed it out to credit committees. Local knowledge on the ground has been lost.
"If you wanted to borrow money, you had to go to the banks - there was no other place other than the bank next door.
"Now there is all the freedom you get from the internet. Ideas have their time and this is the time for this. Banks will ignore it at their peril. The cat is out of the bag."
Mr Caley, who worked in engineering at British Leyland and Chrysler before switching to the private equity funds sector, said: "We started in January 2011 and we are now up to £70 million in loans. Equity is much more of a gamble - this is very different.
"Equity is very high risk and potentially very low returns. We got to a situation where banks were not lending and investors could not get interest on their savings and we thought what could we do about it?
"There was an item on the news about fat cat bankers and I thought we are not going to be like that - that is what we are not going to do - we will be Thin Cats.
"I understood the equity market but I didn't understand the loans market. Former bank managers and others become sponsors and work on behalf of the lenders.
"There are two of them in a team with one bank manager and they get a fee when the loan is drawn down.
"They are separate, self-employed people - we do not pay them anything - they get a fee from the borrowers.
"They do all the vetting and nobody gets on to the Thin Cats platform without the backing of the sponsor.
"Banks have been unresponsive to SMEs in recent years - there are a lot of businesses which are not being funded.
"Banks have serious balance sheet problems and cannot afford to take risks. They are battening down the hatches and trying to strengthen their balance sheets."
Peter Brown added: "We offer a possibility to participate in loans and they get a decent return. The minimum individuals can put into Thin Cats is £1,000. If you lose some money, it is your fault, because you took the decision.
"We distribute between all the lenders and that's all done by software. The borrowers never know who the lenders are."
Mr Caley said: "We are making the old system redundant. We are doing for banks what Amazon are doing for bookshops."
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