Athena gears up for growth

  • By Christine St Anne

Athena financial chief marketing officer Natalie Dinsdale talks to AB+F about disrupting an industry laggard and the hit that comes with delivering for the customer.

With over 18 years experience in marketing – a bulk spent in financial services, Dinsdale already knew that home loans were the “laggards in financial services”. 

She joined Athena in March 2018, as employee number eight but, Dinsdale also recognised that the start-up was well positioned to disrupt the industry. 

According to Dinsdale, there were already a number of neobanks with similar propositions, but Athena’s focus was only on home loans.  

“Athena wanted to completely change the way consumers interacted with their home loan provider. 

“They really wanted to innovate all parts of the home loan journey for people. That was very exciting for me.” 

As a self-described ‘challenger brand girl,”, Dinsdale is a big believer in challenger businesses. 

“It is about being really brave and different and doing things that are completely at the opposite end of the spectrum to the main banks.”  

Born in the Caribbean Dinsdale moved to the UK when she was 11. 

Her first experience working for a challenger business was with UK online bank Egg. That gave me my first taste. 

Now living in Australia for 15 years, Dinsdale calls herself an addict. 

“I am totally addicted to challenger brands.” Her background leadership marketing roles with Tyro as well as the co-founder and head of marketing at UBank – a digital-only bank, started up by the National Australia Bank. 

“I love the challenge of coming into a business and doing something different. 

"I love the fact that you must be really brave with what you are doing. 

"And I love that hit. When you have an instinct about something, or you have uncovered a cool customer insight that you then develop into a strategy that is embraced by customers, that is what appeals to me.  Challenger brands are unique, they are different. This is me."

One feature that has garnered mass appeal is Athena’s loan-to-value (LVR) pricing where customers are actually rewarded for paying down their loans faster. 

Athena’s three LVR tiers offer a lower rate based on how much a borrower pays down their loan. It’s a feature that has resonated with customers according to RFi Group research. 

Shared values 

Importantly, Athena walks the walk on the customer front. When the Reserve Bank cut the cash rate in March in response to the unfolding health pandemic, Athena was the first mover to cut the rate of its home loan. 

This approach reinforces Athena’s benefits and its mission in a highly competitive market.  

“We live and breathe our value proposition which is helping customers pay down their home loans faster. It’s not what we like to call ‘lipstick on a piggy bank’. 

By this, Dinsdale means that Athena’s initiatives are not just a marketing ploy but are converted into products and services.  

While there is LVR pricing in the market, Athena is the only lender to offer this automatically.  

Athena also has an “automatic rate match” which promises not to give new customers better rates than existing customers. 

Athena wanted to completely change the way consumers interacted with their home loan provider… That was very exciting for me 

“We know that on average for the big banks, there is a good 50 basis points difference between the back-book and the front-book. 

“We are always thinking of ways that we can live and breathe and demonstrate that proposition to the market.”  

In terms of branding, RFi Group research highlights that there is awareness of Athena among borrowers. 

Overall, there is growing awareness of non-bank lenders as highlighted in this issue’s cover story. 

Interestingly, RFi Group research also shows that a sizeable proportion of borrowers think Athena to be an online bank. This sort of perception also comes with the expectation that such lenders also offer better rates. 

Dinsdale notes that Athena is digital, so it is not too surprising that borrowers see it as an online business.

Importantly she adds that awareness is growing, and people are recognising that Athena is very much a business just focused on home loans which is “where we intend to stay”.  

RFi Group research also shows that offset accounts hold huge appeal to borrowers, and it is a customer want that Dinsdale has taken on board. In fact, Athena plans to offer an offset account. 

“We constantly survey our customers. That has been the number one feature they have been asking for.” 

Another key feature demanded by customers is an app which will also be rolled out. Going forward, she sees opportunities in open banking which will make the process of refinancing easier but with privacy concerns any features rolled out from a “tech-led organisation” will be considered.  

Dinsdale was also nominated for Female Fintech Leader of the Year in the 2020 annual Finnies Awards by FinTech Australia.

As part of the leadership team, it is “easy to motivate an amazing team of people.” For Dinsdale, the key to her team’s success is underpinned by shared values. 

“Everyone who comes on board is highly motivated. 

They believe in what we are doing and they can see the impact of their decisions and their actions. Everyone [at Athena] is a big believer in empowering the individual to make decisions.”  

It is also an environment that acknowledges that innovation and mistakes go hand-in-hand. 

“Everyone makes mistakes, but you can fail fast and it important to learn from that. 

“Our team is encouraged to run with ideas. I am very fortunate to have a talented team of individuals.”  

Dinsdale is also a passionate advocate for diversity and believes in a three-pronged approach to get better diversity in organisations and women in leadership. 

Firstly, change needs to be driven from the top. “There needs to be a specific mandate from a CEO to ensure that 50 percent of leaders in a business are women. We need to have that specific objective, otherwise it is not going to happen.”  

“I have worked in organisations that have had that mandate and it is really inspirational.” Women also need to be confident and put themselves forward for roles.” 

Already there is ample evidence and research that highlights that women are more reluctant to take on senior jobs compared with men. 

Dinsdale says it is also crucial for women to “have the hard conversations and speak up at meetings”. 

Importantly, too she believes that it is important that women “have the responsibility to uplift their team and support and encourage them. It is something that I really enjoy doing.”  

Athena is also in the process of assessing how the business articulates its culture and values.

“One of those values is diversity.  Not just gender diversity, but diversity across the board. I am very fortunate it is a value that  Athena also believes in.”