Covid loan arranger: Lewis La Torre has never been in demand
Catherine Lewis La Torre, who was appointed managing director of the British Business Bank (BBB) in September, is at the heart of the fight to keep businesses afloat in the pandemic.
The BBB manages the emergency loans offered to businesses to help them get through the crisis.
She is also at the origin of the Future Fund, which aims to help young companies with loans convertible into equity.
Focus on women: Lewis La Torre was appointed managing director of the British Business Bank in September
“We all know how important small and medium-sized businesses are to the economy and how far they will go into the recovery,” said Lewis La Torre.
The BBB, a public economic development bank, was established by the government in 2014, with the aim of increasing the supply of credit to small and medium-sized businesses to help them grow.
It is sometimes seen as the UK’s response to the hugely successful German KfW, the Kreditanstalt fur Wiederaufbau, which was set up to fund the post-war recovery.
The BBB primarily targets its assistance to companies with a turnover of up to £ 25million and does not lend directly to companies, but works through banks. The idea is that it extends access to finance to businesses that might otherwise slip through the net of commercial lenders.
Until last year, however, the BBB hovered largely under the radar.
“The profile has been raised over the past year due to the response to the Covid crisis,” explains Lewis La Torre.
“Our balance sheet has almost increased tenfold. We had a balance sheet of £ 75bn, which is an incredible number compared to where we started the year with around £ 8bn.
“The expansion is largely due to Covid loans and the Future Fund, which targets high-growth technology companies.”
The fund, now closed for applications, was announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in April.
It has offered loans of £ 125,000 to £ 5million, subject to matching funding from private investors. She dismisses criticism that the UK’s response has been slow compared to other countries.
Alison Rose, left, became CEO of Natwest in November 2019 while Debbie Crosbie, right, took over at TSB in May 2019
“We were able to do it quite quickly. Maybe we could have done it faster, but there is now £ 65bn in government guaranteed loans to over 1.5m small and medium businesses, so I think a lot of those concerns at the start disappeared.
There has also been an alarm over high levels of suspected fraud among loan seekers, with stories of crooks setting up bogus businesses to ask for debt they have no intention of paying off.
“There is an element of fraud. There has always been fraud and there will always be bad actors. There was a trade-off between rapid deployment of programs and putting in place controls against fraudulent use, ”she said.
“And we need to distinguish between fraud and businesses that have taken out loans in good faith but are unable to repay.”
Lewis La Torre joined the BBB after a 25 year career in private equity. She was born in the Rhondda Valley and still has a slight Welsh accent, although she moved to Leicester at the age of 11.
She studied economics at LSE and “accidentally” turned to venture capital when her first ambition, journalism, failed.
Life took a different turn when, while working in Brussels, she met and married a “very handsome man” from the Italian military police. The couple moved to Rome, which “meant a complete change in my carefully mapped career”. I didn’t speak Italian and had to learn very quickly.
She finally got a job in the private equity division of the Italian bank Unicredit, developing international activities. The next step was to set up a fund management company in Helsinki “with a bunch of Finns and Scandi”.
It was there that she had her daughter Vanessa, now 16 years old. “The business was growing very quickly and we decided it was a good time to have children.
“My colleagues at the time were in perfect agreement with that, it was the culture of the company.”
Welsh tech entrepreneur Anne Boden is the founder and CEO of fintech bank Starling
Lewis La Torre is very keen to help the Prime Minister’s agenda level out the poorest parts of the country and secure funding for businesses in areas that have been lacking in the past.
“We have set up a number of regional funds in the North, Midlands and South West. They provide microfinance, loans and equity and can structure the financing of individual businesses. ‘
She is also aware that businesses run by women sometimes struggle to raise the funds they need to grow, just like those run by the founders of BAME.
Does it make a difference that there are a number of female CEOs of UK banks – herself, Alison Rose at Natwest, Debbie Crosbie at TSB and Anne Boden at fintech bank Starling?
“It is very important that a group of women have reached the top, because we are role models. As women, too often we tend to say that it’s hard, that we can’t do it – but yes you can.
“We’re doing research at the BBB to find out why it’s so hard for women to raise venture capital. There are a lot of reasons and no one-size-fits-all solution. Entrepreneurs from BAME, especially black entrepreneurs, also find it more difficult to raise capital.
“Of course, it’s a huge loss of talent for the economy and a waste. If every entrepreneur with a good idea had the financing they need, what would that mean in terms of jobs and growth? It would be huge.
With the women and with the BAME entrepreneurs, we envision a huge wasted opportunity, a huge economic waste. ‘
Most businesses of the future, she says, will be technology-based and won’t need big capital to get started.
“One thing that is positive about the crisis is that it has accelerated technological trends, including virtual working. We can better understand what the future looks like.
“We cannot trust the old solutions, the economy has changed and will no longer look like the past.”
One change is that private debt – loans by non-banks such as venture capital funds or other finance providers – is likely to be an increasingly important source of finance for post-venture companies. Covid.
A BBB report found £ 18.4 billion in private debt in 2018 and 2019, the vast majority outside London. She is excited about Sunak’s plan to create a national infrastructure bank.
“Infrastructure is an important part of the greener reconstruction program. We can play a role in helping small and medium-sized businesses transition to greener business models, ”she says.
Small and medium-sized enterprises will, she said, accelerate the recovery.
“I am an optimist. There is a lot of pent-up demand that will stimulate the economy. It’s our role to make sure the funding for small and medium-sized businesses is there.
“It has been brutal for the lives and livelihoods of many, but we will see a rebound and a collective sigh of relief.”
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