Leighton Smith and Andrew Evans: Serendipitous Rise Puts Dynamic Duo at the Top

Leighton Smith, VM Finance

Leighton Smith

Serendipity brought Leighton Smith and Andrew Evans together at a time when they couldn’t have predicted their career trajectory — either in the financial services industry or their professional partnership.

They met as youngsters in Kingston, Jamaica, with their feet on the first rungs of the corporate ladder. The pair would travel parallel, yet distinct, paths which ultimately reconnected to create the leadership of VM Group subsidiary VM Finance.

The property development funder for UK SMEs took off with Smith as managing director and Evans as head of lending services.

Smith describes his upbringing in the busy Jamaican capital as humble. His father worked as a lifeguard, then as a tile factory supervisor; his mother was a small-scale trader. But their plans for him were clear: education would be his path to success.

The young Smith took his mission seriously, matriculating from one of the country’s most prestigious high schools, Campion College, before going on to Excelsior Community College. There he acquired a diploma in accounting; next came the University of Technology, where he pursued a diploma in marketing and a a degree in Management Studies. He later pursued his MBA at the University of New Orleans.

His stint at university was part-time, starting a year after he got his first job at the age of 18 — as a teller at the Victoria Mutual Building Society, now VM Group. Smith would take on a role in marketing before being promoted. He was the youngest operations officer at the institution, tasked with building a new branch location from the ground up.

In 2005, on learning of an initiative dubbed the Accelerated Development Programme — led by local food and financial services provider GraceKennedy Group — he applied for one of eight posts. There were more than 1,000 applicants, and Smith was selected to be in the first cohort which sought to give meaningful experience to promising youngsters through rotation across the group of companies.

Also among the successful candidates in the programme — surprise — was Andrew Evans.

Andrew Evans, VM Finance

Andrew Evans

Evans, whose father was a Minister of Religion, passed his high school years at Cornwall College in Jamaica’s second city, Montego Bay, St James. He attended Montego Bay Community College, where he earned a diploma offered through the University of Technology, in business administration, majoring in marketing.

Evans then moved to the US, where he completed an undergraduate degree in International Business at the Florida Metropolitan University. Then came his first job at the Bank of America as an entry-level teller/customer-service representative. He completed post-graduate studies in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick in the UK, refining his interest in the alignment of politics and economics. He then decided to return to his homeland for the Accelerated Development Programme.

It was there that he and Smith met up again, both assigned to roles at GraceKennedy’s banking arm, First Global Bank. Smith worked in retail banking and marketing and Evans in corporate banking.

“I realised I had a passion for the field, for credit writing,” Evans said, “and through that role, I got exposure to a broad scope of activities in the sector.

“I love the intellectual rigour that comes with corporate financing; the level of analysis and discourse that comes with defending a credit — being able to identify the weak spots and cover that with the right mitigants to determine whether a deal is bankable or not. I love having that sense, that finger on the pulse.”

Several years later, Evans would move back to the UK, where he took on various roles in corporate banking, property development, and investment at the Bank of Cyprus and the Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank (UMTB). These stints further honed his expertise in development finance, relationship management, and banking operations.

Smith, meanwhile, quickly ascended the corporate ladder taking on management roles at First Global Bank, then at Capital and Credit, before moving back to VM Group as a branch manager.

In 2014, having been promoted to assistant vice-president of sales and service, he was given the role of chief representative officer for VMBS’ operations in Britain. In 2018, all overseas offices — which included locations in Canada (now closed) and the US — were assigned to him.

He was also asked to lead VM Finance, which started in 1989 as Caribbean International Finance Corporation, before being renamed in 1991. The company, initially licensed to write mortgages in the UK, provided remittance and cheque cashing services, before transitioning to being an approved mortgage intermediary, due to regulatory changes.

The two friends and former colleagues reunited and together crafted a new strategic direction for VM Finance, based on the opportunities they saw in property development funding for SMEs. They also drew on their collective expertise in credit writing, corporate financing, banking operations and marketing.

Since the expansion of the business into specialised lending in 2018, VM Finance has seen consistent profitability year-on-year, with 2021 recording a 200 percent increase over 2020.

In addition to mortgage brokerage services, VM Finance’s property development products include site acquisition loans, stretch development financing, and a standard development product to assist with the acquisition and development of sites.

Property investment funding products and services include residential investment loans, buy-to-let loans, buy-to-refurbish loans, and bespoke commercial investment loans.

“We are driven by an obsession with delivering and executing for our customers,” Andrew Evans said, “an obsession with growing our customer base to become the first port-of-call as the leading SME developer funder in the UK.”

He is proud of the impact they have been able to make as a Jamaican-owned company. “We’ve enjoyed great success because of the quality of service and product that we have been providing. It just goes to show that we should never place limitations on ourselves.

“There is something unique about us Jamaican people. There is a spirit with which we do things, that comes out on the track, in our music, and even on the political and business stage globally. I’m proud of what we have accomplished, and I’m focused on delivering even more.”

Leighton Smith concurs, noting that he is gratified that VM Finance can offer services to an under-served sector in the UK: SMEs and members of the Jamaican diaspora.

“There is a definite sense of pride and satisfaction, that we have been able to offer meaningful solutions to this sector,” he said.

Two ambitious men, hailing from opposite ends of a small island nation, leverage their natural synergy and aptitude to create even greater success — and lead VM Finance to the pinnacle of the non-bank specialist funding industry, internationally.

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