Virgin One has passed several milestones in the past 12 months: it made a profit for the first time; mortgage completions more than doubled from 8,500 to 19,600; staff topped the 600 mark; and work began on a new building to house its rapidly expanding operations. No wonder staff at the Norwich-based operation have the feeling they must be doing something right.
The decision to give this year's Financial Services award to Virgin One was not an easy one; there was strong competition from insurer Eagle Star, internet bank Smile and, most of all, from Royal Bank of Scotland. What tipped the balance in the end was the evidence that Virgin One not only has a great product that has shifted the market, but it has confident people, finely tuned systems and exemplary leadership. An organisation, in short, that is firing on all cylinders.
Since Virgin launched the pioneering idea of a single account combining savings and mortgage in 1997, competitors have rushed into the market with me-too products. Yet such has been the standard of service delivered by Virgin One that attrition among customers is low - just 0.22% last year. That figure is impressive, given the number of homeowners who re-mortgage each year, especially as Virgin's headline interest rate is far from being the most competitive on the market. It suggests that the bank has developed sustainable business by demonstrating the real long-term financial benefits of having a Virgin One account.
Customers clearly like doing business with Virgin One. A key to that is the relaxed, unscripted way in which staff in the call centre talk to customers. The company has developed carefully thought out processes to deal with most situations: for example, when a customer moves house, a dedicated team will hold their hand every step of the way, even offering a bridging loan if the customer's sale is delayed. As a result, Virgin keeps a far higher percentage of its customers after a house move than other lenders.
And for customers who seem to be having trouble with repayments, Virgin can provide debt counselling and help in creating a household budget to get them back on track. So far, it has had to make only a single forcible repossession.
Virgin One continues to provide innovations for customers: over the past 12 months it has introduced a benefits package, Plus One, with offers on travel, entertainment and other incentives; and it has launched life insurance and home insurance products, the latter in conjunction with Direct Line.
Not content with remaining a niche player, it has also developed an intermediary business through independent financial advisers, which already accounts for nearly 50% of new applications. Like its other partners, principally solicitors and valuers, intermediaries are carefully selected to ensure that they share the same values, and Virgin provides training for their sales forces.
This is above all a people business, however, and Virgin's development programme is exemplary, giving new recruits comprehensive induction and refresher training, then mapping a clear path for their progression over the coming three and a half years. Says Jayne-Anne Gadhia, Virgin One's managing director: 'Our success in winning customers has been mainly down to personal recommendations, because the product works so well. We focus on satisfying customers' dreams and aspirations, and that's what ultimately makes the difference.'