Superstar of the Month – Preet Kalirai

M.O.M.— How did you get started?
Kalirai—I began as a teller at Security Pacific Bank right after high school. I was there (which became Bank of America) for 9 ½ years, eventually working as assistant manager, underwriter and loan officer. I was recruited by my mentor Sean Safholm to Countrywide.

M.O.M.—What was your initial marketing activity as an originator?
Kalirai—I was working at a small branch and started calling on existing clients. I introduced myself and explained the types of services and products we offered. Of course, some of them needed attention—a refinance or other loan. Once I got an initial customer, the referrals came. I’ve never really made cold calls.

M.O.M.How did you get started with CalPERS?
Kalirai—CalPERS is a financing program designed for members of the California Public Employees Retirement System. CalPERS (offers special interest rate and closing cost advantages. I got involved about four years ago when I got a call from a state employee. I currently handle CalPERS-based loans in California, Oregon, Arizona, Washington, Nevada and Hawaii. This accounts for about 20 percent of my total production.

M.O.M.—How did you market to these clients?
Kalirai—It started with referrals, with one state employee referring another to me. CalPERS has a number of loan officers throughout the state, but they rely on a few of us more than others. Once you close a certain number of loans with them, they put you into their lead program, whereby they will send you leads that come in when state employees call for more information. I’m also listed on the CalPERS Web site, which leads to a number of calls.

I have a billboard in downtown Sacramento, the site of many state government buildings. The billboard has my picture and the CalPERS logo, along with contact information. I’ve had good success with that. In addition, a couple of times a year I send my customer/contact list a flier that highlights the benefits of a CalPERS loan.

Much of the CalPERS business is now referral-based, as one employee tells another about the program. CalPERS monitors the lead to conversion rate very closely, so it’s important that I close as many of these loans as possible.

M.O.M.—What do you recommend to orginators in other markets?
Kalirai—I believe that many markets have something resembling CalPERS. You need to evaluate your state and local programs and get to know the guidelines. Introduce yourself to the contacts and explain why your expertise and customer service approach will benefit employees. Once you get a loan or two from a state or county employee, you should begin seeing a steady stream of referrals. Of course, you can also advertise this specialty on your Web site, fliers and other marketing materials.

M.O.M.—What other marketing have you done?
Kalirai—I’ve had a small ad in Sacramento Magazine, which is aimed at businesses in the area. I actually got more calls from past customers telling me they saw it and asking for help with a loan, than from businesses.

M.O.M.—How do you stay in touch with past customers?
Kalirai—I send something to them almost every month. This includes, thank-you notes, holiday cards, seasonal cards, and tax season postcards. These are simple mailers, but help to ensure that my customers don’t forget me.

M.O.M.—How often do you ask for referrals?
Kalirai—I ask for referrals every time I speak to a customer or other contact. Even during the application process, when I’m explaining the various deadlines and other information, I will say “Please share my name and number with anyone you know who might need my assistance.” This works better than mailing postcards or newsletters.

M.O.M.—Do you have a specific niche market?
Kalirai—In addition to state employees, we also assist Spanish speaking and Indian customers. I speak Punjabi and Hindi and one of my assistants speaks Spanish. Just having one of us use their language makes them more comfortable, even though most of them speak English as well. We also offer the 1003 in Spanish.

M.O.M.—How does your Web site benefit your success?
Kalirai—My Web site notes that I specialize in CalPERS loans. It has links that give my clients the opportunity to fill out an application and fax or e-mail it to us. My site also breaks down a few financing options for our clients. They seem to appreciate the Web site because it gives them a more hands-on approach to the loan transaction. I always inform clients that they can visit my Web site and read more about the process.

M.O.M.—What is key to customer service?
Kalirai—My perspective is that it’s always what’s best for the customer. We strive to have the best customer service experience possible throughout the whole loan process. For those people who do visit the office, we have a very friendly atmosphere so clients feel comfortable. On the phone, we always thank customers for taking the time to talk with us or to gather their documents.

Throughout the process my team is in contact with customers to inform them of their loan status. That way we don’t have clients calling to ask about the status. They always have a good understanding of what’s going on and when they’re going to close.

M.O.M.—Who is on your support team?
Kalirai—I couldn’t do this without them. My two assistants are Craig Clegg and Kameka Grant. They are my right and left hands; responsible for a variety of different areas.

M.O.M.—What process do you have to handle the volume?
Kalirai—It’s fairly simple, but effective. After I first talk to the client, I pass the introductory information to one of my assistants and they complete the application. (I’ll take about 80 percent of the apps.) They pull the credit report and complete the 1003 and give that to me so that I can review it and the loan recommendation with our customer. Then I’ll give it back to one of them to complete the file for submission to our underwriter.

M.O.M.—What do you consider a key characteristic of superstar originators?
Kalirai—You have to take extra steps to impress your customers. I like to make every person feel special. When a client calls me, I still stop what I’m doing and take the application on the spot. I don’t transfer them to assistants or act like I am too busy to talk with them. If I’m driving, I will even pull my car over and take an application on the side of the road. Whatever it takes.

M.O.M.—How do you balance work with your personal life?
Kalirai—During the last few years it was difficult to have a balance. However, lately I have been scheduling more time for my family and personal life. I take more vacations and make sure to spend time watching my children’s activities. Balance is good.

Superstar of the Month – Mark Taylor

M.O.M.— How did you get started in the lending business?

Taylor—After college in Southampton, England, I worked as a business consultant, advising companies on management, marketing and related issues. I came to the United States in 1992 on behalf of a client. A friend said he thought I would be good as an originator and in 1996 I went to work for PNC Bank in Scottsdale. I proved I could do the job, but didn’t feel there was enough product at the time, so I went to work for a brokerage. I eventually opened my own firm, but it grew to the point where I was spending too much time managing and not enough producing. I joined Security Mortgage in 2002.

M.O.M.—What was your first marketing activity?

Taylor—I called on Realtors, same as today. The key was making a point to ask them what they wanted. The responses were similar—they want docs to title early, want you to be available, ask that you do what you promise, and take care of their client. I guaranteed I would do all of that. I got my first deals based on my commitment and the business grew.

M.O.M.—How did your Realtor business evolve?

Taylor— I’ve developed a number of other strategies to benefit Realtors. For instance, every week I prepare a flier on loan program that is distributed to approximately 5,000 real estate agents throughout the valley. I determine the topic, we have it designed and printed, and a service delivers it for distribution to agents’ mailboxes.

I also send agents weekly e-mails that highlight new loan programs, which helps demonstrate that I’m the “go to” guy. This has been very successful; we recently got 19 new loans within two weeks of sending an announcement regarding a specific loan program (2/1 buydown). In addition, we send them e-mail updates at every stage of the loan process.

I also started helping Realtors refine their databases, to show how their customers could move up in properties through various ways (such as 401k analysis). This often involves me talking to their clients about options, which ultimately drives more business to agents’ pipelines.

I’ve held classes for agents on how to use Palm Pilots and Blackberries; generally how to stay abreast of technology. All of this is non-traditional marketing aimed at staying in front of agents.

We always try to provide agents with a high level of service. We continually ask what is being done (or not done) to help the Realtor. For instance, if they have to call us for an update on an appraisal or closing, we’re not doing our job.

M.O.M.—Any other advice regarding marketing to Realtors?

Taylor—I’ve learned the importance of not creating a reputation for only doing the tough loans. I recently had a conversation with a regular Realtor client who said that he typically sends me the tough deals. I asked if he was sending me the “vanilla” loans as well and he responded that “anyone can do those.” It made me realize that I might have positioned myself too much as a specialist and as a result I’m not getting all of this (and possibly other) agent’s deals. I’m planning to change my focus slightly so that they see I’m good at both the basic as well as the more challenging loans.

M.O.M.—What about advertising?

Taylor—I’ve tried lots of different types of advertising, from Yellow Pages to high quality city magazines and others. I’ve concluded that advertising doesn’t work (for me). You spend a lot of money on an ad and get someone interested in your service and then their Realtor often convinces the borrower to go with their originator. I don’t believe the ultimate response justifies the cost.

M.O.M—How do you stay in contact with past customers?

Taylor—Twenty percent of my business is generated from past customers. After meeting with a client, we send them a thank-you card and a testimonial from a current client. This usually stops the new customer from rate shopping. This is probably my most effective marketing technique.

Upon closing, we give new customers a book that contains a variety of value-added material, including copies of the application, credit and title reports; along with a home repair manual and postcards (with photos of their new house) that they can send to family and friends.

Past customers receive two mailers a month—a postcard and a newsletter. The postcards are often humorous and are sent on such non-traditional holidays as Ground Hog Day and St. Patrick’s Day. The newsletter is a two-sided legal paper format that highlights mortgage news, recipes and other helpful information. We get a great response from these items.

M.O.M.—Do you have a specific niche market?

Taylor—The main one would be corporations, including relocating employees. Our Workplace Mortgage Program starts when we survey new customers regarding their place of employment. We will send a survey to the benefits manager explaining that we did a good job with one of their employee’s loans and try to set an appointment. When we meet, we’ll show the support materials we can provide, such as posters for their lunchroom and payroll stuffers regarding refinancing and purchasing discounts. When a new employee moves into the area we’ll send them a welcome e-mail to introduce our service and that of our Realtor partner for that client.

M.O.M.—Any other unique marketing?

Taylor—We also have a “welcome to the neighborhood” party for new customers. During the transaction we send postcards to their neighbors, letting them know that someone bought a house nearby. The next postcard informs them that our customer has moved in and that we will host a welcome party for their new neighbors. We mention that we can provide them with comparable analyses and other services. The clients like this and it also gives the Realtors a chance to meet everyone.

Of course, one of the benefits of this party is that we obtain the customer’s address book so that we can mail the invites and send them future updates. For instance, we may send their friend in Minnesota a card that encourages them to buy a second home in our area.

M.O.M.—Do you develop an annual marketing plan?

Taylor—I develop an annual plan and review it on a quarterly basis to see how I can be more effective with specific messages and strategies. Then every six months I evaluate where the business has come from and make other adjustments. By end of the year I’ve reviewed every client/business source, which helps us fine tune the plan for the next year.

M.O.M.—How did you decide to incorporate your sons in marketing materials?

Taylor—Including my boys in marketing fliers and other material helps show that I’m a family man. It emphasizes that there will be times when I’m with my family and not able to take weekend appointments, for example.

M.O.M.—Who is on your support team?

Taylor—I certainly couldn’t do this without the assistance of Donna Rinaldi, Realtor liaison and Ryan McDonough, processor. They make me the success I am today. They are passionate about what they do and help to make our team successful. I’ve learned that a key to an originator hiring an assistant is having a system, knowing what you want them to do.

M.O.M.—What process do you have to handle the volume?

Taylor—Before I talk to the client, Donna has already taken a complete phone application and we’ve had the credit pulled. We’ll run DU/LP as soon as possible. I’ll then meet with the customer to review the application and the overall loan strategy.

Our goal is to have them come in with just a pay stub and proof of funds to close. The time I spend with them is to build rapport, rather than take an hour to do the loan application.

M.O.M.—What do you do to make the customer welcome?

Taylor—Donna calls customers to find out what beverage they prefer, which is waiting when they arrive at our office. Our reception area has a board with their name on it. These steps help set the tone and make them comfortable. A relaxed atmosphere helps eliminate the anxiety they may be feeling.

M.O.M.—What do you consider key characteristics of superstar originators?

Taylor—I believe that top producers generally have a higher learning skill set than other originators. They have a better grasp of what to ask customers, and make a point to listen to what the customer isn’t saying as well. Being able to see things from the client’s perspective is critical.

It’s also important to be associated with a supportive company that allows the originator’s entrepreneurial skills to develop. Without the infrastructure we have here, I wouldn’t be able to do the volume. My company was founded by and for originators.

M.O.M.—What is your usual work routine?

Taylor—As soon as I’m up I’m working. For example, I’ll check my Blackberry and then return phone calls on my way into work. I may talk with or leave messages for five customers I had taken applications the prior day, or follow-up with agents. I’m starting the day on a positive note. Then I arrive at the office ready to meet with clients.

One thing that I emphasize is close contact with Realtors and others regarding appointments. For example, if I’m meeting with a customer and running late for an appointment with a Realtor, I’ll text message Donna or Ryan who will immediately call the agent to advise that I’ll be there (or return the call) within 15 minutes or a half-hour. Realtors love this kind of response. We make a point to never say I’m busy, which no one likes to hear.

M.O.M.—How do you balance work with your personal life?

Taylor—When I started I was working way too many hours, but soon learned to make the adjustments. Of course, balancing your work with personal life can be a challenge. I let clients know that I have children. I don’t work after 6 p.m. and generally don’t work on the weekends. I try to take four vacations a year, and I spend time with family on weekends and other occasions. One of the best things about a support team is having them eliminate the minutiae when you’re on vacation. For example, if I get a call while on vacation, I know that it’s important (about structuring a deal).

Superstar of the Month – Carolyn Frame

M.O.M.—How did you get started in the lending business?

Frame— I worked for Security Pacific’s Human Resources and Operations divisions for 27 years and was very involved with the branches, ultimately responsible for most of the hiring and training. I later worked as a branch manager and actually oversaw two offices. I found that I was a good salesperson, helping to increase the branch production totals. I also realized that the banking industry was changing and I thought it was a good time for a move, so in 1990 I left to work for a small mortgage broker; commuting by car and ferry and essentially working out of the trunk of my car because the office was over an hour away and I needed to prove myself.

M.O.M.—What was your initial marketing activity?

Frame—I was a long-time member of the Rotary Club and had an opportunity to announce my new profession to fellow members. Everyone was very supportive and a good percentage of them came to me for their loans. In addition, I got involved helping people finance their log homes, a highly specialized area. I participated in the seminars that the log home builder held. While they weren’t too successful, because many people found it hard to qualify for and lenders were somewhat hesitant to finance these properties, this gave me a chance to expand my network. Many of the borrowers eventually came to me for financing other homes.

At first I didn’t know many real estate agents but I began to develop a strong referral base by contacting them and asking for their loans. I made a point to show them that we were different. We would also provide training workshops for Realtor offices. I did some co-op marketing with agents, such as taking an ice cream truck to various neighborhoods.

I gradually developed a builder network. This support has included chairing the Parade of Homes events in our area, attending open houses, and meeting with builders to help them develop a plan of action when their project sales slowed.

I also became very involved in the community. Since those early days, we have supported more than 150 organizations, including Boys and Girls Clubs, United Way, Habitat for Humanity and many other groups; serving on the boards, hosting events and providing financial assistance. I love being involved this way and have been honored with several major awards, including the Seattle Women Business Owners’ Nellie Cashman Award, Business Leader of the Year (for Kitsap County), and with my husband, Charlie, Business Couple of the Year in our hometown.

M.O.M.—What about seminars?

Frame—A key part of our overall marketing has been providing seminars; I do about 20 a year. This includes sponsorship of the Money Wi$e Women seminars, educating women in various finance-related issues. We also began leading Passive Income seminars, which are based on the “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” book. It teaches participants the importance of developing income streams for clients (such as real estate investments), not just relying on a regular paycheck or Social Security.

M.O.M.—Have you incorporated advertising in your marketing?

Frame— We have had a TV commercial that shows some of our clients in different situations, such as discussing investment properties or a specialized product.  This has been primarily for visibility. I’m not sure that it has led to that many closed loans, but it has been excellent exposure for our company.

For several years, I also advertised on shopping carts. People still tell me that they’ve seen me on the carts. I did this not so much to generate immediate business, but to help reinforce that I’m here. If they think about a mortgage, I want them to call me.

In addition, we have sponsored a Babe Ruth youth baseball team whose members wear t-shirts with our company name. It’s great advertising. After games, there are often articles saying that “….the Frame team did it again” (beat the competition.). We’ve also donated money to a youth leadership program which helped purchase a sailboat used to teach young people to sail. The boat’s sail has our company name on it.

M.O.M.—How do you stay in touch with past customers?

Frame—Our client-for-life campaign starts early. For example, when we first meet with new customers, we usually give them a book as an introductory gift, either Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” or  T. Harv Eker’s “The Millionaire Mind.” Then we’ll send a mid-transaction survey that asks customers how we’re doing so far, which is accompanied by a box of popcorn and a movie pass and a card that tells them to relax and enjoy the movie.  At closing we send them a nice gift basket.

When customers do more than one loan with us, we usually give them a gift card to The Home Depot, Starbucks or a spa. Many of our investor customers receive a popular book of their choice.

We stay in touch throughout the year with a quarterly newsletter that we produce in-house. We also try to talk or meet with past customers once or twice a year, giving us the chance to assist them and ask for referrals. We have an open-door policy that encourages them to stop by whenever they want to discuss their current or new loan. In addition, we send monthly e-mails that update everyone on our scheduled events.

M.O.M.—Do you have a specific niche market?

Frame—Investors and first-time buyers would be two of our main niches. An interesting sidelight to the latter is how my husband and I work with tenants of our own rental properties. When people begin renting with us, we tell them that we expect that it will only be for a year or two because we want them to be homeowners. Then we counsel them on how to achieve homeownership.

M.O.M.—Education seems to be a major aspect of your overall approach.

Frame—Education is an integral part of our customer service, as well as our personal philosophy. In addition to our regular seminars (noted earlier) and ongoing consultation with clients, we try to teach basic financing and related areas to younger people. We’ve even been invited to local schools to play the cash flow board game with students, helping them understand the basics of finance, balance sheets and passive income.  I spend a lot of time educating clients and others, but in return we receive a great deal of loyalty, and it helps generate business as well. Several of our company loan originators also emphasize education and they’ve been very successful.

M.O.M.–How does your Web site benefit your success?

Frame— We drive people to the Web site by having the URL on all of our marketing materials and in other communications. The site provides background information as well as a full range of our services and a calendar of events; and helps to acquaint people with our expertise. However, I prefer talking to people face-to-face about their loans so we don’t rely on the site to generate applications per se.

M.O.M.—Do you develop an annual marketing plan?

Frame—Yes, it’s usually completed in December (when I set my overall budget) for the following year. The plan incorporates the various strategies that we will employ to reach personal production and company objectives. Of course, as a “change agent,” I’m always looking for new ways to enhance our success. Therefore, I review the plan on a monthly basis and make the appropriate adjustments.

M.O.M.—How did you happen to open your own firm?

Frame—After working for the broker for about three years, I expressed my interest in receiving a larger commission or having the ability to fund our own loans. He instead suggested that I buy him out and keep him on as a mentor for five years, which is what we did. By 2001, we had 150 employees in 11 offices throughout Washington, Oregon and Alaska. I eventually realized that managing that many people wasn’t the best use of my time and we scaled back. However, we are now licensed in most states and are planning to expand in the near future (in part based on a joint venture with Liberty Financial Group in Bellevue, Wash.).

M.O.M.—Who is on your own support team?

Frame—Obviously, my team plays a major key role in my success.  I couldn’t do it without them. I currently have two assistants, Martina Norman-Maleski and Susie Bohnert; a transaction coordinator, Shawna Madayag; and a marketing and events manager, Ashley Endres. In addition, two processors, Jill Dacier and Marisa Acuna, assist me and a few of our other originators.

M.O.M.—You also have some of your family members working for you?

Frame—There are five generations of us here. In addition to myself and my husband (whose primary role is community relations), my 81-year old mother works part-time with various clerical duties. My son is a successful loan originator in one of our branches and his daughter (my granddaughter) is an originator as well. And, her seven year-old son (my great-grandson) empties wastebaskets on weekends.

M.O.M.—What process do you have to handle the volume?

Frame—I conduct the initial/”high trust” interview and gather the client’s vital information, to determine the specific loan and other essentials. Then either Martina or Susie will call the customer to complete the online application, send necessary documents and follow-up as appropriate.

I rely on computer-generated monthly reports. However, I’m still old-fashioned and also like monitoring two status boards that show the progress of every loan through closing. I know we’re on track when both boards are filled. This also helps check the workflow; determining whether or not one of the team members is too busy, for example.

We also have a weekly “gong meeting” (where we call everyone by using a gong) when we discuss current loans in progress, actions to be taken and who needs assistance.

M.O.M.—What do you consider key characteristics of superstar originators?

Frame—Certainly, having a support team is critical; enabling you to set and achieve ever higher goals.

Top producers must be able to delegate, so that you’re able to concentrate on the most productive/profitable activities. I believe that customers should be informed of your team members’ roles, so that they can have the confidence everything is handled in a timely and effective manner.

Continuing education is also important. I’m always learning something new for the business that I can share with clients.

A competitive spirit is mandatory. My goal is to fund $10 million a month; I want to set the bar high and don’t like settling for less.

I also think that community participation is important for top producers. I’m always out in the community, as is my husband, and that is something I believe all top producers should be doing.

M.O.M.—How do you balance work with your personal life?

Frame—There are several components to my work and personal life balance. First, we have a reasonable work schedule and typically don’t bring work home. We also take one week off every month as vacation or to just relax around the house. We also take shorter trips, often flying in our plane to see our rental properties and then stopping for shopping in town and getting loans.

My husband and I love card games and always play a couple of games every morning and night. We have five children, 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren so we try to spend as much time as we can with them and our nieces and nephews.

M.O.M.—What are your future plans?

Frame—I will continue to expand my own production and we will grow the company into other regions as appropriate. Of course, education will remain an important focus, both with our seminars and individual customer consultations.

My husband and I have a goal of being completely financially secure during the next few years. In addition, I intend to cut back on my work schedule so that I’m spending less time in the office.  Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy this rewarding profession.

Superstar of the Month – Gary Welch

M.O.M.— How did you get started in the lending business?

Welch— I was right out of college (Furman College, Greenville, S.C.) and went to work for a small brokerage. I had no mortgage background or business experience, so it was “sink or swim.” However,  D.C. Aiken (top producer) who hired me was encouraging and told me to “go for it.”
I liked the idea that you could “bet on yourself,” meaning that what you put in to the profession you would get out of it. Even at the young age of 21 I wasn’t afraid because I felt that by working hard good things would happen. After 2-½ years, I went to work for HomeBanc Mortgage, which I thought was the ideal place to build a career, where I would have the tools and infrastructure to be successful.

M.O.M.—What was your first marketing activity?

Welch—At that time, it wasn’t as difficult to gain access to Realtor offices as it is today. I would spend every day visiting agents at their office and asking for an opportunity to handle their customers’ loans. I’d also ask them to teach me about the business, and to recall what it was like when they first started out. The key advice I received was to remember that it’s ok to say you don’t know the answer to something, but that it’s critical to respond quickly with the correct information.  I also spent time observing agents with their customers, to see how they interacted. It wasn’t long before they gave me some of the first customers, primarily first-time buyers.

From that point, I continued developing my database, realizing the importance of marketing to past customers. I sent out hundreds of thank-you notes. HomeBanc’s marketing department assisted with the development of various marketing pieces.

M.O.M.—Was your age an issue?

Welch—In the beginning, agents and others were willing to give me a try even though I was young, especially because they were giving me easier deals. However, later I realized the importance of showing that I wasn’t the same new college grad without experience, but now had a track record as an originator and was married with a family. That was important to do so that I could develop the relocation and luxury/move-up buyer business as well.

M.O.M.—What steps have you taken to generate Realtor business?

Welch—Much of my Realtor activity has focused on establishing relationships with agents, by hosting Christmas parties, “happy hours” and other social gatherings. We have also developed educational programs, whereby agents can earn continuing education credits by attending a daylong program taught by a certified instructor. We hold monthly Lunch-N-Learns at our Realtor Marketing Alliance. We cover a wide array of topics, from “Fraud in the Marketplace” to Fung Shei. We provide lunch for the office and discuss how these topics can help grow their business.

Another thing we did was send the “Love is the Killer App” book to Realtors (and anyone else who requested a copy). I included a personal note of encouragement, noting that I felt it was applicable to our business and how it might be for theirs as well.

We also send agents e-mails and make calls for status updates, market reports and other areas. In addition, earlier this year we held a referral campaign, encouraging agents to provide us with referrals. We kept a running tally that resembled a football field of referrals that we received over a four-month period. Agents liked the idea of having a weekly update.

We try to frame most of our Realtor and other marketing activity around a formal campaign. We usually evaluate a specific need that a builder or Realtor has (and how one of our loan programs can be the solution) and develop a program that includes several different pieces, rather than a single element. This could include a meeting/seminar, fliers, a breakfast, or attending an Atlanta Braves baseball game as a group. This helps grow momentum to reach specific goals.

M.O.M.—What about builders?

Welch—We are primarily promoting our construction to perm program at builder gatherings and more importantly, in one-on-one meetings with builder reps.  

M.O.M—How do you stay in contact with past customers?

Welch—We have a customer-for-life program that features a range of actions, including:

  • Regular mailings of “value pieces,” including newsletter and other items.
  • Monthly thank-you notes with calendar business cards sent to past customers. We also ask that they keep us in mind if they are ever in need of our services.
  • A special spring mailer postcard to past customers. It lets them know that we are here to help them with any home financing needs.
  • Another popular mailer to agents was the collection of motivational CDs by Dr. Ike Reighard, HomeBanc’s Chief People Officer and a nationally known speaker.  We had a great response from that.
  • Donations to CHRIS (Children have Rights in Society) homes, in lieu of holiday gifts. We send customers and agents a letter letting them know that a donation was made in their name. In turn, the organization sends a letter stating that a donation has been received in the customer’s honor. We get lots of feedback from customers and agents. Of course, the real return is knowing that we helped kids.
  • Inviting past customers to a playhouse, for refreshments and a performance.

M.O.M.—Do you have a specific niche market?

Welch— One informal niche is the corporate relocation market, specifically one Fortune 500 company in the Atlanta area. I’ve done close to 300 loans for this company during the last seven. While much of it is now word-of-mouth, I have also provided onsite luncheon presentations, held workshops and sent e-mail blasts about our service.

In addition, we’ve done some work with teachers. For example, we sent an e-mail to our teacher database. We sent fliers that highlighted special loan programs (reduced or no down payments) for teachers, as well as firemen and policemen.

M.O.M. –How do you use your Web site?

Welch— Our Web site offers several key benefits. First, it enables prospects to go online and complete an application. We also provide a mortgage calculator and other tools. Finally, the site includes information on my background, interests and related areas, which allows prospects to get to know me before applying.

M.O.M.—Do you develop an annual marketing plan?

Welch— We usually start our planning process in October and are finished in January. My marketing assistant and I review previous activities and discuss plans for our different spheres of influence (builders, Realtors, past customers and business to business). We then present the plan to my other team originators who rely on me for basic recommendations. 

M.O.M.—Explain your team originator concept.

Welch— When D.C. Aiken (a top producer atHomeBanc) decided to cut back on his own originating, myself and two other originators decided a good approach would be to work as a team to ensure we didn’t overlook any of D.C.’s extensive customer base, and were still able to work a reasonable schedule so that we could enjoy our personal lives… The other originators are Rick Stevens and Richard Young; each of us has about 15 years experience. Erin Kikly is our great administrative partner.

We all have our own customer bases and do our own originating. However, we share ideas, help cover for each other when on vacation, and combine our total volume from which we split the commission.

M.O.M.—Tips for making the team concept work?

Welch—You don’t take on this kind of a team approach just for the extra money; you can’t be overly concerned with generating more business and greater commissions.  It has to be a true partnership; each member brings certain talents to the team. There has to be a trust that everyone is an equal partner.

M.O.M.—Who is on your own support team?

Welch— I certainly couldn’t do this volume without the help of Cindy Sandoval, processor/underwriter; Allison Hamil, my assistant; and Wynita Cannon, our marketing assistant. They do a great job. Having this team enables me to focus on the areas that I do best: talking to clients and developing the mortgage package, building and enhancing relationships, and working on marketing. We strive to find out what everyone does especially well and then let them concentrate on that.

M.O.M.—What system/process do you have to handle the volume?

Welch— One beneficial step is that the same person who processes the loan, also underwrites and delivers the file. This helps ensure faster closings. Also, we have proprietary software that allows myself and our processor to view the loan status at the same time. I can check loan status from my desk, without having to call or meet with staff.

M.O.M.—Is there anything else you do to make a difference for your customers?

Welch—Once a week I call customers who recently closed with us to make sure that we have addressed the questions they raised. For example, they might have called regarding insurance or future servicing issues. This demonstrates that I’m just as interested in their welfare after the loan closes, as I was prior.

M.O.M.—What do you consider key characteristics of superstar originators?

Welch— First, I think top producers have a thirst to excel, they want to achieve at a high level, rather than being satisfactory at their job.  As part of this, they have an attitude that they will succeed; believing that every day will be productive and successful.

I also think that they enjoy a faster pace than other originators. They’re more comfortable, similar to great athletes who like challenges and the thrill of the game. Of course, as mentioned earlier, you need a team of some kind to succeed at the superstar level.

I also believe that working for a supportive, successful company is critical. For example, Fortune Magazine has recognized HomeBanc as one of the top 100 (number 14 in 2005) Best Companies to work for, based on benefits, working environment and other factors.

M.O.M.—How do you balance work with your personal life?

Welch— Providing for our family life is a critical objective and I always place family related activities on the calendar first, and then work other events around those. I coach my children’s football and basketball teams and we take time out for other activities as well. I rarely work on the weekends and we spend approximately five weeks a year on vacations. Having this time is one of the major benefits of our originator team partnership.

M.O.M.—What about the future?

Welch— Our main goal will be to grow the business in this different market environment and continue to refine the team concept. And, of course, to enjoy time with our families and friends.

Laura Sosa-Rocha

Prior Profession: Sales and linguistics training

 

Niche: CPAs, attorneys and other busy professionals, and self-employed

Most Effective Marketing: Word-of-mouth

Support Team: One assistant, two processors, one loan coordinator

Applications Taken Personally: 70%

Workweek: 5 Days, 50 hours

Favorite Book: “Enders Game,” By Orson Scott Card

Favorite Quote: “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.”

M.O.M.— How did you get started in the lending business?

Sosa-Rocha—I had previously been in sales and linguistics training for salespeople and teachers. I went to get my first mortgage and was frustrated by the treatment I received and the lack of information the broker wanted to give me. I thought that I could do a better job and my sister who is also a top producer encouraged me to do it. Plus, I’ve always wanted to control my own destiny, rather than having to rely on someone else. I went to work for a small mortgage brokerage, and eventually became their top producer. I later worked for another broker before opening my own firm in 2001.

Knowledge is power and I went into the industry to learn and then to educate other consumers. I believe in empowering people so they always know their choices and can make informed decisions that will serve them. The more you give, the more loyalty you get back.

M.O.M.—What was your first marketing activity?

Sosa-Rocha— I started out cold calling and built a referral business from there. My cold calling was basically telemarketing. I called people at home to ask if they were interested in a loan. But I wasn’t overly aggressive and did it with some humor. For example, I would say, “Hello, this is your friendly neighborhood mortgage broker bothering you on a Sunday night.” I did a lot of difficult loans and subprime deals from those early calls. Some people would say, “You can’t help me.” But I did and continued to do their later loans as well. I also sent letters to people. I was working about 12 hours a day at that point.

M.O.M.—How did it evolve from there?

Sosa-Rocha—Consumers would tell their co-workers, friends and family that they had found an honest person in the mortgage business who actually listened. People knew I would treat them fairly and help them find the right loan for them no matter what their income or credit rating. I work hard for every client without regard to the price range of the home they are purchasing, whether it’s a $50,000 loan or a $5 million dollar loan.

M.O.M.—Did you call on Realtors and builders?

Sosa-Rocha— Fortunately, it has not been necessary very often. I have developed contacts with Realtors over the years that are ongoing. I am beginning to do the same with builders and developers. I believe in the power of networking, especially with like-minded professionals, but I have never sought to build my business based on cold calling Realtors or Builders. One of my best examples of a developed relationship between professionals is the office space I currently share with Nine Mile Trolley, a real estate agency. We have a very good relationship. The Realtors work with me because they know I get the job done.
Most of the time I am asked for my card (by Realtors) because of the experience they have at closings or through talking to others in the industry.

M.O.M—How do you stay in contact with past customers?

Sosa-Rocha—I take several steps to make sure my customers remember us. This includes:

  • Thank you cards
  • Closing gifts, such as a bottle of champagne or a Home Depot gift card.
  • Four greeting cards sent on “odd” holidays, such as Halloween or New Year’s Eve.
  • Christmas presents (Such as cookies and gift cards) to my favorite clients. Everything is very personal and tailored to the person. For example, if a client likes to golf, I will send chocolates shaped like golf clubs. I generally try to do something with the most potential impact and lowest cost.

I spend time talking to my clients (old and new) because they are the people who make my business a success. I think that periodic phone calls to talk about family or other personal matters is often more effective than mailers and gifts.

M.O.M.—How do you develop referrals?

Sosa-Rocha—When you do a good, honest job, you don’t need to ask – the clients come. My business is based on referrals; 50 percent of my business comes from agents. They know their clients are in good hands and they will benefit by referring them to me. I used to hand out business cards at various functions, but no longer do so. One of my e-mails to customers will encourage them to refer their friends to me.

I will also do some loans for free (no broker fees), which certainly makes people want to refer others. I’ll do this for my close Realtors or when I’m in a competitive situation with another originator and don’t want to lose the loan to a customer who is shopping.

M.O.M.—Have you hosted seminars?

Sosa-Rocha—Not recently, although I used to do seminars in my prior profession. Seminars are something I plan to do in the future. One of the secrets to an effective seminar is to keep it moving, have fun and don’t get too serious.

M.O.M.—Do you have a specific niche market?

Sosa-Rocha—I seem to work with a lot of attorneys, CPAs and doctors, many of whom are first-time homebuyers. While I don’t market specifically to them, I think that business professionals appreciate how quickly and seamlessly I can run through many different scenarios with them. I believe it’s critical that you don’t focus too much on one or two niches, but rather have several at all times.

M.O.M.—Have you done any advertising?

Sosa-Rocha—I’ve had ads primarily in local papers every now and then just to keep my name out there. The ads mention rates and products, but primarily focus on helping clients realize their dreams. Advertising has to be cost effective, and I’ve found that it doesn’t always work very well. I believe that word of mouth is still the best advertising.

M.O.M.—How do you use your Web site?

Sosa-Rocha—I primarily use it as a tool, enabling customers to fill out an application. We’ll get a few new customers from people finding us through a search engine.

M.O.M.—Any other marketing?

Sosa-Rocha—I have an office in a downtown coffee shop, it reminds me of the Central Perk coffee house that was in the “Friends” TV show. It has a great atmosphere and people feel like they can come in and talk about mortgages casually.

M.O.M.—Do you provide customers with any value-added benefit?

Sosa-Rocha—We provide mortgage planning for clients. We review their entire financial status and determine how the mortgage can fit into their overall plan. We become their trusted advisor. Our team will also advise on credit scoring. Sometimes, five to 10 points can save the client on rates. We will use our rescoring ability to make this happen.

M.O.M.—Do you develop an annual marketing plan?

Sosa-Rocha—At the beginning of each year, I review what I did the prior year to determine what worked and what didn’t, and make the appropriate adjustments. I’ll always try something new!

M.O.M.—What prompted you to start your own firm?

Sosa-Rocha—I worked for a company that I loved for several years. Everyone thought I owned the company and I began to wonder why I didn’t. This satisfies my entrepreneurial nature and allows me to be the sole producer, without having to worry about other originators.

M.O.M.—How did you select your company name?

Sosa-Rocha—I thought Truth and Lending would epitomize what I stand for and let customers know our core values; that we are honest and stress ethical standards. We are upfront about everything and sometimes provide customers with more information than they want.

M.O.M.—Who is on your support team?

Sosa-Rocha— I have an assistant, Lane Taylor; a loan coordinator, Shannon Williams, who I just promoted to branch manager; and two processors, Adrienne Kearney and Cheryl Franklin who can handle more than 100 files in processing at any given time. We close 50-60 files a month.
My assistant and my loan coordinator handle pricing, locking and loan placement and are incredible communicators so we are consistently on the same page with each client’s status. It works to make sure the files are ready for processing so the closing goes smoothly.

M.O.M.—What else do you do to ensure a trouble-free pipeline?

Sosa-Rocha— I have a fairly simple system. The assistant will review the estimates and after I review the programs with client, she takes over and gets them the documents to sign and then follows up to get their paperwork. I get all loans pre-approved through underwriting before I send them out. This insures that all loans will close and there is no fallout. We submit the loan to processing with very specific instructions to the processor and the loan closes on time.

M.O.M.—How do you get the most out of your loan origination system?

Sosa-Rocha—We use our LOS system (Calyx) to manage the status and provide reports of new applicants, loans in processing, loans approved, loans submitted to underwriting and loans closed. These reports help us manage the large volume of applicants at different stages of the process.

M.O.M.—Do you attend closings?

Sosa-Rocha—Someone the client is familiar with (either me or one of our team) is always present for purchases and sometimes for the refinances.

M.O.M.—What do you consider key characteristics of superstar originators?

Sosa-Rocha—I think the most successful originators take responsibility for all of their actions. For instance, if something should go wrong with a loan, I’ll assume responsibility, even if it wasn’t a result of my actions.

I also believe that the best LOs have multiple solutions for different customer situations. They have back-up plans for everything.

M.O.M.—How do you balance work with personal life?

Sosa-Rocha—I’m still trying. I prioritize—my children come first, but my clients are a close second. I work a reasonable schedule of 50 hours a week. I generally don’t take my work home with me. However, I will make a point to be available, especially to first-timers. For instance, I will call them late Saturday night to tell them not to worry, if I feel they are especially nervous.

M.O.M.—What about the future?

Sosa-Rocha—During the last couple of years, we’ve been so busy that there hasn’t been much time to do more marketing, so I plan to hire a marketing assistant to help with mailings and other programs. In addition, we’ve just started placing 100% Financing signs with certain Realtor properties, so we’ll be developing this strategy.

I’m also working on a book for consumers that will tell them how to find the best loan and avoid working with dishonest originators.

I plan to be around for a very long time. I’ve found that the future takes care of itself if you plan and stick with your core values.

Mai Yahn

Senior vice president/Originator

Previous Profession: Credit bureau

Primary Marketing: Distributes quarterly newsletter on trends and market insights to past customers and includes a follow-up response form that recipients mail in to receive free baseball game tickets. “This helps us learn who’s reading the newsletter,” Yahn explained.  She also places ads in local magazines as well. “I’ve learned that you need to make (at least) a one-year commitment to advertising, to build the name recognition.” She hired a public relations professional to help generate newspaper and magazine articles on various milestones. Yahn also held a private showing of Star Wars for past customers, e-mails Mortgage Market Guide to customers/others, and sponsors charity events. “I’ve tried just about everything at one point or another.”

Most Effective Marketing: Her greatest success is based on a “one-on-one approach,” building a loyal referral base and generating new leads through a warm market.  “The best referrals are from those people you’ve done business with in the past. Being visible with them (sending newsletters) is critical. I try not to allow too much time to go by (without some contact), so they don’t forget me.”

Niche: Realtors, builders, and financial consultants. “One thing I learned regarding Realtors, is that every transaction offers a great opportunity to gain new business/contacts through listing agents. I will call to introduce myself, update them about the transaction, and later send marketing material and invite them to lunch. You’d be surprised at the number of listing agents who often don’t know what’s going on (with a loan).”

Teamwork: Lead processor, junior processor, set-up person, and loan officer assistant. “The LO assistant takes applications, structures loans, and helps with marketing and related areas—everything a loan officer would do.” They meet regularly to discuss goals and related issues.  “It’s a continual learning process for all of us. When people make mistakes, they learn from them and become more valuable (to the team.)”

Key Ingredient for Success: Delivery and knowledge. “Clients know that when I say something will happen, it happens. I often get calls from people who were referred to me who say that they heard there will be no surprises and that I’m a straight shooter. This has helped build my business. Also, my knowledge and experience in the business has enriched me and in turn, I can offer value to the people with whom I do business.”

Achieving Work/Personal Balance:  “I’ve had to learn to let go by trusting that those who I’ve trained to share my values will follow through in my absence. I take regular time outs and do everything possible to leave work at the office.”

Superstar of the Month – Skip McDonough

In his 25 years as a lending professional, Skip McDonough has seen major changes in the residential mortgage industry, as it has become a more customer-focused, technology-driven and competitive business.

Along the way, McDonough, president of Family Mortgage in Juno Beach, Fla. (north of West Palm Beach), has refined his customer relationship technique from immediate sales (“gratification”) to long-term customer retention, and become a top producer. Last year, he closed 244 loans and $84,822,749 and was number 189 (for dollar volume) on M.O.M.’s Top Originator list.

After graduating from Georgia Southern University in 1974, McDonough entered the finance industry with the mobile home servicing sector, eventually landing in Illinois. Five years later, he relocated to Florida to set up a 2nd mortgage-lending program for First American Bank. “At that time, the wholesale lending industry didn’t exist as we know it today,” he said. “It really came into being several years later.”

McDonough, 57, got his start as an originator working with Realtors and remodeling contractors. “I flew in from Illinois and started knocking on doors and looking through the Yellow Pages,” he said. “I was basically talking about our various lending programs. At the time there wasn’t much competition. Of course, I realized that some people had negative views of telemarketing associated with remodeling at the time; so that was one challenge to overcome.”

Early on, McDonough saw the value in consumer-direct marketing, especially newspaper advertising. “Even in 1979, when I was targeting home improvement places and Realtors for second mortgages, I saw how effective advertising could be,” he said. “There were probably two other mortgage companies in my Florida market that were advertising (hard money equity loans) then, and they weren’t much competition. I advertised in business and television sections and then in a weekly newspaper magazine. I got great results until a few years ago, when there were just too many other companies doing this.”

McDonough later discovered the power of postcard marketing as well. “That’s been a huge part of my business,” he noted. “The cards typically had a simple message, such as ‘Interest Rates Drop….No Closing Costs and No Fees.’ That set us apart from others, those companies that weren’t selling the ‘no closing cost’ idea. During the major 1993 refi boom, this technique was our most successful overall strategy.”

During the early phase of his career, McDonough didn’t focus on marketing to ensure long-term customer relationships. “Loan originators just didn’t understand the benefit of maintaining lifetime relationships as we do today,” he explained. “We would do a great job with the customer, but wouldn’t have much contact with them after that. This often allowed them to forget us and they might work with another originator later on. It was immediate gratification; obtaining a new client, and then on to the next one. Part of the reason for this was that there weren’t as many educational opportunities to learn about customer-for-life strategies.”

As formal lending/broker relationships started to evolve in the early 80’s, McDonough was in an enviable position working with builders. “In certain cases, developers were paying all of the customer’s closing costs (which was the cost of doing business at the time) and they would select a single lender/originator to do all of the homes—kind of a controlled business arrangement. I was one of these and it was a major benefit.”

After experiencing success at a few different firms in the Florida market, including running his own brokerage and a three-year stint as a senior manager for a lender, McDonough opened Family Mortgage in 1996. He took extra time to create his blueprint for future success. “I wrote a business plan that was set up like a doctor’s office—myself and a support team with the goal of treating customers royally so they would continue to come back. The idea was to reconnect with the many people who might remember me from my prior origination days, build a database, and then launch a marketing campaign. Our first mailing was a simple announcement about the business opening.”

It didn’t take long for him to see the results. “After the initial announcement, we got the first three transactions from borrowers who remembered me. It was a great way to start.”

In recent years, he has refined his “lifetime customer” focus, which now includes the following steps.

During the Transaction
“We try to make it as easy as possible, with an emphasis on educating the customer, so that they have a great experience. For example, we have created a booklet and checklist for various areas that borrower needs to be aware of, including moving and basic homeownership tips. It’s a roadmap to help them get through the process. Also, we send a letter to both the listing and selling agent to inform them who we are and that we’ll stay in touch.”

In addition, prior to receiving the contract, Family Mortgage alerts agents that the customer has been preapproved. “They really appreciate this,” he added.

McDonough also sends a letter to all parties involved, using the familiar “Can you hear me now?” phrase, which reinforces their promise to be in regular contact with customers.

He noted that the “wow” service throughout the transaction is his most powerful marketing. “We’re building an image that we are a resource to all parties. We’re involved with them every step of the way. It is a positive experience and makes customers and agents alike want to refer us to others. It’s the best marketing we have.”

Post Closing
“We have a series of items that we send past customers over an 18-month period,” said McDonough. These include:

  • Thank-you card, a $5 Blockbuster movie gift card and popcorn sent to new clients soon after closing.
  • Two-three weeks later borrower receives a $25 Home Depot gift card.
  • A restaurant gift certificate is sent to select clients (depending on size of the loan) a few weeks later.
  • Three months after closing, clients receive a card that says, “Can you believe it’s been three months?” Noted McDonough, “This reminds them of us and offers us a chance to ask for referrals.”
  • Anniversary Card
  • Cards on Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and other unique holidays
  • Birthday card (for life)
  • Refrigerator magnet
  • Handwritten thank-you cards sent every time someone makes a referral, regardless of the outcome. “We want to encourage people to continue sending us referrals, even though they might not become clients.”

In addition, McDonough is adding another component to his customer contact campaign: oversized postcards that have helpful messages on both sides. These quarterly “Newsettes” will feature two brief articles on such topics as identify theft and homeownership tips. “There won’t be any specific call to action, but rather this is another way to build rapport,” he said.

McDonough has certainly seen the value of increased contact with past customers. He explained that one of his first loans at Family Mortgage was for a physician with whom he has since stayed in touch. “He has probably been responsible for three to five percent of my total business, through direct referrals,” he said. “We carefully track the source of our business and we ask not only ‘Who referred you?’ but also ‘Who referred them?’ It’s amazing how many referrals can be traced back to a few people.”

He’s also an advocate of prospecting for new leads. “We select economic and geographic farming areas for future business,” McDonough explained. “For example, we sent 5,000 direct mail pieces per month to prospects that fit our profile of possible clients in the future. This was for people within 10 miles of our office who had a mortgage amount between $300,000 and $650,000. At one time this included people with high dollar amount mortgages that would refinance when rates dropped.”

McDonough’s primary borrower base is high-end clients. “Last year, our average loan size was $344,000 and this month it’s closer to $700,000.” During the last several years, he has also developed a relocation niche, arranging handling loans for about 15 executives of an upscale Ritz Carlton community that was developed nearby.

As the office’s sole originator, McDonough obviously depends on support. “Of course, without a team there’s no way I could come close to doing the volume that I’ve had in recent years,” he said. His team currently includes: Andrew Tylander, marketing assistant who coordinates various mailings and related areas and handles post-closing duties; Evan McDonough (his son), who has worked part time during college and upon graduation this month will work full time as a processor; Ann Howell, who has been on maternity leave last year and eventually be a home-based originator, and Rita McDonough, his 82 year-old mother, who has 40 years experience in real estate and finance and has handled closings and bookkeeping. While McDonough knows that there can be challenges working with family members, he emphasizes the upside. “It can be a wonderful experience having your mother and son work with you. When he was 12 years old, my son said he wanted to take over the business some day. Here we are 10 years later, and he’s on the path to do just that.”

McDonough stressed that his team’s systems aren’t overly complicated. “After the initial brief phone conservation and an evaluation of necessary customer information, we can have an application ready to go within 15 minutes 99 percent of the time. Throughout the process, there is a system of checks and balances whereby we review files and other areas every day and critical tasks are delegated. We also make sure that the customers’ questions are anticipated and we communicate regularly so that we reduce incoming status calls, which increases the overall efficiency. Our staff is trained to help the client when they do call. People want answers, not callbacks.”

McDonough has carefully observed the essential characteristics of other top producers during his long career. He stressed that one key is having the extra knowledge and understanding that successful originators have of their customers. “The best originators know that a loan is more than a transaction. They get to know their customers and understand their future goals as part of developing a long-term relationship.”

A comprehensive business plan is another essential superstar requirement. “Many originators work themselves ragged because they don’t know their end direction and because they’re doing non income-producing things that aren’t the best use of their time. You’ve got to have a workable plan.”

In addition, aspiring superstars need to make the investment in their business. “I put at least 10 percent of my earnings into marketing,” he said. “You also have to be willing to invest in assistants, allowing you to focus on the best income-producing tasks.”

McDonough noted that this year is turning out to be a slower year overall, although the loan sizes have nearly compensated. “We averaged 20 loans a month last year and so far this year the monthly volume has been closer to half that. However, individual loans are often larger now. We’ve been doing loans in the $1-2 million range.”

To help maintain a full pipeline, McDonough is planning several new strategies, including a marketing campaign aimed at homeowners wanting to sell their property without a Realtor, along with additional ways to solidify relationships with past customers. He’ll also continue to mentor his son, as he learns more about the origination business. McDonough himself doesn’t seem to be in a rush to retire. “Over 25 years there have been the inevitable ups and downs in this industry,” he said. “Yet, I don’t know of any other profession that offers the same income potential and freedom as mortgage lending. It’s a great business to be in.”

Superstar of the Month-Top Processor-Shelby Seaman

Key Responsibilities: Ordering docs, clearing conditions and other processing tasks; underwriting majority of loans

Everyday Challenges: Time management, balancing work and family life

Marketing Contribution: Ongoing contact with customers provides opportunity to “wow” them.

Other Team Members: Loan officer (Linda Davidson), marketing coordinator, operations manager, mortgage planner and team assistant

Workweek: 5 days, 45 hours

Favorite Book: “The Traveler’s Gift,” By Andy Andrews

Favorite Quote: “To accomplish great things, we must dream as well as act.” –Anatole France (author)

Shelby Seaman got her first exposure to the mortgage lending industry as a college student, working as a marketing assistant on Linda Davidson’s team at Service First Mortgage, Dallas, Texas. When she graduated with a psychology degree from Southern Methodist University in 2002, Seaman carefully evaluated her career options, which also included early childhood counseling. “I loved working for the Davidson Team and learned a lot as a marketing assistant,” she said. “I had the option of training as a processor, which was appealing to me.”

Seaman determined that the mortgage industry offered good long-term opportunities and she began her full-time career at Service First. Davidson was certainly happy with the decision; Seaman handled approximately 200 loans last year and was a key reason for the team’s success. “She has been such an asset,” stressed Davidson.

Seaman’s professional development has been somewhat different than what other processors experience. She initially trained as a processor, knowing that she would most likely assume underwriting responsibilities as well. Service First encourages the dual role and provides extensive training that leads to the Direct Endorsement (DE) designation. “We start as a processor and learn various test cases with our corporate underwriter,” said Seaman. “We progress through several stages to underwrite different levels of loans, based on their complexity. I started processing in 2002 and after two years additional training, was ready to underwrite also.”

As a loan specialist/underwriter, Seaman, 27, follows the loan from contract through funding. “I handle the majority of the loans from beginning to end, without anyone else touching the file,” she said. “This includes ordering docs, clearing conditions and confirming the availability of funds. There is seldom any need for me to meet with Linda or involve her in the closing process, since the upfront systems are set to ensure that all goes smoothly and the structure of the loan has already been clearly communicated.”

Seaman and other processors follow a comprehensive checklist to ensure that all steps are carefully followed. “It’s all pretty straightforward,” she said. “It guarantees that new processors would be able to adhere to the same proven system.” A company-wide mantra is that loans “don’t close late and don’t close ugly.” The latter term refers to the problem areas they want to avoid. “Essentially, that means there are no surprises and no unforeseen problems,” she said. “We make sure that all the information is obtained up-front, that everything is thoroughly explained to customers and that the loan is as flawless as possible.”

Seaman noted that frequent status reports are a primary reason for trouble-free transactions. She sends e-mail updates to customers, agents and others. “I’ve found it’s the preferred method of communication for most borrowers and agents.”

Seaman has become increasingly comfortable with her underwriting responsibilities as well. “I underwrite and approve a majority of my loans,” she explained. “However, depending on the risk factor of the mortgager, I may need our corporate underwriter’s second signature or we may broker out the loan if it is not an in-house product. I always look at a loan from both the processor’s and underwriter’s viewpoint; the additional activity really doesn’t involve that much more time on my part.”

She also embraces what some may consider an atypical processor task—marketing. Seaman strives to make sure that Davidson Team customers receive the “wow” factor throughout the loan transaction, so that they will have a positive experience and want to share referrals. “I have ongoing phone and e-mail contact, as well as specific touch points, that gives me an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, enthusiasm and an interest in their welfare,” she said.

“Shelby is the last person that all parties involved speak to before closing and she always leaves everyone feeling that they are important and confident that the closing will be as promised,” added Davidson. “She understands that everyone on the team is in marketing.”

Of course, Seaman makes a point to help educate everyone about the nuances of a processor’s day-to-day role. “We have weekly meetings that provide me with a chance to voice what I’m seeing and where I need help to make the process smooth. I think it’s an ongoing education. If processors and loan originators understand each other’s jobs better, it makes for easier and smoother transactions. Loan officers and processors must continually communicate to be sure we’re on the same page, to understand what’s expected from the other.”

Early on, Seaman learned that time management is an inevitable challenge. “If we have an exceptional number of loans in a week or month and I want to meet our goal of reviewing all files within 24 hours, I need to structure my day so that we get started and don’t close late,” said Seaman. “The team will pitch in and help when necessary. I get a lot of support from everyone.”

Of course, procrastination is one of the common obstacles to effective time management. “Processors have to keep the pipeline running smoothly, in part by getting through the files quickly,” she said. “There is a temptation to deal with all of the easier loans first and put off the harder ones until later. But that can create bottlenecks when you encounter major problems with such loans. While our main priority is dealing with loans as they come in, I often find it most effective to deal with some of the more difficult loans first so they don’t create challenges later on.”

Balancing work with her personal life is another crucial goal. “It is really important for me to get home to my family (husband and two young children) at a reasonable time. I try to leave the office by 5:00 p.m., and usually don’t bring work home. But while I’m at the office, I want to make certain that I have given the service that every buyer deserves.”

Last year, a special situation required extra attention to the work-family balance; Seaman took two months maternity leave after the birth of her son. “There were files waiting for me when I returned,” she said. “However, it seemed like I just picked up where we left off. I didn’t skip a beat.”

From Seaman’s perspective, successful processors share a couple of key characteristics. “They need to be focused, with good attention to detail, and not be easily distracted,” she noted. “You’ll often have customers who want to talk a little longer than usual. We have to answer their questions and be friendly, but not get caught up in extended conversations.”

Processors also must be able to maintain working relationships with a diverse group of people, including title and insurance reps, and appraisers. “We have to realize that there are team members other than the originator and processor,” she said. “We need to treat the other participants as essential members of the team. It’s not only the right thing to do, but can be beneficial later when we need their support for various requests.”

She added that as a processor-underwriter, she must also be an “out of the box” thinker. “For example, if we see loans that may not fit the normal parameters, we need to look for a more creative approach.”

Seaman is confident that she made a wise choice to make lending a career and is enthusiastic about her future. “I’m glad I decided to go into this profession,” she said. “I want to stay in the mortgage lending business. I’m more of an office-oriented person; more comfortable behind a desk and on the phone than out originating loans.”

SuperStar of the Month – Gina Jackson

Primary Marketing: “We have a very disciplined approach to marketing to my database,” said Jackson. “I send a quarterly newsletter to everyone, a client appreciation letter (based on a Brian Buffini program) to my top 200 clients every other month, and an item of value once or twice a year. We take a gift to closings and send a small token gift after closing, along with our customer survey.” The follow-up campaign also includes a reminder to customers to file for their Homestead exemption (first January they are in their home) and an anniversary card. “I also do a lot of advertising with my local elementary school (which my kids attend) and in the neighborhood paper.” In addition, she has an affiliation with a local “boutique” Realtor, attending weekly meetings, giving them appreciation parties, and new agent training.

Most Effective Marketing: Marketing to the database. “We do not let them forget us. It’s top-of-the-mind awareness.  Our tag line on e-mails is ‘It is our goal to be worthy of your trust and deserving of your referrals.’ About 75 percent of our business is from repeat and client referrals. We keep marketing to them; they’re more likely to come back or refer us to others if we ‘wow’ them (at initial loan) and then stay in touch.”

Niche: Financial planners (and Realtors). “Working with planners started as a result of having a large percentage of high net-worth clients, many of whom used the same financial planning group. I met the primary planners, did many of their own loans, and then they began referring loans to me. They started a professional networking group and I’m the mortgage person. Also, I joined the Dallas chapter of the Financial Planners Association as an affiliate members/sponsor and attend their regular events.”

Teamwork: A production partner (junior originator), a senior processor, and transaction coordinator. “We market ourselves as a team of four. After the application, we e-mail a photo of the team, noting the various responsibilities so the customer knows whom to call. My production partner is licensed, but she works on my business, including taking applications, qualifying borrowers, and related areas.”

Key Ingredient for Success: High-touch approach to customer service. “We have mastered customer service at the highest professional level. We do a post-closing survey and many of our borrowers tell us that ‘this is the easiest loan transaction I’ve ever done.’ We make the process easy for customers. A lot of our success has to do with our confidence level and the way it’s conveyed to customers. For example, when I tell customers that they’ll be approved, they know there’s nothing to worry about. It’s a ‘can do’ attitude.”

Achieving Work/Personal Balance: “Achieved by my Christian faith first, my husband and children second, and my business career last. After 15 years in the business and (experiencing) many of life’s fortunate and unfortunate events, I have learned that there is a specific order to my priorities. I love what I do, but I am not willing to sacrifice my life or my family to do it.”