Alyson Griffin , Houston, Texas
“A lot of originators consider every deal a ‘life and death’ situation. You have to have a plan and focus on the long haul.”
Alyson Griffin has made it her business to work with first-time buyers. And it has been a successful plan. Last year she did $37.1 million and 394 loans and was number 38 on M.O.M.’s Top 200 Originator List (for number of loans). Eighty-seven percent of that was government loans, primarily for first-timers.
Griffin started in the lending industry in 1993, after several years as a real estate agent. “I thought I’d enjoy originating and be more successful at it,” she said. She worked for another Houston-area mortgage banker, and then joined AccuBanc Mortgage in 1998. Early on, she concentrated on builder business, which has remained her primary focus. “I had taken a call from a builder during my first week on the job and was able to help,” she said. “The sales rep was in a panic because his customer (a single mom) had been turned down. I told her I thought I could do the loan. Obviously, the builder appreciated my response.”
Griffin, 34, determined the best way to become established was to spend time on-site, so she began working at a builder’s sales office every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. She made a point to help educate the sales reps. “My plan was to enlighten the salespeople as to what they should expect, to help them understand the total loan process.”
Griffin recalled that business began to increase, as other prospects saw buyers lined up and sensed the attraction of that particular project. “Cars were parked along the street, which created a stir. It was tremendously successful,” she said. “We helped take a subdivision that had been doing one loan a month to about 12 sales per month.”
In addition to supporting the sales staff, Griffin connected with borrowers as well. She learned that people often wouldn’t spend much time at the subdivisions because they were simply overwhelmed with the loan process, or felt service was lacking. Griffin took extra time with these first-time buyers. “I explained the fundamentals of credit, income, and assets,” she said. “I broke everything down into basic steps so that they were more comfortable.”
More builder sales reps began referring customers to Griffin. “I got the reputation of spending time with borrowers and builders noticed that,” she said. “The business mushroomed from there.”
Griffin currently works with 11 builders. She provides them with a weekly report to keep them informed of the status of their various transactions. “Many of these loans are on a 120 to 150-day time period, so there’s a lot of communication and hand holding,” she said.
She considers herself a “partner” with her builders. She makes an effort to stay abreast of unique programs that may benefit them now or in the future. “For example, I’ll suggest a certain bond issue that might assist their financing,” she said. And in one instance, I introduced two builders so that they could form a joint venture.”
Griffin has also teamed with some of her builders to market to apartment complexes near a particular project. For example, one of their flyers stated, “You can own for as little as 3 percent down.” She noted that it resulted in numerous inquiries and several closed loans. “This rent versus own approach has worked very well,” she said.
While she no longer spends as many Saturdays at subdivisions, a key part of her marketing is meeting with builders on a regular basis. “I’m with them at least every two weeks to ask how they’re doing and see what else I can do to help,” she said. She also uses these meetings as a chance to develop market and competitive information. “I like to keep a pulse of what’s going on in the front line,” she said. “I’ll find out what customers are hearing and how that might impact builders and my own business.” Griffin makes regular presentations to the builder sales teams. In addition to providing the industry facts, she also tries to make it an enjoyable experience. For example, she has held a mortgage quiz on several occasions. The agents have a bell to ring when they are ready to answer the basic loan questions, such as, “Can you do an FHA loan if the borrower has had a bankruptcy?” She rewards them with a dollar for each right answer. “It reminds them about some of the areas they might have forgotten, and it’s also a lot of fun,” she said.
Griffin conveys a sense of urgency in her communication with builder clients. “I continually remind them of what’s necessary to close a specific loan in a timely fashion. For instance, I provide constant updates on the timing for title, inspection and other documents that are necessary for completion.”
Suzanne Schakett, closing coordinator with Gateway Homes in Houston, has had an opportunity to observe Griffin’s approach. She emphasized that Griffin’s proactive manner sets her apart from other loan originators. “One of the things that makes her different is her problem solving ability,” Schakett said. “Unlike other originators, she looks ahead to foresee potential problems. It’s preventive maintenance, so that things don’t fall in the cracks. Most people react; she is always looking forward to see what obstacles might prevent a loan from closing.”
Griffin’s concentration on builders’ schedules usually means that she is working during the holiday period. “Builders need to have the inventory cleared by the end of the year for tax purposes, and so they can plan for the next year,” she said. “It’s nearly impossible to go on vacation then. It’s amazing how many people want to buy from a builder project during this time.”
Griffin has specialized in builder business because she believes it fits her overall growth strategy. “I like working with builders because I can plan my own production better,” she noted. “I’m able to determine how many loans I’ll get for each subdivision during a specific period. I’ve also found that they treat everything more businesslike. They have such an investment in land and property, so that they have an absolute commitment to meeting deadlines.”
She offers several tips for originators who wish to expand their own builder base. Most important is understanding the construction planning process. “Builders are constantly forecasting their next homes and it’s critical that their sales go smoothly,” she said. “You and your support team have to be aware of the various phases and meet those deadlines without fail. For instance, I keep a constant review of the various construction steps of my borrowers. If a customer says their house’s foundation was just poured, I’ll tell them, ‘The house should be done in 60 to 75 days, so it’s time to lock the rate.'”
She also said to avoid being intimidated. “Loan originators are often intimidated by builders and may try to avoid sales calls,” she pointed out. “Builders tend to be more direct about whether or not they need your services. It takes patience. I called on one builder for more than a year before he finally gave me some business.”
The majority of her borrowers continue to be first-time buyers. She knows that this typically means a lower average price range (last year her average was $95,000), but that hasn’t deterred her. She hasn’t been tempted to specialize in the higher-value transactions. “My future will be with first-time purchasers. From my experience, it’s difficult to stay competitive with the higher-end market.”
She takes all the applications herself in her office, and is backed up by two assistants and three processors. “If the borrower isn’t ready to buy right then, I’ll stay in contact over the next six months. Eventually they will be ready and I want them to come back to me.” She is striving to expand her customer referral business. At closing she provides customers a special Texas gift basket, which contains chips, salsa, a scarf, and other local items. “Customers really like it. We had one buyer that told the builder he wanted to go with us, partially because he wanted to get a gift basket.”
She also has a customer for life program that is administered by Continuity Programs. This outsourced service involves the mailing of postcards, letters, and other pieces every four months. “This is a real advantage because I know customers are receiving ongoing communication, but it doesn’t require my constant attention,” she said.
Griffin is also evaluating special niche markets. For example, one of her assistants speaks Spanish and works closely with the Hispanic community in Houston. “This is our fastest growing entry-level market and we’re working hard to meet their needs,” she explained. Griffin emphasized that her production has gradually evolved, from a first-year of approximately $8 million to subsequent years of roughly $14, $21, and $25 million in volume. “I’ve always wanted to have a steady business,” she stated. “Some originators go for every loan and then eventually they can’t keep up with the pace. I don’t want to be in a situation where I can’t maintain the appropriate level of service.”
She has observed other characteristics of highly productive originators. Most important is having a long-term view of the business. “You have to keep the big picture in mind,” Griffin said. “A lot of originators consider every deal a ‘life and death’ situation. You have to have a plan and focus on the long haul.”
Griffin also believes that it’s important to reward your support team. In addition to the incentives she provides her assistants and processors, she makes sure that her customers are also aware of their contributions. For example, she’ll frequently remind builder reps to congratulate her staff. “Support staff are such an integral part of our success,” she said. Griffin said that her future includes plans for dramatic growth. She will soon have a third assistant. As a producing manager, she wants to realize her own production goals and to help the staff members reach their full potential. “I want to teach them the things that have helped make me successful,” she said. “We want to do 700 loans next year.” That’s an ambitious goal, but one that Griffin seems ready to meet.