SuperStar of the Month – Sharon McCormick

Sharon McCormick
Prime Lending
Dallas, Texas
Sharon McCormick
Loan Originator
Prime Lending Inc. (Mortgage Banker)

Categories: Builders: 31%
Realtors: 27%
Past customers: 28%
Customer referrals: 12%
Purchase Business: 54%
Refinance: 46%
Prior career: Commercial land broker
Support team: Assistant, marketing assistant, processor, processing assistant, marketing specialist
Workweek: 5 days, 45 hours
Services outsourced: Mortgage Market Guide and bulk mailings
Favorite books: Bible
“Becoming a Person of Influence”
By John Maxwell
Favorite quote: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary, and they shall walk, and not faint.”
Isaiah 40:31
Vacation time: Three to four weeks annually
Stress-reducing technique: Exercising and traveling

Sharon McCormick hadn’t always planned on being a mortgage originator. In 1992, she was a commercial land broker after being involved in a number of other real estate-finance ventures, and wasn’t necessarily looking for a new career.

But McCormick will agree that it was a wise decision to start originating in 1993. Her volume has steadily grown and last year she closed $76.2 million and 287 loans at Prime Lending in Dallas, Texas. She placed number 199th on Mortgage Originator’s Top Originators list (for dollar volume).

After receiving her MBA in finance, McCormick held a variety of real estate and finance positions at banks and realty offices. She turned to mortgage originating after her previous employer abruptly eliminated her job. “I had two daughters and needed a job,” she said.

McCormick knew the owner of a mortgage brokerage who encouraged her to join the firm. After a brief training period, she hit the streets in search of her first loans. She was confident, but unaware of the best way to originate. “It was in the midst of the 1993 refinance craze,” she said. “I got a reverse phone directory, the kind that gives you the phone numbers for specific addresses. I pinpointed some of the largest houses in the area and found their phone numbers. The book also notes when the homeowner obtained their telephone line, which told me when they moved in and the approximate interest rate.”

Then McCormick called prospective refinance customers from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. every night. “I have no call reluctance at all,” she said. “I knew that even though I would get turned down many times, other people would be interested in a refi. I had prepared a concise message; something like ‘If you haven’t refinanced yet, I have ways to save you money.’ ”

Her simple telephone campaign was a success; she began receiving loans during her first month in the business. “I made as many calls that were necessary to get some loans,” she said.

McCormick wasn’t content to rely on this successful tactic, especially as the refi business started to slow. “I contacted Realtors and asked them what they wanted. One of the things mentioned was having a clean car in which to drive their clients. So I began thinking about the potential of providing car washes as a way to meet and talk with agents.”

McCormick produced colorful fliers announcing the car-cleaning offer and arranged a quantity discount with a local car wash. “The flier told the agents they needed to bring their business cards and be there at a designated time,” she explained. “I was there to introduce myself and discuss loan programs. The agents would almost feel guilty that they were getting a car wash from an originator with whom they weren’t doing business, so they would give me a deal. This worked out every well; it’s how I got started with Realtor business.”

She continued holding car washes for the next couple of years and also expanded her contacts by visiting select Realtor offices. “I targeted three of the largest offices and began delivering fliers that highlighted my background and specific loan programs,” she said. “Holding the car washes and distributing fliers ensured that everyone in these offices knew my name within six months.”

McCormick learned that promoting her ability to qualify borrowers quickly was another strategy appreciated by agents. “I take an application over the phone, then immediately run a credit report and inform the agent that all they need to do is find the borrower a house.”

She also realized the value of providing her agent contacts with referrals. “I ask every borrower who calls whether they already have a real estate agent, and if not, I refer them to one of the agents on our list. Agents remember that.”

Realtor business was a crucial part of McCormick’s overall base until a few years ago, when she realized the impact of competition from in-house lenders. She began to place even more emphasis on past customer relationships. Her customer service/follow-up program now includes:

  • Oversized business card. One side of the card features the message: “I want to make you a member of our raving fan club,” and the other side lists the names and contact information for her team members. “This helps demonstrate that even when I’m not available, they can contact anyone here,” she noted.
  • Closing gift. McCormick gives borrowers a self-addressed ink stamp for their new home.
  • Post-closing survey. McCormick initially didn’t receive a sufficient number of responses. “Then we started to include a dollar bill and a stamped return envelope and now we get almost all of them back,” she said.
  • Monthly newsletter. Her assistant helps produce the two-page newsletter, which usually covers a single subject, such as bi-weekly mortgages or refinancing. In addition, the newsletter usually features a personal news item. “In past issues I’ve included pictures of myself with Rudy Giuliani, my two daughters, and my support team. We get a lot of feedback on this; people feel like they know you.”
  • Letter with the customer’s HUD-1 statement, sent in January.
  • Letter reminding customers to take advantage of the Homestead Act tax credit.
  • Anniversary and holiday cards.
  • Other items, including college football schedules, a calendar, and refrigerator magnet. “I send the newsletters by bulk mail, but the calendars go first class, which is a good way to update our database,” she noted.
  • Thank-you card sent to all those who have provided referrals.
  • Refinance letter sent during periods of low interest rates.

McCormick has a personal Web site, which she uses to generate business, rather than to merely provide information. “Customers are able to quickly complete the application, which then populates into Point. It’s been a good source of loans and a major time- saver for us.”

She expanded her builder base after Prime Lending—which she joined in 1994—was subsequently acquired by a large bank. The alliance provided her with an entrée to the bank’s diverse builder programs, enabling her to offer both interim and permanent financing to builders and buyers. “I began doing a lot of custom homes during the last two years, and my average home price has increased dramatically.”

She meets with builder reps on an ongoing basis and has also developed other value-added services. For example, she has a separate cell phone number and e-mail address for them to use when communicating with her team. She also developed a booklet for builder reps and agents to distribute to their customers. It highlights such critical areas as the loan process, payment schedules, and credit issues.

McCormick emphasizes the importance of having a flexible marketing program. “I’m constantly reinventing myself,” she said. “In October I typically develop a plan for the upcoming year, but I’m always making changes—based on marketing conditions, ideas obtained at conferences, and other factors.”

She has a five-person team to help manage the load: an assistant, a marketing assistant, a processor, and an assistant processor; her daughter recently joined them as a marketing specialist. “I couldn’t do it without their contributions,” she emphasized. “I know how much my success depends on them.”

McCormick took an organized approach to assembling her team. The first person she added was a processor. When she reached $20 million in annual production (1997), she was ready to hire an assistant. She spent two months evaluating all of the various activities she wanted accomplished and then compiled a detailed job description for her assistant and placed an ad on http://www.monster.com/, an online job placement service.

The company pays the staff’s base salaries, but McCormick is responsible for production bonuses and other incentives. In addition to the monetary rewards, she helps ensure her team’s loyalty by watching out for their interests in other ways. For instance, she will often modify a job description in order to take advantage of a team member’s talents. “For example, I have someone who was great on the phone and with detail work, but who didn’t necessarily want to market, so we created a slightly different role for her.”

McCormick and her team have developed an efficient system to ensure that they can get through a full pipeline in a timely manner. A key step involves the application process; she takes approximately 80 percent of her applications over the phone and follows-up with faxes and e-mails. “Most of my business comes from veteran borrowers, including many past customers who appreciate the convenience and don’t require hand-holding,” she explained.

They also are certain to take complete applications upfront. “We never send out a blank application for a prospect to fill in and sign. We’ll either get the information on the phone or from their online application and then send the completed app to them. They are much more likely to return our application rather than one that they have to fill out.”

McCormick also created a refinance check-up form that lists homeowners’ balance, current interest rate, and other details. “It’s another way of streamlining,” she said. “We don’t have to take as many phone calls during a heavy refinance period; they just send the form in and we’re ready to go.”

She doesn’t find it necessary to provide regular updates to real estate agents and builders. “They know us well enough and are aware that we take care of any problems right away. There’s no need to take the extra take time to send written reports.”

In addition, the staff uses Point’s Conversation page as a way to keep track of their contacts with borrowers. Every time a team member talks to a customer, they log their comments, actions, and initials on the form. “This is an ongoing record of all communications that helps ensure there are no surprises,” she said.

Streamlining the loan process is just one of the main characteristics of top producers, according to McCormick. She also believes that most successful originators focus on the activities that guarantee production increases. “You need to concentrate on the origination activities and off-load the non-productive tasks to a staff member. I consider production to be my main responsibility and I work hard to eliminate any friction that occurs in the loan process.”

Of course, McCormick is also an advocate of the team concept. She emphasized that you simply can’t reach the higher levels without a crew. “You have to surround yourself with people who complement your own talents. For example, I’m not very detail-oriented, so I make sure that everyone on my team has that quality.”

She also believes that top producers have the ability to see the big picture, to “look outside the box. You have to find ways to look ahead, searching for new business. You can’t be satisfied with the business you have today; you have to be thinking ahead to the next 100 loans. Always think like an entrepreneur.”
McCormick is definitely looking ahead to next month and beyond. She will continue to grow her business, which will include working with more builders. “I’m always looking for new opportunities,” she said. “I never get bored in this business. Just look how much it’s changed in the last few years alone.”

SuperStar of the Month – Tina Mitchell

In 1999 Tina Mitchell was at a crossroads with her professional life. She was a successful hotel industry manager but was ready for a change and had two completely different options to consider: a wine distributorship or the lending industry.
Mitchell opted for mortgage lending and after 3 ½ years as a loan originator, she is confident it was the right choice. Last year she closed $66.8 million and 454 loans for Wells Fargo Mortgage in Bellevue, Wash.
Prior to embarking on her lending career, Mitchell had been a food and beverage manager at a Holiday Inn for several years. She enjoyed the work, but when the hotel was sold to a larger chain, she felt it was time for a move. “I wanted to make sure my new career provided me with greater control over my financial success,” she said.
After careful evaluation of her two options, Mitchell went to work for a Bellevue mortgage brokerage. Her initial focus was on generating Realtor business. “The first thing I did was go next door to the Realtor office,” she noted. “I introduced myself and offered to talk about new loan programs to the agents.”
Mitchell, 34, also did something that many originators ignore: she asked for the broker’s advice on how best to develop relationships with the agents. “I wanted to know how I could assist the agents to establish rapport. One thing she suggested was to visit agents during their floor time. I did that and brought cookies, which was well received.”
Mitchell’s hotel experience provided her with another idea, hosting an espresso bar at Realtor offices. She hired a company to set up the portable refreshment stand outside of the offices, after the real estate agents’ meetings were over.  “This was an ideal time because we caught them as they were leaving their weekly meeting and going to their listings. It was very popular and was basically how I obtained my first quality circle of real estate agents.”
In a further effort to expand her leads, Mitchell began holding weekly first-time borrower seminars with a ReMAX agent in 2000. They use telemarketing to reach prospects and hold the seminars at libraries, schools, and other public locations. Mitchell concludes her presentation on the basics of homeownership by encouraging attendees to join her for an individual consultation. “We typically average 30 prospects and about 40 percent of the participants are referred by previous attendees. They’ll go back to their office and tell others about the how helpful the seminar was.”
The seminars have become a major source of business for Mitchell; last year they accounted for approximately 60 percent of her production. She emphasized that this amount will gradually decrease as her referral network continues to expand and she relies less on new leads. “I’m constantly building my database which will add to my referral network and eventually I’ll have to do very few seminars.”
During her first year as an originator Mitchell was already developing a solid base of business, but a turning point came in 2000 when she began to automate her customer contact system. She attended a conference where speakers emphasized the importance of an organized database and unlike many originators who find it difficult to implement newly learned strategies, Mitchell wasted no time in creating her own system. She selected Top Producer, a real estate software program that enables her to personalize her customer/prospect database with loan details, birthdays, anniversaries, and other essential information. The program is designed to provide a daily list of everyone who is to receive a letter or card. All Mitchell’s assistant has to do is pull up the list on her computer screen, select the print option, and wait a few minutes for the day’s personalized mailers to be prepared, ready for folding and enclosing in an envelope. With this system in place, Mitchell was able to significantly expand her customer communications program, which now includes:

  • A series of 10 different letters that address various issues of the loan transaction, including specific terms, closing costs, and interest rates. The letters are sent every two weeks starting just after their application. “My goal is to educate them and make it less stressful,” she explained. “I’ve found that by the time they get to closing, they are comfortable with the entire process.”
  • Special letters, for example those sent during last year’s heavy refinance period. Mitchell developed two versions of a refinance letter; one aimed at homeowners whose current loan/rate made them less likely to warrant a refinance, and another for customers who could benefit from a refi. “The customers who had a loan that wasn’t right to refinance appreciated the letter because they had received mailers telling them they should refinance and they had questions. They knew that we were thinking of their interests.”
  • Anniversary cards sent after the borrower has been in their new home for a month, six months, and a year, and annually thereafter.
  • Holiday card sent between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  • Birthday cards for customers and their children.
  • Thank-you cards to acknowledge past customers’ referrals.
  • Monthly newsletters to both past customers and referral sources. “It lets customers see my face every month and maintains general visibility, which is so vital,” she said.
    “Everything is automated now, what a client gets depends on their place in system, whether or not they have attended a seminar, for instance. I’m convinced that a number of loans would have slipped through the cracks if we hadn’t been automated. I strongly suggest that other originators do something similar.”
    Mitchell is continually monitoring the response to her customer database program. “I make an effort to treat every contact as a prospect. If we don’t meet or take an application after 10 weeks of marketing, we put their names into an inactive status. However, I never stop marketing to past customers.”
    In addition, Mitchell calls her customers one week after closing and then on an annual basis. She has recorded a series of messages and each day the automated program lists those customers who are to be called. For example, the annual message starts with the greeting “It’s been a year and I wanted to touch base and see how you are doing.”  Her assistant merely has to e-mail Eppoffect (their outsourced service) instructions for the specific message and the day/time the calls are to be made. “I’ve only been in the business for four years, but I already have too many people to call myself,” she said. “That’s why the automated system and outsourcing works so well.”
    Mitchell is always on the lookout for new ideas to incorporate into her program. “I have a wish list, with a lot of things I want to add,” she said. “However, I only work on one new thing at a time; you can get bogged down if you try to do too many things at once.”
    Mitchell credits her support team with making it possible to coordinate the diverse origination techniques and day-to-day operations. “Team Mitchell” includes Torinda Ray, executive assistant; Heidi Harris, loan assistant; and Susie Monroe, processor. “There’s no way I could do the volume without their invaluable assistance,” she said. “Having them handle the many administrative and related tasks allows me to focus on working directly with customers.”
    She includes “Team Mitchell” in all communications materials and introduces the support staff to agents and other referral sources. “It’s a strong selling point,” said Mitchell. “Agents and others know that if they can’t reach me, one of the team is always available.”
    The team has developed a time-efficient approach that enabled them to close 316 loans last year. They first fax or e-mail a condensed 1003 form that the borrower completes so that Harris can obtain any additional information and complete the full application. While Mitchell doesn’t actually take the applications herself, she has contact with all customers on at least two occasions: the face-to-face meeting when loan options are discussed and the subsequent phone conversation when the borrower advises that he or she has made an offer on a home. By conserving her time in this manner, Mitchell can focus on getting to know the customer better and plant the seeds for long-term loyalty. “Because I don’t have to worry about the paperwork as much, I can spend more quality time with customers and learn about their needs. This also helps us achieve greater overall production.”
    Mitchell modifies her voice mail message five times a day to reflect her changing schedule, letting callers know that she or an assistant will respond as soon as possible. “For example, that way they know that the reason I’m not calling them back right away is that I’m in a two hour meeting,” she noted.
    She has also developed telephone scripts as a way to ensure that the team members communicate with customers and prospects in a consistent manner. The scripts cover such common topics as interest rates, appointment scheduling, and tax benefits of homeownership. “The scripts help ensure that the caller is getting the same complete answer every time and that overall everything runs smoother.”
    In her nearly four years as an originator, Mitchell has had an opportunity to observe the work habits and characteristics of other top producers. She is adamant that having some type of assistance is critical. “You’ve got to have a team to get to a higher level. You have to be willing to invest your own resources if necessary, to build your team,” she stressed.
    She also emphasized the importance of “working smarter. Part of this involves focusing on the money-producing activities,” she said. “This is hard to do at first, but it’s a critical element. Originators often devote too much time to operational and other areas that don’t contribute to bottom line loan generation.”
    In addition, she is a proponent of the “One Timing” concept. This essentially means that it is much more efficient to create a model of a task so that it can be repeated without having to follow the same series of actions. She cited the example of the refinance letter strategy she introduced last year. Rather than be inundated with calls from past customers who weren’t suitable for a refi, she sent them all the same letter that answered most of their questions. That one action eliminated many unnecessary calls and gave her additional time for more productive work.
    Mitchell has a good grasp of what makes a successful loan originator. She continues to be goal oriented as she looks ahead to the next few years. She said she is on track to do about the same production as 2001; this year most of it is purchase business.  Her short-term goals include developing a personal Web site in conjunction with Wells Fargo and a videotape that will explain the closing process. “This will be a great educational tool that we will send to borrowers,” she said. “It will also introduce them to our team.”
    On a long-term basis, she would like to hire an associate originator, allowing her to concentrate on maintaining relationships with past customers. Meanwhile, she looks forward to each day as an originator. “I love what I’m doing,” she emphasized. “When I started I had no idea how much pleasure I would get by helping people achieve their goal of homeownership. My career move turned out to be such a blessing.”

Successful Seminars
Tina Mitchell offers the following tips for developing an effective seminar program.
1. Conduct the seminar with a partner, a real estate agent for example.
2. Establish detailed, “how to” content that will provide attendees with all of the basic information they need.
3. Make sure your program is appropriate for customers with different economic positions and interests.
4. Strive to have a consultation with as many attendees as possible on the seminar day.
5. Maintain a comprehensive database of all participants.
6. Follow through so that you convert seminar attendees to customers.
7. You also want to make sure that those who are unable to attend one seminar will eventually attend another.

Shawn Portmann

“The great thing in this world is not so much where we are, but in what direction we are moving.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Shawn Portmann was certain that there would be life after professional basketball, although he didn’t know it would be as a mortgage originator.
After graduation from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. Portmann played basketball for teams in China, Hong Kong, Australia, and the Philippines. But he knew it was a short-term career. “You’re always under pressure to perform and you’re easily replaced by a new player,” he said. “It’s easy to get burnt out.”

Portmann, 29, returned to the U.S. and began seeking a more stable profession. During a friendly pick-up basketball game he met a successful real estate agent who recommended the mortgage lending industry and referred him to CityBank. “I learned on the go,” he said. “The first six months I didn’t close a loan, then I closed 40 during the next six months. I’ve doubled my business every year since then.”

Last year, Portmann closed approximately $120 million and 756 loans.

Early on, Portmann knew that his emphasis would be on builder business. His two primary Realtor clients specialized in new construction sales and suggested he do the same. “I worked seven days a week; visiting the building sites, putting up balloons, coordinating signs, and talking to customers—whatever it took,” he said. “This was the way I developed a solid base—by always being there, and making builder reps comfortable that once I met with their customer, the loan was done. The builder could move on to the next deal without worrying.”

Portmann developed an extensive marketing approach to help support builders and Realtors. It includes significant co-op marketing activity, such as:

  • Pointer signs that direct people to specific builder developments. They include his name and that of the agent and builder. “I may spend $3,000 on signage for one subdivision, but they’ll stay up for two years,” he said.
  • Billboards to highlight key subdivisions, with name/information for Portmann, agent, and builder.
  • Real estate publication ads that focus on specific subdivisions.

In addition, Portmann advertises on several of his agents’ virtual home tours. These Web programs offer buyers the chance to take an online tour of various properties. It’s another way that he gains visibility while also helping the agents and builders.

“Nearly everything I do is on a co-op, partnership basis,” he said. “This helps them grow their business. For example, if I pay for a portion of an ad that results in the agent earning a $3,000 commission, I’ve invested in his growth and we have an even stronger relationship.”

Portmann also sends agents and builders a monthly update that addresses market trends, loan programs, and other useful information.
As a result of his thorough understanding of builders’ needs and his ongoing support, Portmann has been granted a role that many originators aren’t offered. He attends their management meetings, offers marketing advice, and even suggests pricing strategies. “Because of our knowledge of the FHA market limits, specific loan programs, and related areas, the builders know that we have diverse experience and insights that can be invaluable to them.”

Portmann also stays in touch with his 3,500 past customers. His monthly mailings include recipes, home repair tips, and other useful information, in addition to such items as a bookmark or paperweight.  “Usually there is no sales message; I’m not asking for anything in return. But this keeps my name in front of them.”

He is committed to the success of his origination efforts; he invests about $150,000 a year in the marketing program. “I think you have to be willing to set aside a certain percentage of your income to ongoing origination.”
During his first five years as an originator, Portmann has become quite successful with a government/military niche. “We have a large military population on nearby posts and I have become well versed in their earning structures, move-up options, and residency time frame considerations. We have done loans for three top colonels and also advertise in a military publication. As a result, we are known as being very effective in obtaining the right loan for military personnel.”

Portmann emphasized that he couldn’t handle the volume without the support of his team: a marketing assistant and three processors. “There’s just no way I could be as successful without the support of several people, including my immediate team, along with the branch manager, vice president, and a number of others,” he noted. “They have been instrumental in my development as an originator.”

He takes all of the applications, most of them in his office. CityBank offers him the flexibility to approve his own loans, which are then validated by the office’s underwriters. “This is one of the reasons we are able to do such a high volume. My decision-making ability significantly streamlines the overall process.”

CityBank pays the salaries of Portmann’s team members, but he has his own ways of motivating them, including bonuses based on annual production. In addition, during each of the last three years, Portmann has paid for a vacation for two—anywhere in the world—for his team members, as well as the branch’s operations manager and underwriters. “The trips have been a tremendous incentive for them and although a bit unusual from an originator’s standpoint, they have been worth the investment,” he said.

Although he has an experienced support system, Portmann still follows a demanding schedule. He currently puts in seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day. His weekends include half days of taking applications followed by visits to builder sites. He realizes that other originators might insist that he is a workaholic or lacks a personal life. “I’ve heard it all,” he said.
But Portmann is unapologetic. He maintains this schedule because he enjoys the work and because of his own background. “I came from nothing; we didn’t have much and my dad worked very hard. So I don’t consider driving to subdivisions and answering customer questions to be that difficult. Also, I don’t have to work as much now, but I just enjoy it and know that I’m helping clients and borrowers.”

Everyone has his cell phone number and he will even take calls during application meetings. “If I’m taking an application I will usually say that I’m busy and will return their call when I’m done,” he said. “Some originators will argue that this interferes with borrower meetings, but I disagree. I think it shows that we’re responsive, and the applicant will know that his or her call will be taken right away as well.”

He considers this availability to be a key to his success. “It doesn’t take me long to answer their questions and I can then alleviate unnecessary calls to our staff,” he said.

In addition to availability, Portmann suggests several other characteristics shared by top- producing originators. Most important is to have the appropriate assistance. “Generally, the top originators are those who have a team of some kind. You need others to push you to higher levels of achievement. It’s essential to invest in other people.”

Another primary area is being able to deal with a variety of challenges. “I’m very good at multi-tasking, doing 50 things at the same time.”

Being an adept problem solver is also critical, according to Portmann. “You’ve got to be able to handle the problems and challenges. If you want to be a high producer, you can’t bother agents or customers with the small things.”

And, of course, superstars must have a plan. “All big producers know the importance of having a business plan. You need to set a goal, what you want to accomplish. A clearly defined goal will help you be successful because you’ll make yourself live up to it.”

Portmann definitely has an effective plan. He wants to continue producing at a high level while expanding into other areas as well. For example, he is in partnership with a few of his agents/builders to develop several commercial properties. However, his focus will remain on originating. “I’m a loan officer, and this is what I enjoy the most,” he said.

Shawn Portmann didn’t make it to the NBA, but he’s obviously on his way to a hall of fame career as an originator.

The Government/Military Niche
For originators considering a government/military niche, here are a few basic suggestions:

  • Carefully evaluate the opportunities, which could include a military base/other installation in your own market or one that is close enough for you to effectively do business with.
  • Learn the VA guidelines, including the parameters of the zero down loan.
  • Know the military pay scale (posted on VA Web site). Service men and women are impressed when you know their monthly salary based on their grade and years of service.
  • Advertise in military publications.
  • Assume a financial advisor role with military borrowers. Younger borrowers will especially appreciate your recommendations for their future.
  • Provide excellent service for one or two customers—ideally influential officers—and you will begin to build a referral network.

–Shawn Portmann

Dennis Duncan

Dennis Duncan , Blacksburg, Virg.

Dennis Duncan was once told that he didn’t possess the sales skills to be successful in the finance field. Obviously, the company executive who shared that attitude couldn’t foresee that Duncan would be a top producing loan originator one day. Last year, he closed 560 loans and $62.7 million as a producing manager for JP Morgan Chase (Chase Manhattan Mortgage) in Blacksburg, VA.

After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1975, Duncan considered a career in banking, but after being encouraged to seek another profession, he became a pharmaceutical salesman. Two years later, he decided to give mortgage banking a try, joining Dominion Bank in Pearisburg, Virginia.

“It was a small town of 3000 and I started as a mortgage loan interviewer,” he said. “But I actually did everything from commercial loans to buying car paper.”

He stressed that a valuable part of his early background was assisting with commercial workout loans. “I was responsible for helping to ‘clean things up’ on customer loans,” he said. “It gave me a lot of practice resolving someone’s financial situation.”

He also began originating and became a full-time originator. Duncan noted that he got his initial start doing FHA loans. “A Realtor came to me and said ‘you’ll get all my business if you do FHA loans.’ No one in the area had done them for 10 years. I called people to learn how to do it and taught myself the basics.”

His first year, he was the company’s number one producer (in units), and was the top performer (units and volume) for seven years, until he left (moving to another lender for two years and then to Chemical, which was later acquired by Chase Manhattan.). “Initially, people didn’t recognize that I was doing a fair amount of business,” he said. “Eventually I got my own office and staff which helped me get to the next level. Local processing made a big difference.”

While he got his first major break doing FHA loans, Duncan was quick to develop other business-generating strategies. For example, he realized the importance of ensuring that current customers are satisfied so that they immediately began providing referrals. “Two basic ways I accomplish that is by always doing what I promise and trying to simplify the loan process so that it’s easier on customers.”

“I’m a strong believer that a loan originator’s customers are their best sales force,” he added. “You do a good job for one and that customer has the potential for referring many others to you. I was recently doing a loan for one customer and in the middle of the transaction he had already referred five other borrowers to me.”

Duncan sends periodic mailers to borrowers and prospects. These have included thank-you cards, update letters, and a copy of the customer’s HUD one statement along with a coupon for $100 off closing costs for another loan. Last December he sent past customers a letter suggesting that rates were likely to decrease soon and that they may want to refinance. This well-timed mailing resulted in numerous inquiries in the early part of the new year. “I use direct mail whenever I have something worthwhile to convey,” he stressed. “I don’t load customers up with junk mail.”

He has also held borrower seminars at the area YMCA. “These are usually for first-time or trade-up borrowers, but I’ve had agents attend as well,” he noted.

Duncan has done some advertising and has participated in the ValPak coupon book program. “We include a coupon for $100 off for refinancing which has been very effective,” he said. “Appearing in the coupon book costs about $1600 but it reaches 30,000 people.”

His referral focus has resulted in an interesting mini niche — “kiddie condos.” He explained that many parents purchase a condo for their son or daughter who is attending nearby Virginia Tech. They can rent out extra rooms and save on their student’s overall housing expenses. “It has been very successful for future business,” he said. “I did three loans this past summer for graduates who were purchasing a home in another city. Because I had done the condo loan for their parents, they remembered me and called when they were ready to buy their own.”

Duncan maintains contact with approximately 500 real estate agents throughout his 10 county market in Southern West Virginia and Southwestern Virginia. “They’re all in my database, but I tailor my correspondence to meet their individual needs. This ranges from rate sheets to announcements on new loan limits and other developments. I try to be the first one on the street with news of a new change or guideline.”

He provides agents with customized flyers for their listings and helps sponsor their events whenever appropriate. Duncan also makes sure that agents are aware of his customer’s positive comments. For example, he will share the responses received on their post-closing surveys. “I’ll often go back to the agent and say, ‘this is what the customer said about us. You made a good decision in referring them to me.’ This helps reinforce our relationship.”

He constantly emphasizes to borrowers that they should select an originator first or at least at the same time as their real estate agent and attorney. “Ideally, I encourage them to talk to us and then I’ll suggest a few agents for them to interview. I have a list of 20 questions they should ask their agent (obtained from the Internet). I stress that they should select their originator/agent team, get their pre-approval, and then look for their dream house. This saves a lot of frustration and wasted time.”

Duncan uses his website (www.dennisduncan.com) primarily to pre-qualify borrowers, rather than as a major business generation tool. “We have customers complete the prequalification form on the website then e-mail the information to us. I’m able to incorporate that into spreadsheet documents for our subsequent meeting. That way we don’t have to spend time interviewing them for this information so it’s a great time management tool.”

For example, this was especially helpful when a borrower from Germany was preparing to relocate to teach at Virginia Tech. “He sent me the information via the website and we were able to get his loan in process before he left for the U.S.,” Duncan said.

Another good source of ongoing referrals is the local businesses with which Duncan has developed contacts. Unlike other originators who have created formal “dog and pony” presentations for employee groups, Duncan’s business is primarily derived from individual networking. “For instance, I worked with the plant manager of a company and was later referred to another 17 employees. When someone is looking for a loan they are told to ‘go see Dennis.’ It has become a pipeline that started with my first contact with the manager.”

His success hasn’t depended on the refi market; last year it accounted for only 20 percent of his total volume. However, Duncan is certainly ready to accommodate this business. “Obviously, you have to be ready to handle your past customer’s refinances, and if your Realtor sends you a customer who needs a refi…you take care of them.”

But he makes sure that they are an appropriate refi candidate. “I don’t have them complete the application until I do an analysis of their current loan versus a refinance,” he said. “I collect all the facts, including current loan balance, monthly payments, PMI, taxes, and other details, and then review the options so they can be sure it is right for them.”

Duncan has a support team which includes an assistant who helps with applications and customer follow-up, a marketing assistant/receptionist, and three processors. “They’re a very experienced group and I couldn’t do close to the volume without their support,” he said. “Getting my own processor and assistant enabled me to expand my production to a higher level. They enable us to increase the volume without sacrificing customer service.”

He considers a major turning point in his development as an originator to be when the office became more automated. “A really big enhancement came in when our processors were able to do desktop processing. Suddenly the transaction didn’t take as long and we could handle more business.”

When asked what makes a superstar originator, Duncan insisted that the main thing is to simply have the desire to excel. “You can go to the seminars and practice all you want, but the bottom line is that you have to want to succeed,” he insisted. “You can’t go to a seminar or read a book and then fall back into your old way of doing things. People have asked me what I do, and I’ll say that I’m not doing anything that much different than other originators…but I’m doing it more often. I want it more than a lot of other people do.”

Creativity is a key factor, he added. This means looking at different ways of marketing and managing, as well as evaluating individual loans in greater detail. “You’ve got to be able to look at the challenging files with a different perspective. Some loan originators aren’t able to break down a customer’s finances to find a way to get the loan done. They just give up.”

He also believes that top producers have a better grasp of the role that technology plays. “For instance, to get to the next levels you’ve got to automate wherever possible,” he said. “I believe that technology is a big contributor to the success of most top originators.”

As he looks to the future, Duncan insists he isn’t in a rush to achieve even greater production numbers. “Short of getting an army of assistants, I’m not sure how much more business I can do,” he insisted.

Instead, he will continue to sustain his superstar production, by developing new customer relationships and working his referral base. He has also considered becoming a sales trainer or sales automation specialist in the future. “I would welcome the opportunity to train originators to do business the way that has worked for me,” he said. And he’s quick to point out that he intends to take more time off. “Spending more time relaxing and traveling with my family is also high on my priority list.”

People Farming
Direct marketing to consumers — my “people farming” concept — is probably my most effective strategy. I’m constantly thinking of referrals. The first time a borrower calls, I consider them a source of future referrals.

We always ask what prompted a prospect to call us. If it was a Yellow Pages ad, then we know that was a good investment. If it was a suggestion from a borrower’s friend or fellow employee, we want to send that person a thank-you card for their referral. Our follow-up surveys are especially helpful. We ask everyone if (based on their experience with us) they would recommend us to someone else. If they say “yes,” I send them some of my business cards and coupons for a discount on closing costs to share with other people. I thank them and ask for their referrals. They’ve “agreed” to be part of our sales force.
–Dennis Duncan

Alyson Griffin

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.

SuperStar of the Month – Michael Bischof, Palatine, Illinois

Top originators don’t wait for their company to provide for them, they plow their own trail. They move full steam ahead with their ideas.”

Michael Bischof didn’t waste any time preparing for his future origination career. Upon graduation from Indiana University in 1990, Bischof joined Grubb and Ellis as a commercial real estate analyst.

But after a couple of years, he wanted more and began exploring the mortgage lending business. “I learned about the career of a loan officer from my best friend,” he said. “What attracted me was the freedom, the entrepreneurial challenge, and the unlimited earnings potential. I knew it was time to take the plunge into an all-commission business.”

The Beginning
He went to work for a small mortgage broker in Arlington Heights, Illinois in March 1992. “I had better offers,” he said. “This company had no draw or salary, but it was committed to training, even during the busy periods.”

Bischof, 32, started training during a “refinance craze when the phones were ringing off the hook.” He followed originators, read the industry guidelines, and sat in on loan applications. He actually did his first loan during the first month of training. In May 1992 he became a full-time originator. “I did $2 million in my first month and by July was the company’s top producer (from then on),” he said. “I could not believe the money that was to be made in this business.” He finished his first year (nine months) with $18 million. Bischof later worked for another small firm, eventually leaving to start Biltmore Financial Bancorp in 1997.

Marketing
Bischof’s initial focus was primarily taking incoming calls. “I wanted to take as many calls as I could to build up my client base,” he said. “Then I began to introduce myself to all the parties involved in a deal, including the selling and listing agents. I was able to quickly develop a sizable client base as a result of these calls. I also worked feverishly to develop solid, long-term relationships with each client.”

Since then his marketing has significantly expanded. It begins during the loan transaction process. He sends clients three letters-one at opening, another to remind them of any necessary materials and other details, and a thank you and congratulations message at closing. “When the loan file is opened, our database automatically prepares the letters. They are signed by the originators and kept in a file until they’re ready to be sent.” Once the loan has closed, Bischof communicates with past customers 12 to 15 times a year. This includes a quarterly newsletter (outsourced to the Gooder Group) which has general trend and finance-related information and has a place for their name, logo, and photo.

He also sends customers a quarterly update (prepared on Excel) which includes details about their specific loan-such as the current payment, balance, and interest rate-and compares it to different loan options. “The quarterly update has been my most successful marketing to date,” he said. “It shows them that we are interested in their long-term welfare. This helps build trust and generate referrals.”

Other mailings include postcards, anniversary cards, and the HUD-1 closing statement sent at the end of the year.

On a quarterly basis, they will target groups of past customers with e-mail messages about their current loan and other opportunities. In addition, several times a year they use the Eppoffect program to leave voice mail messages. “This allows for quick, effective target marketing,” he stressed.

All of his customer communications emphasize the importance of referrals. “We stress the need for referrals and our appreciation for them sending us customers,” he noted. “I think some originators miss in this area. They don’t articulate how they get business, and customers may think they have enough business…that they don’t need any more.” Bischof explained that he begins early to communicate his “vision” to customers. “I let clients know up-front that I want to be known as their finance expert. They know that we have to do a good job to go further in the relationship-to earn their referrals. This motivates them.”

Bischof has learned that he has to continue to try even harder to establish relationships with past clients. “Occasionally I will get some mailers returned due to an address change,” he explained. “The first thought is disappointment, because I realize that they didn’t go through me for their new mortgage. However, after further review, I ask whether or not we had a relationship and the answer is almost always no. I didn’t do enough to create or preserve a relationship over the years and make them obligated to call me. Thus, I can’t blame them.”

He stays in touch with real estate agents, financial planners, and other business partners via quarterly mailings. “I did more marketing with Realtors and others in the beginning. But now that I’ve established their trust, they know I will represent them well with their clients.”

He is also planning his first annual golf outing for his top professional contacts and past customers.

Bischof’s expanded marketing presence has helped him grow from a first year volume of $18 million, to $37 million in 1995, $69 million in 1997, and $100 million in 1998. Last year, he closed $55.7 million and 286 loans and was number 104 on Mortgage Originator’s Top 200 Originators list.

Niche
Bischof’s average loan is $195,000, higher than the Chicago market’s $135,000. His primary niche is the “successful business executive” who will make Biltmore Financial part of his consulting team. “We want the professional business person to consider us their mortgage finance advisor, the same way they view their attorney or CPA.” Most of this business is generated via referrals. Bischoff completes a loan for one executive and that person spreads the word.

“I’ll explain to them that my goal is to get to know everyone within their organization who has home financing needs.”

Turning Point
Bischof considers 1994 to be a pivotal period in his development as a top producing originator. That was the year he attended Todd Duncan’s Masters coaching program. “The seminar consisted of approximately 100 mortgage superstars trapped on an island (Hawaii) together,” he said. “The program had a profound influence on me. Now I had to raise the baseline, to measure my success against the best of the best from throughout the country.”\

Bischof noted that on his return he challenged himself to raise his business to a higher level. He concentrated on customer-focused strategies aimed at expanding his referral base.

In addition, he made another major step by hiring his own assistant in 1997. “It allowed me to focus on the highest pay-off activities, those that keep me in touch with clients,” he said.

Support Team/Systems
Bischof’s support team includes a client relations coordinator (assistant), and an office coordinator who also serves as his marketing assistant. “There’s no way I could do the volume I have without an assistant,” he said.

He takes all of his applications; 55 percent on the phone and the rest in the office. “We cover such a broad market that it is more convenient to do many of them on the phone. Of course, I give them the option. I don’t want to give the impression that I am a telemarketer or an order-taker.”

After spending about 20 minutes with the client, he will e-mail or fax the authorization form to proceed with a preapproval. The loan is then sent via Loan Prospector or Desktop Originator for an approval. “We use Adobe Acrobat to e-mail the documents to the client and this results in instant gratification, as they get to see the docs right away.” They maintain close contact with their customers, which includes weekly status calls. “Upfront we emphasize that they will get a call from us every Friday, even if there is no news. If there is nothing new to report, we explain that we want to make sure they are comfortable with the process and see if we are doing everything we should to earn their trust and their referrals.”

He added that another benefit of their proactive calling is that it eliminates incoming calls throughout the week.

Superstar Characteristics
Bischof considers an entrepreneurial spirit to be one of the primary characteristics of a superstar originator. “Loan originators must treat their position as a business underneath the roof of someone else’s business. Top originators don’t wait for their company to provide for them, they plow their own trail. They move full steam ahead with their ideas.” He stresses that self-evaluation of strengths and weaknesses is another critical requirement. “A loan officer who takes their business to the superstar level must be their own toughest critic. For example, you have to ask, ‘Am I organized, or do I find myself lacking systems.’ If so, you may need to consider hiring a coach and taking organizational or management classes.”

Also important is investing in your business. “A top producer is not afraid of reinvesting profits into business. One must be so confident in their plan, and have a vision for where they want to go, that they allow for capital reinvestment, and taking well-thought out, calculated risks.”

Management Challenge
Bischof pointed out that it has been a challenge to both originate and manage Biltmore Financial’s six originators and five support staff. “For example, I’ve asked myself whether my own focus on production is good for the company-whether it distracts me from other areas,” he said.

However, he has been able to juggle both areas by following a series of guidelines. For example, he depends on systems to “break down tough tasks into simpler ones” and uses time block processes for added efficiency.

Unlike some overly competitive firms where each originator has a different approach, Biltmore encourages originators to use common strategies. “I wanted to make sure that I was helping other originators become superstars. Whatever was successful for me I encouraged them to follow.”

He makes it a point to provide ongoing direction. “The best thing I can to is lead by example. I want to take risks and pave the way….to be an in-house coach for my originators.”

The Future
Bischof plans on significant more growth at Biltmore Financial. “We want to expand our client relationships and, of course, withstand the competition from online originators,” he said.

Bischof sees no need to add more branches. Instead, he will concentrate on adding loan originators who match their system. “It has to be the right kind of person, someone who has his or her own client base when they arrive,” he said.

He also plans on spending more time enjoying the rewards of his hard work. Bischof tries to spend at least one day every two weeks working from his home office. He also takes about three weeks of annual vacation with his wife and son.

“You can have a successful career and enjoy your personal life,” he said. Bischof is obviously one of those superstars who has achieved balance in his life.

One Tough Loan

A borrower relocating here from Boston was seeking a $220,000 loan for a condo. He wanted to put 5 percent down. He was the director of human resources for a major company which I have a relationship with and have received a good amount of business from. In addition, he was referred to one of my best real estate agents. This deal’s closing was essential to two other deals closing (all with the same agent)-as they were both contingent on this sale. This loan, the reputation I had with the borrower’s employer, and the agent’s other two deals closing were all at stake.

The buyer had gotten into a dual offer on the property without having first talked to me. He had waived his financing contingency. Meanwhile, he had no idea how poor his credit was, largely due to a divorce. His FICO scores were in the upper 500s. After exhausting the efforts of about 30 conforming and non-conforming lenders, we couldn’t find one to do the loan (initially on a prime basis). Finally, after the agent decided he would apply his commission to be used as a five percent 2nd on the client’s purchase (as a temporary loan), a non-conforming lender came through with an approval, based on the 10 percent down. We got the borrower into a two-year ARM. Obviously, we were all relieved at the successful conclusion to this loan.”

-Michael Bischo

Kevin Ruby

Kevin Ruby, Memphis, TN

“Much of Ruby’s marketing focuses on builder support. For example, he developed a ‘quick and easy’ pre-approval form for uses in subdividsion offices and by his real estate agents”

Kevin Ruby decided that real estate wasn’t going to be his permanent vocation. After attending the University of Memphis, he obtained his real estate license and worked with his mother, a veteran agent. But after two years, he decided that it wasn’t rewarding enough. His brother-in-law was a mortgage broker and told him that business was “a good way to make a living.”

Ruby, 37, took a chance and switched careers in late 1986. He considers it a wise move. Last year, he closed $96.8 million and 828 loans at Community Mortgage Corporation in Memphis, Tennessee, and was number 31 on Mortgage Originator’s 1999 Top 200 Originators List (for dollar volume).

Getting Started
Ruby first went to work for a small broker in 1987. There was no formal training. “I learned by making mistakes,” he said. “I wore my brother in law’s phone out—asking him questions.”

He got his initial loan during his first month—from a former college classmate who was a real estate agent working with builders. “The application took about three hours. I can’t remember being more nervous—asking all these personal questions.” He also got to meet many of his mother’s associates.

Ruby’s primary focus was on meeting people. “I just made sales calls the first year,” he noted. “I made it a point not to take rate sheets or other information to offices. I wanted to concentrate on establishing relationships with Realtors and builders.”

He finished 1987 with about $3.5 million. “I earned about $14,000 that year,” he said.

Ruby recalled being slightly discouraged during his early days as an originator. He wasn’t being inundated with referrals. He even considered a job change—with the postal service. “I remember telling my wife that being a mailman wouldn’t be such a bad option. After all, you get to wear shorts in the summer.” But he persisted and eventually the referrals started to add up.

The Builder Network
From the beginning, Ruby decided to concentrate on builder business. “Following the 1986 refi period, many builders felt they had been ignored by their loan officers. I started calling on them.”

One of his first big breaks was working with a builder who was completing a subdivision in the Memphis area. “After we had completed 37 loans, he said, ‘one of these days you’re going to make more money than you ever thought possible; because you’re available, organized, and provide status reports.’ It was a good indicator of the future.”

Ruby later earned another significant opportunity. A “mom and pop” builder came to him with an offer. Their former lender considered them too small and was no longer able to handle their business. They asked Ruby if he was interested in taking on 40 loans. “I said ‘yes’ and the loans were transferred to me. We still work with that company.”

Turning Point
An early turning point in Ruby’s development occurred when he got married 10 years ago. That was when he realized that he needed to become an even more aggressive originator. “I knew that I had to work harder,” he said. “I had greater responsibilities, a family to support.”

Another key factor was the ongoing expansion of his builder base. “Several of these builders started in business about the same time I did, and we grew together,” he noted. “When company principals would split to form their own companies, I would retain their business as well. The business began to double every year.”

Of course, hiring his first assistant six years ago was also a crucial step. “I was taking 40 to 60 applications a week and working seven days. I couldn’t grow any more. So I hired an assistant, my brother Clay. I couldn’t have made it to the next level without him.”

First-Time Niche
In addition to his builder business, another primary niche is the first-time buyer group. His builders generally provide these borrowers with such incentives as a seller-paid bonus of 3 percent toward the purchase price. Ruby noted that one challenge is dealing with many unqualified borrowers. About 20 percent of the borrowers he sees don’t ultimately qualify. The Memphis and surrounding market includes many credit-impaired borrowers. “We get people with bad credit and without much income, so it’s often difficult to even obtain a subprime product for them.”

However, Ruby doesn’t ignore this potential business. He sends letters to those who aren’t qualified. He outlines the steps they can take to improve their credit and borrowing capabilities for the future. “I may send letters to 600 people this year and next year 300 could come back to me,” he said.

Marketing
Much of Ruby’s marketing focuses on builder support. For example, he developed a “quick and easy” pre-approval form for use in subdivision offices and by his real estate agents. “I get up to 100 of these a week faxed back to me. It’s a great tool for the builder salespeople and also helps the Realtors reduce the time spent with unqualified prospects.”

He also provides builders with a variety of information, including spreadsheets detailing the different loan programs. “Once the borrower has this information in their hands, they’re more inclined to call me,” he said.

Ruby e-mails daily rates to the builder offices. “I was never one to distribute rate sheets,” he said. “But in this case it’s obviously important for the subdivision office to have the correct rates to share with customers.”

He also spends part of each weekend at various builder sites, which sometimes involves providing commentary for remote radio promotions. “I’ve got one builder who does a lot of radio advertising. They’ll do weekend remotes (with onsite broadcasts) during the peak season and I get a chance to introduce myself and our loan programs.”

Ruby holds monthly training sessions for select real estate offices. “I teach them ‘quick facts’ about lending, including how to qualify and the way to determine payments. It’s the kind of information they can share with their customers as they’re looking for homes.”

In addition, he places a special emphasis on supporting Realtor and builder activities. For example, he will sponsor their Christmas party or awards program. “Of course, I get invited to the event and that’s a great place to meet new people,” he said. He also sponsors soccer and little league teams. “And I support University of Memphis activities, which puts my name in front of 3,000 alumni.”

Ruby has developed a television ad, which features him taking a loan application, with a voice over discussing how he can assist borrowers obtain financing. “My ad runs between two builder ads, so I benefit from the association,” he said.

He doesn’t attend his customer’s closings. He explained that most Memphis loan originators don’t either. “I call the customer right before the closing to explain what to expect,” he said. “Then I’m just a phone call away if they need me.”

Support Team
Ruby’s brother Clay is his primary assistant. “When I decided I needed help, I was worried that an assistant could eventually walk away with some of my business. Who better to hire than my brother? We work really well together.” He takes about 50 percent of the applications and provides marketing and other back up assistance.

The Kevin Ruby Group also includes three processors, an appraiser, and an assistant for Clay. “We’ve got a great staff. They’re a major reason I can do this volume in an efficient manner.” Ruby explained that they strive to do low doc loans whenever possible. They ask customers to bring in three months of bank statements, two years of W-2 forms, and a month’s worth of pay stubs as an alternative to the Verification of Employment.

“Our computerized reporting system is another big factor. If the loan isn’t done in seven days, we know something is generally wrong. For example, the report will show that a piece of documentation is missing, and we will quickly call the borrower.”

Having onsite credit checking support is also a big plus. Equifax representatives are at the office about five hours a day. “This really helps streamline the process. If there are any credit issues, we can walk to the next cubicle, rather than have to send and receive faxes.”

All of this support enables Ruby to continue generating new business and to handle his management responsibilities. In addition to overseeing his own team, he is also a senior vice president of the company.

SuperStar Characteristics
Ruby considers a high level of confidence to be an essential ingredient for a superstar originator. “You’ve got to have confidence in yourself and your company,” he said. “There are lots of highs and lows in this business, and you have to believe that you’ll achieve your goals.”

He stresses that a positive attitude is another important quality. “You can’t let yourself get down when business is slow. I’m always upbeat.”

Ruby believes that most top producers are creative problem solvers. “You have to constantly find new products and be the first to hit the street with them. It’s important to have something a little different than what your competitors are offering.”

Investing in a support system is also critical. “Putting the right team in place allowed me to do more volume,” he said. “A great staff helps you get to the next level.”

Future
Ruby plans to continue expanding his volume by selectively adding new builders and other partners. “We’re experiencing good growth in Memphis, and I think that will continue.”

He hopes to be doing one of his builder’s loans in another state in the near future. “I’d like to do another 400 loans a year,” he said.

He also looks forward to cutting back on his work schedule. “I want to get to the point where I’m working less and spending more time with my family.”

Meanwhile, he continues to enjoy the profession of mortgage lending. “I love my job. This is my hobby as well as my career. I intend to stay in this business.”

For Kevin Ruby, being a superstar originator is a lot more fun than selling real estate or delivering mail.


One Tough Loan

I have a desk full of difficult loans, but this one was special. A family from Bosnia that had been in the United States about a year came to see me.

The husband worked in a retail store and the wife wasn’t employed. The first challenge was the language barrier. One of their friends was a translator, so we were able to communicate. I learned that they had looked at an $85,000 home in a development that was to be completed in about six months.

They had a couple of retail credit cards, but there wasn’t enough history to obtain a credit score. Fortunately, that isn’t required by the FHA. They also didn’t have enough money for a down payment.

I explained that I thought I could help them, but that during the next few months they would need to take a few steps to enhance their overall credit situation. Meanwhile, we looked for ways to help get them funds for their down payment. As the construction completion date neared, we finally found a non-profit organization that donated them the money for the down. We got them into a 30-year fixed FHA program.

At the closing, the agent, attorneys, and customer were so excited; everyone was crying. The family couldn’t believe that they actually owned a home in America.

–Kevin Ruby

Jane Floyd

Jane Floyd had already been successful in the restaurant and title businesses. But she was looking for a bigger challenge and a more rewarding future.

Following graduation from the University of South Florida, Floyd managed a restaurant and later directed public relations for a title company. “I liked both jobs, but I was getting bored,” she said. “Then someone suggested I might be good in the mortgage business.”

After receiving her real estate license, Floyd went to work for a small mortgage broker in 1991. “There wasn’t much training,” she said. “I learned as I went. We had a tough processor who would return a file to you if it wasn’t perfect.”

She got her start by working with a few successful real estate agents. “I already had some contacts with agents because of my title background. They were willing to give me a chance.”

Floyd, 38, closed her first loan within three weeks. “I was so excited,” she recalled. “After doing a couple of their loans, our rapport was established.” She finished the first year with about $14 million in volume.

In 1992, she and a partner opened up their own firm—Diversified Home Mortgage. “I could have gone to another firm, but I wanted to have my own company. It was risky–I took a second on my home to cover the initial costs of opening the business.”

In 1993, she acquired her partner’s share of the firm. There are now 10 people, including three other originators. Last year, Floyd’s personal volume was $38.4 million and 311 loans.

Marketing
Floyd’s primary emphasis is on maintaining contact with her past customers. Her “client for life” program begins when she sends customers a thank you letter and copy of their appraisal. She follows that with a personalized tin of cookies at closing, a copy of the HUD-1 statement in January, and a gift box of nuts on their one-year anniversary. She also sends them pro football game schedules, a quarterly newsletter, Thanksgiving cards, and birthday greetings to their children. Floyd provides gift certificates for Home Depot and area restaurants for those customers referring borrowers to her.

“I emphasize constant contact with my borrowers to ensure they become ‘raving fans’,” she said. “This is my most effective marketing and it’s how I’ve received 58 percent of my business so far.”

Floyd and a real estate agent hold a relocation seminar at a Kansas City Army base. They meet with officers who are preparing to transfer to Tampa Bay. “This has generated a lot of business and further strengthens my relationship with this agent.”

Her Realtor network consists of 11 top agents. She makes an effort to meet with them about once a month. “We have strategic meetings during which I’m able to provide them with ideas that will help make them more successful. For example, we share ideas on database development and time management.”

Floyd also sends them a monthly cassette tape, which features an interview with another successful agent. The cassettes are provided by FrontRunner Resources (www.frontrunnerresources.com). In addition, every Monday she e-mails agents current market information, along with a motivational message. “This is something extra that they appreciate,” she said.

Floyd exchanges website information with her agents as well. Her site (www.diversifiedmtg.com) lists select agents. “They love that because of the added visibility they receive,” she noted. The agents share their own website-generated leads with her.

Unlike some originators who focus solely on consumer-direct marketing, Floyd is adamant that Realtor marketing is also essential. “I’ve grown much of my business through contact with past customers, but it’s also important that I work closely with agents. I’ll always have the need for them to be a conduit for expanded business.”

She meets with title reps, financial planners, and other affinity partners on a quarterly basis to discuss ways for growing each other’s business.

Market/Niche
Floyd’s average loan amount is about $123,000. The loan size has steadily increased during the last few years. “Of course, I would love for it to be even higher,” she noted.

Her primary niche is the move-up buyer. “I go after this group by design,” she said. “I have gradually concentrated on working with agents who have a predominantly move-up base, rather than the first-time buyers.”

She added that it is a very competitive market, with many other originators also targeting move-up borrowers. In addition, a number of the area’s builders provide financial incentives to borrowers who use their in-house or affiliated lenders.

Turning Point
Floyd said that a turning point in her development as an originator occurred in 1997. She had returned from a seminar which emphasized the value of having a coach. Floyd soon hired her own coach and attributes much of her business increase–from $23 million in 1996 to $45 million in 1998–to the guidance she received. “I began to concentrate on task analysis and time management,” she noted. “I concentrated on key priorities and started to delegate other tasks. My volume increased and my work hours decreased.”

Twice a month she has a telephone meeting with her coach to discuss marketing, management, and other subjects that she should address. “It’s great because this helps keep me focused. I know that someone is holding me accountable to achieve a specific task.”

Floyd spends about $6,000 a year on coaching services, which doesn’t include any other seminars she may attend.

Support Team
Floyd currently has an assistant (Lauri Looney) and processor (Deen Joseph) who work just for her. “I can’t stress enough the importance of having an assistant and other support,” she said. “I couldn’t do this volume without them.”

She does the initial prequalification of buyers, and her assistant then completes the application over the phone. They send the loan package to the customer for review and signature.

About half of her loans are handled completely via phone, e-mail, and courier service. “These are usually our move-up or relocation borrowers who have more experience with the lending process and don’t request that we meet. They’re actually thrilled that they can do it this way.”

She does get together with the first-time buyers and other borrowers who prefer a personal meeting. “Because they’ve already completed the application, we’re able to spend quality time together. This enables me to explain the optimum loan program and then discuss their long-term financial objectives.”

Juggling office management responsibilities with her own production has been a primary challenge. “It’s one of the difficult parts of my business. I need to focus on originating while also helping others achieve their goals. The key is delegation.”

Characteristics
Floyd believes that to be a superstar, originators must have a vision of what they want to achieve. “You have to be totally focused on your objectives. And you can’t work in a reactive mode. If you’re just reacting to phone calls, you won’t accomplish your long-term goals.”

She also considers ongoing professional development to be one of the main requirements for becoming a superstar. “You must keep growing and adapt to the market and industry changes,” she said.

In addition, she believes that having a mentor can help originators become more successful. She suggests finding a peer within your organization or an industry group and learn what has made them productive. “I would never have kept succeeding at different levels without people to model after,” she said.

Floyd has joined 10 other loan originators from throughout the country in a network called the Strategic Mortgage Alliance. They talk on a regular basis and meet at each other’s offices to compare origination and management strategies. She also talks frequently with other originators in her market. “You learn from each other and that’s how you grow,” she said.

Integrity is also a critical element for superstars. To Floyd, that means simply being up-front with agents and others at all times. It may seem like a basic concept, but it’s one that has increased her popularity with agents and others. “One of the top agents in our area has told people that she does business with me because I always tell her the truth rather than what she wants to hear.”

Family Life
Floyd stressed that successful originators can achieve balance between their careers and family life. Once you’ve “paid your dues” and have a system in place you don’t have to continue working 60-hour weeks. Floyd currently works a comfortable 4½ day, 40-hour week. “Agents don’t call me at midnight to discuss loans and I hardly ever meet with people on weekends.”

She spends as much time with her husband and two sons as she can. They took seven vacations last year.

Future
Diversified Mortgage recently moved into a new building, which Floyd purchased. Her 2000 plans include expanding the office’s production to about $100 million. She intends to add another couple of originators in the near future. “I also want to do less originating myself and help other originators develop their production,” she noted.

She said she would like to decrease her work schedule even more—”but not really retire”–during the next 10 years. She hopes to become more involved in training and speaking at industry programs.

Meanwhile, Floyd is obviously content where she is. “I love this business,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else now.”

Tough Loan

A past customer referred a woman who was in serious trouble. She had been out of work and her husband had just started with a new employer, after being injured. They were behind on both their mortgage and car payments and the car was about to be repossessed. If she lost the car, she wouldn’t be able to get to work, and they would get even farther behind in various credit card payments.

When she came to me she was very distraught. She said that if she didn’t get a cash-out refinance within two weeks, her car was going to be taken away. Of course, their credit was in bad shape and we couldn’t verify much of their income because of the recent hire dates. I called the car credit agency myself to get an extension. They initially resisted, but finally agreed to hold off until she could get the proceeds from the loan. Two lenders turned the loan (subprime) down, but the third finally approved it, based on the home’s equity. They were able to pay off the car and get caught up on their house payments. They were extremely grateful. They sent us flowers and have since referred other borrowers to us.

-Jane Floyd

Brooks Grasso

Previous Profession: Dairy salesman

Primary Marketing: Marketing includes monthly mailings to over 2,000 past clients (recipe postcards), Realtors, and builders (loan program/other marketing fliers); monthly homebuyer seminar at the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce; two monthly mailings to apartments (one highlighting no-money-down programs and another inviting people to a monthly seminar); and instructing continuing education courses once a month at Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

Most Effective Marketing: Mailings to past clients. “I have been doing this for five years, and when I started I noticed a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in business,” said Grasso. “This brands me as the person to call and or refer to when it comes to real estate and mortgage lending.”

Niche: First-time homebuyers and builders. “One of our marketing campaigns is directed at first-timers. There will always be a market for people who want to buy their first home, regardless of rates. If you treat them right, they may buy two to five homes during their lifetime.”

Teamwork: An assistant, two processors, and one junior originator who is being trained to develop and maintain his own production and referral sources. “While in training, he will also help me by meeting with customers to sign loan applications, talking to potential clients on the phone if I am out of the office. By keeping everyone well informed through our loan commitment letter and preliminary HUD-1, we cut down a lot on the reactive work that can come with this profession.”

Key Ingredient for Success: “Motivation and desire to be successful. If you enjoy your occupation (which I do), you’re willing to put in longer hours necessary to maintain larger production. I’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done, including working six or seven days a week.”

Achieving Work/Personal Balance:  “Effective time management. I have several systems in place that reduce the reactive time spent in the office. This allows me to be proactive and develop more business, while the existing business is flowing smoothly through the pipeline. I also delegate any responsibilities that I can in my personal life, such as cutting grass, painting the house, and landscaping. It’s more cost effective for me to pay someone to do it, so that I can maximize my time originating more business, and also the time spent with my family.”