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 ( 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