Top Originator Profiles

This year’s Top Originator Profiles highlight outstanding performances by 10 hardworking and competitive loan originators.

Though they share many of the same qualities and work ethics, each of these originators has an original approach to their business. These profiles not only recognize them, but also offer insight into what makes them special, and what helped them succeed in 2016—even beyond the dynamic refinance market.

Father/Daughter Originating Team
Ray Cohen
Revere Mortgage * Illinois * $182,469,477 * 669 Loans * Purchase 25% * Refinance 75% * Assistants: 1.5 * Years originating: 13
Sheryl Cohen
Revere Mortgage * Illinois * $23,498,627* 118 Loans * Years originating: 1 (Rookie)

Ray Cohen represents the third generation of his family in the real estate business, so it seemed only natural that his daughter Sheryl Cohen would eventually follow suit and become the fourth. Ray has been originating for 13 years, following in the industry of his father, a Chicago real estate developer. Sheryl received her MBA to pursue financial consulting, but found it unfulfilling and decided to begin working with her father.

Ray attributes his and his daughter’s combined 2016 success to three things: “Rates going down, refinances, and the fact that we are each in the ‘sweet part’ of different markets.” Ray specializes in loan services for families who are expanding or separating, as well as servicing all of the members of his amassed referral base; Sheryl, on the other hand, at age 31, corners the market of those in her peer group—first-time homebuyers.

With obvious pride in his daughter’s work, it is clear that Sheryl is being primed to take on some of Ray’s business. Sheryl originates her own loans, as well as attends openings and closings for her father to develop her own relationship with some of his longstanding clients. “She’s working for long-term success,” says Ray. “Sheryl’s going to be in the business longer than I; this is certainly all part of a long-term plan.” Customers react very positively to this father-daughter team, and often comment on how nice it is that the two of them work together so well. In addition, Ray’s wife Marilyn is the administrator and president of operations at the office. “Working for my mother is the challenging part,” Sheryl jokes. The family maintains a professional atmosphere at work (although, Sheryl says, new clients “sometimes wonder why I call my boss ‘dad'”), but it took some time to work out a social relationship outside of the office. “When they’re always there, it can definitely put a strain on after-work get-togethers,” Sheryl admits. “It took me a year and a half after I started working here to invite them over for dinner!”

Sheryl averaged 50 hours a week last year and says she enjoys the varied “nature of the work,” especially the financial and networking aspects. She often attends Realtor open houses on weekends, and brings rate sheets; but “We don’t do cold calling,” says Ray. “It’s not so much what you send them,” says the younger Cohen. “It’s reminding them of who you are. Show them—here’s how we can help you sell houses.”

Both Ray and Sheryl are active within the community—attending local real estate, builder, and charity events, and hosting Realtor breakfasts. With a company ad in the local newspaper, holiday cards, and client follow-up letters, the Cohen’s marketing and lead-generation comes in diverse forms. Sheryl establishes numerous professional contacts socially and is focusing on building her business together with Realtors who are also new to the industry. Through years of experience, Ray has developed a loyal client base, which continues to be an abundant source of referrals. He also works with several Realtors, including two of Chicago’s top-producers. Overall, the Cohens try to “strike a balance”—in their business, and in their family life as well.

Foundation of Success: “Success is about honesty, your ability to be personable, and the education you provide your clients,” says Sheryl. “It’s about displaying knowledge,” echoes Ray. “Build trust and provide excellent service.”

High Loan-to-Dollar Ratio
Lance Dickson
Nova Home Loans * Arizona * $164,127,790 * 1,069 Loans * Purchase 47% * Refinance 53% * Assistants: 3 * Years originating: 8

Lance Dickson’s professionalism and dedication to customer service have continuously brought him success. Although his loan volume was excellent, Dickson had to work harder to close the dollar volume that he achieved. The past year’s refi boom helped him achieve his SuperStar 2016 volume, but he says he was especially pleased with his purchase business. Dickson, however, faces the undeniable challenge of originating in a relatively low-end market, where his average loan is around $154,000 (compared to New York City or Los Angeles where the average is closer to $900,000). “We live in an area where inexpensive homes are available, and we work with that. If someone wants a loan for $30,000 or $300,000 we treat them with the same respect and level of customer service.” Dickson views each client as a potential advocate for his business.

He also relies on referrals from CPAs and accountants for much of his business. “A thorough CPA delves into someone’s mortgage situation. That person is usually a trusted individual, and their referral will be trusted as well.” In addition, Dickson creates marketing pieces throughout the year to stay in front of his customers and prospects. Postcards and newsletters function as “soft-sell” advertising, urging customers to call. He advertises in the yellow pages and Realtor/broker trade magazines, and sends his Mortgage Market Update e-newsletter to Realtors every Friday. But the real secret to his success? The ultimate follow-through. Dickson reviews the final numbers with customers before closing and clearly explains every detail of costs and procedures so that they know what to expect on closing day. The escrow officer appreciates it, and the customer is happy and confident. Instead of closings taking up to two hours, Dickson’s clients spend 20 minutes going over the final details with the title company. This, he says, is a key to consistent referrals.

Perfect Follow-Through: “No matter how smoothly a loan goes, if the closing has even the smallest snag, that’s what the customer will remember.

High Percentage Purchase Business
Bob Fleet
Countrywide Home Loans * California * $192,836,936 * 633 Loans* Purchase 90% * Refinance 10% * Assistants: 2 * Years originating: 18

Bob Fleet represents something of an anomaly in the field of 2016 top producers—his business was 90 percent purchase-based. He credits a great mentor who taught him that, “refis come and go, but purchases are what will keep you going.”

With a career based on builder partnerships, Fleet strongly believes in relationship management, and says, “I work really hard at making my clients my friends.” Instead of focusing his efforts on database-driven marketing methods, he establishes relationships by making regular sales calls, attending building-industry events hosted by local communities, and weekend construction phase-releases. “It is important that my agents see me working on my day off,” he says. “I think it only strengthens the loyalty.”

Fleet emphasizes the importance of distinguishing yourself from the competition. “I work hard to educate builders and agents, to direct them as to why they should use me and my company,” he says—an approach that has helped him garner a 90 percent capture rate, without incentives.
Fleet has adopted one significant hallmark into his service model: “Never let a call go to the next day,” he says. The strategy is so important to him that all of his team members have to sign an agreement that phone calls will be returned within the same day, 100 percent of the time. This “guideline” has helped foster a 95 percent customer satisfaction response.

He credits his assistant, Wende Gotthelf, as instrumental in establishing a highly streamlined operational model. This combined with his company’s efficient underwriting system has allowed Fleet to maintain consistently high purchase volume without normally working more than 40 hours a week. “I believe in leading a balanced life,” he says. “A healthy work environment is paramount to this—I never want anyone on my team to work over 40 hours, unless it’s absolutely essential.”

On the Brighter Side: “The one key thing that has contributed to my overall success is a positive attitude. I am a solution-oriented mortgage banker and maintaining a positive attitude through it all has led me to where I am today.”

Top FHA/VA Lender
Michael J. Hott
Prime Lending * Texas * $253,123,338 * 2,082 Loans * Purchase 1% * Refinance 99% * Assistants: 9 * Years originating: 21

The number-one FHA/VA originator on M.O.M.’s list, Michael J. Hott, takes pride in his staff’s level of knowledge and customer service. Hott’s goal is to make sure that every person in his office is well-trained, capable, and in tune with the customer’s needs. “Phone reps need to be informed,” Hott says. “If they don’t know the answer they should say so and let the customer know that they’ll get back to them—and then make that follow up call.” He gives a lot of credit to his team, and keeps in touch with them through daily reports and frequent meetings. Hott is especially mindful of his customer’s closing costs—they are almost always within $25-$50 of the estimate. “You have to be accurate. When you’re accurate, you capture more business,” he explains.

In the past year, Hott has expanded to add three new markets. Expansion was made easier by a new software and mailing system. Most of his business comes from direct mailings and customer referrals, so Hott has created a “miniature bulk mailing center” with state-of-the-art postage machines that allow him to send out more mailings at a cheaper price. The system allows for bulk-mailing rates, saves time (no need to go to the post office), and prices each piece precisely. He raves, “It’s incredible. It literally paid for itself within the first 90 days. I could kick myself for not doing this sooner.”

Hott is careful not to confuse his customers about his FHA/VA connections. “A lot of lenders send out mailings in manila envelopes to look like government documents,” he says. “I’m upfront and straightforward about that.” While he admits that he’s thought about moving away from government loans, Hott says he really enjoys them. “I’ve done it for so long, I’ve gotten it down to a knack. After 21 years, I understand it so well—it’s what I do best.”

Customer Care: “Keep it simple, because the normal homebuyer can get overwhelmed and confused very easily. Just give the people what they want and give them the best.”

Originating in a SuperStar Company
Gerald McCarthy
Mortgage Masters * Massachusetts * $306,393,209 * 1,157 Loans * Purchase 25% * Refinance 75% * Assistants: 2 * Years originating: 7

Gerry McCarthy originates with a company that has performed consistently well year after year. Mortgage Masters had 11 loan originators in the Top 200, all of whom made both the loan and dollar volume lists. The company remains competitive with the best rates and the confidence that they can get the best loan for the customer every time, McCarthy says. He attributes his personal volume to a combination of the rise in refis, and to a great reputation. He strives to be honest and straightforward, and upholds his Good Faith Estimate to the letter. “When people were looking for refis last year, word of mouth from previous customers got around and business ‘popped’,” he says. “When people have a good experience, it makes it easy.”

McCarthy gets all of his business through referrals. “There’s not a nickel in my budget for advertising,” he explains. The only promotional item he uses is a closing gift of either a mug for refinances, or wine-bottle opener for purchase customers.

Part of his success in 2016 was due to an addition in his office—McCarthy brought his son on to help him with the daily paperwork. “With less paperwork, I have a lot more phone time, which means more sales time.” He has a part-time assistant as well.

Simple system changes also contributed to McCarthy’s volume. For example, he notes the immense amount of time and energy saved just by switching to modern conveniences. “It used to be that you had to go out and write loans all over town. Now you FedEx, you e-mail—it’s all so much faster.” McCarthy works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. His only break in 2016 was a four-day vacation last summer, but says he doesn’t mind the constant work. “I love it, so it’s not work. I like the action. This kind of thing keeps me going,” he laughs.

Mark of Success: “Honor your word. Even if it costs you money, don’t ever go back on your word… it’s all about your reputation.”

Industry Veteran
Katherine Neal
HSBC Mortgage * Virginia * $122,380,000 * 482 Loans * Purchase 20% * Refinance 80% * Assistants: 1 * Years originating: 11

After 32 years in the mortgage industry, Kathy Neal still loves every day of it. In 1972, she began her career selling mortgage-backed securities for Freddie Mac. This led her to Wall Street, where she became a top mortgage-backed securities sales executive for Loeb Rhoades before settling into the residential lending career she can’t get enough of. “I really love the mortgage business,” she exclaims. “I learn something new every day, and every year just seems to get better.” Neal works from her home office, an advantage with three teenagers in the house. She has a part-time assistant, but still does most of the paperwork herself. Automation has made the process much easier, and helped Neal stay connected with her New York base.

Neal’s mortgage company has been owned by three parent corporations, and she developed a clever way to let her clients know that she was still the same loan originator they had come to trust. Neal placed ads on shopping carts at the only two grocery stores in town, highlighting her photo, name, and a reminder that she was available with the same phone number. “People always laugh,” she says, “but it really is a very good way to get the news out there.”

Neal also gets her name out by being involved in her chamber of commerce and school booster club. Her primary source of referrals comes from Realtors, who are so pleased with her work that they often call to thank her for taking such good care of their clients. “I strive to keep borrowers happy, which keeps Realtors happy, and generates more referrals,” Neal says. After every purchase, Neal sends a plant on moving day—the customers enjoy it, and because it’s a living thing, it stays around a lot longer than most marketing materials. “Every time they see it, I hope they think of me,” she says.

River of Referrals: “It’s all in the details. Everyone knows I’m a mortgage originator and everyone knows I want their business. You just have to ask.”

High Unit Production
Brad Silverstein * Michigan * $344,596,196 * 1,898 Loans * Purchase 10% * Refinance 90% * Assistants: 10 * Years originating: 12

Brad Silverstein’s superstar year (he was number seven on the loans list) can be attributed to long hours (10-12 hour workdays), an excellent support staff, and a major emphasis on online business.

He stresses the importance of live telephone conversations—”I don’t want customers leaving messages; if they do, someone else might get the call,” he says. “If I am on the phone, there is always one of my assistants right there to take the call.”

While efficient follow-through on 1,898 loans seems daunting, Silverstein says, “The key to my business is my support staff. We do everything in house,” he continues. “Credit, title, underwriting…if I had to, I could have a loan done in one day.”

Silverstein believes loyalty exists in clients, and treats every deal as though it were his last. He sends out a closing-gift package that includes a 2-night, 3-day vacation (travel not included) to a nearby resort, and various household goods. “I try to be a little different on everything that I do,” says Silverstein. “I send out cards the month after a big holiday saying that I hope they had a great holiday.” Another key to successful marketing, he claims, is simply “taking care of your client.” Silverstein’s company maintains a significant presence within the community with billboards, TV, and radio ads, which leads to consumer confidence in a well-recognized brand.

Silverstein and his team encourage customers to take advantage of their fully automated system, and they do—approximately 50 percent of their applications are filed online. Business is also generated via links placed on professional affiliates’ Web sites.

He credits the company’s in-house MIS department with maintaining a streamlined technology system. “I can input a loan application, which is filtered through a system that determines the lender we can sell it to,” he says. “It automatically determines which product best suits the loan.”

Streamlining Skills: “Speed is the key to success. You need an assembly line system that allows for no bumps in the loan process.”

Highest Dollar Volume
David Soleymani
First Capital Mortgage * California * $ 1,273,584,700* 1309 Loans* Purchase 29% * Refinance 71% * Assistants: 7 * Years originating: 12

“Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary efforts,” says David Soleymani, number one on this year’s dollar volume list. Soleymani saw the refi boom of 2016 as one of those circumstances. “I’ve seen a lot of cycles, and I don’t think we’ll experience anything like last year for another 40 years,” he says. A self-proclaimed “opportunist,” Soleymani took on an extra-strenuous work schedule during the busiest months—over 12-hour days Monday through Thursday, and 12-hour Sundays.

Capitalizing on what he refers to as, “by far the most efficient business you can get,” Soleymani focused on refis of clients in his high-end market. “The bulk of my loans are $700,000 to $1.5 million and I refinanced some of those loans three times last year,” he says. “I would mention a half-percent rate change without charging points and my clients were very interested. This certainly maximized my repeat business.”

A former real-estate attorney, Soleymani generates most of his business through past customers, referrals, and his professional associations. He attends breakfasts and luncheons, and plays golf as means of being, “proactive about meeting people face-to-face, including divorce attorneys, estate planners, and accountants.”

Soleymani sends value-added material to his past clients, and he utilizes e-mail as often as possible. “I send informative newsletters to my sphere of influence with economic commentary on the future direction of rates or property values.”

With seven assistants, Soleymani is able to focus on initial deal structuring and locking in loans, maintaining direct involvement throughout higher-end deals. “Having people around me is critical, although I have to create the initial direction,” says Soleymani. “Delegating everything out will only lead to diluting the quality of your business.”

While 2016 was primarily refi-driven for Soleymani, he still maintains his established relationships with 20 seasoned top-producing Realtors who provide a consistent source of purchase business.

When the Tough Get Going: “Tenacity is essential. It’s a matter of time—especially with commission. After I have spent an hour of my time on a loan, I have got to close it.”

Originating Without Assistants
Susan Theroff
First Horizon Home Loans * Missouri * $59,209,689 * 652 Loans * Purchase 30% * Refinance 70% * Assistants: 0 * Years originating: 3

Susan Theroff laughs when asked how she handles such a high volume without any help from assistants. “It’s organization,” she says. “You have to be completely, 100 percent organized all the time.” Theroff relies on operational systems that help her move applications through quickly, and knows that the secret to keeping this flow going is not allowing anything to linger on her desk. “As soon as I get a loan application completed, I send it through the underwriting system. I don’t keep files on my desk for very long.” Theroff praises her branch’s processors and closers, saying, “The staff at our branch is absolutely incredible—they are a big reason why I’m able to close such volume.”

Theroff’s hard work in 2016 was made easier by a loyal database of past customers. “I’m particularly proud of my customer base. Customers know that when rates fall, they pick up the phone and call me.” A no-cost refi offer generated more business, but name recognition was what really brought them in. Theroff’s company has a marketing department that helps originators create several professional pieces. “We have fliers, postcards, a quarterly newsletter, and a business-to-business program that targets Realtors with special campaigns,” she says. “The newsletter is especially successful. It’s timely and it really makes the phone ring.” She usually sends mailers seven or eight times each year. “Keeping contact with customers is the biggest thing. There are so many of us out here and you can’t let them forget about you.”

Theroff finds that consistency with customers and making the process as easy as possible for them is the key. She strives to “do such a good job that they tell five of their friends” and always works with the mindset that the customer comes first.

A Place for Everything: “You have to stay on top of things to make it work. Organization is huge—that’s the only way to keep up.”