‘Coach you up, or coach you out’
Amid tepid origination volume industrywide, Highlands Residential Mortgage managed to increase the dollar volume of home loans it produced in 2018.
The Dallas-based lender, which originates government loans and Fannie Mae products, originated an estimated $1.5 billion in mortgages during 2018, according to CEO Ken Hickman. That’s up from $1.27 billion in 2017.
While the nonbank lender is largely focused on hiring effective production professionals, it considers its entire staff to be central to its ability to efficiently originate and close mortgages.
“We don’t keep originators around that gum up the system,” Hickman said. “If you do, we either coach you up, or coach you out.”
Highlands’ production gains stem from expanding into a new market and its experience contending with challenging economic cycles. It got started in 2010, when the industry was still in recovery from the Great Recession. Its ability to recruit and retain strong originators by providing an attractive workplace also plays into its ability to generate strong production numbers.
“If you have the culture, and you are attracting the right people, you can have a company that’s efficient, and then you can be profitable,” Hickman said.
The midsized retail mortgage firm considers an efficient closing key to attracting sales talent. Its goal is to return a response to borrowers about loan packages submitted to underwriting within 24 to 48 hours. That response may be a yes, no, or a “maybe” that comes with a request for more documentation, although it encourages the submission of full loan packages at the outset.
Highlands also recruits and retains originators by ensuring they have the secure technology they need to work effectively in the field, including access to digital mortgage point of sale automation and mobile devices such as tablets.
The company also stresses programs that show it cares about its employees and their lives outside the office, something 94% of workers at similarly sized employers on the Best Mortgage Companies to Work For rankings say their employers do. Among other things, the company chips in to help employees in need. Examples include a worker that needed help paying to repair a home that was damaged by a falling tree during a hurricane.
Highlands also finds providing flexibility to work outside the office helps with recruiting, but it’s not a “carte blanche” policy, Hickman noted.
In addition, it lets employees use sick and vacation days interchangeably, something half of the companies its size on the Best Mortgage Companies to Work For rankings do. Highlands also encourages community service and makes donations in local and regional markets it does business in, as well as abroad.
“We wanted to be a company that gives back,” Hickman said. “That helps make it a place that people want to work.”
Events that make coming to work fun have also helped with recruiting and retention, he said. The company recent had an ugly Christmas sweater contest and has given its employee Apple products and tickets to local sporting events.
The lender aims to add more mortgage vets to the mix by upping its use of recruitment services, and its “Better University,” a 90-day onboarding program to help seasoned professionals get acclimated.
To maintain a positive culture, Better Mortgage equips its staff with 100% paid insurance premiums. It also offers free meals, allows limitless paid time-off to full-time workers, and helps its team members bond through office game nights, happy hours and other activities.
A culture built around robots and jelly beans
Amid the shift to a purchase-driven origination market, mortgage lenders have had to closely examine their processes to find even the smallest gains that make their scarcest resources — employees — more efficient. Radius Financial Group turned to business intelligence and robotic process automation technologies to streamline workflows and eliminate banal tasks.
The Norwell, Mass.-based lender started by scrutinizing every step in its workflows to identify opportunities for improvement. Then it developed a proprietary bot farm to handle routine tasks that don’t require human intervention.
“We spent a lot of time looking at our workflows and in mapping those out, we identified basic tasks that we had incredibly smart staff members doing,” said Dustin DeMeritt, chief marketing officer of Radius Financial Group.
“We identified 15 or 20 different things we could use robotic automation to do. Our team set out to start creating bots to do those things.”
The bots have become so engrained in the Radius culture that they’re part of the family — and are treated as such.
“We have north of 25 robots and they all have names and personalities. Our designers have pictures of them on their desk, they consider them their kids,” DeMeritt continued. “They’ve taken on this life of their own. From a marketing standpoint, our charter is to bring them to life. They’re living, breathing parts of our culture and that’s who we are.”
In a commodity-driven industry, there’s a multitude of lenders to get mortgages from. Margin compression is also a major challenge for the overall industry and the top challenge for Radius. For a lender to strive and survive, it needs to separate itself from the pack.
The way Radius continues to grow and be efficient is through AI, learning and robotic automation. Keeping operations efficient means streamlined mortgage delivery and lighter costs. When you look at how much time, energy, effort and personal attachment Radius has with its fintech, that’s what truly differentiates it.
“We look at compression and wonder how you continue to grow very aggressively,” said DeMeritt. “We’ve been in the business 20 years. We’ve navigated the financial crisis, we’ve acquired and had organic growth. We’ve played by the rules and continued to win, grow and be successful. Because one of our core values is character matters.”
The Best Mortgage Companies to Work For survey highlighted that a company is only as good as the people running it.
High employee response rates show they care about their company and vice versa. Receiving company accolades is always nice, but the why is more important.
Building an enthusiastic staff means finding the right people while making sure they’re properly valued — which includes their time. Radius does something called Jelly Bean Day. A jar of jelly beans sits in the office, each bean representing a day in an average lifespan. Accompanying the jar is a sign that says, “What are you going to do with your day?”
“Would you read a book, go on a walk, run a marathon, volunteer, hang out with your mom and dad, spouse? Live like you’re dying. You’re not just coming to work to get a paycheck. Certainly I get that part, but there’s more to it than that,” DeMeritt said.
Radius wants its employees to think about what’s most important to them and what they would do if they had one more day, or in
this case, one more bean.
Inspiring excellence through respect
By cultivating a culture that prioritizes work-life balance, collaboration and respect, New American Funding seeks to nurture meaningful relationships with employees, customers and even vendors.
The Tustin, Calif.-based lender and servicer was founded in 2003 by the husband and wife team of Rick and Patty Arvielo. As it grew, they realized the significance of a strong company culture.
“Coming out of the meltdown, my wife and I decided we wanted to it right, we wanted to make sure we’re paying attention to the things that are important to pay attention to. And the topic of culture came up,” Rick Arvielo said.
So in 2012, the Arvielos attended Zappos Insights Culture Camp, a three-day leadership seminar produced by the online retailer. Zappos CEO Tony
Hsieh is widely credited for fostering a customer-centric corporate culture. The boot camp offers a first-hand look at the inner workings of Zappos to inspire executives to take what they learn back to their companies. For the Arvielos, that experience led to the creation of what the lender calls NAF360.
“We wanted something that really signified what we were going to hang our hat on and be known for,” he said. “The 360 degrees signifies treat everybody you come into contact with dignity and respect. It seems like such an obvious thing. In the mortgage business, we noticed that wasn’t always the case.”
And it’s not just about how fellow employees and customers are treated; New American realized it needed to pay attention to its vendor relationships, too.
“We took it to extremes; we said ‘ Listen, we don’t want you to just treat your fellow employees with dignity and respect, or your borrowers — that’s obvious. We want you to treat even our vendors who rely on us for their livelihood, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Arvielo said. “We actually had incidents where we had to let top producing loan officers go because they treated a vendor horribly. Just to prove the fact we’re serious about this.”
As part of NAF360, the company has an “ambassador of fun,” whose job it is to engage workers in its other locations outside of the headquarters.
Events like “Fun Fridays” have included things like free gourmet coffee and food trucks onsite, along with various contests and even a water balloon fight. “It is something that we work hard at; it just doesn’t happen,” he said.
But what works for recruiting loan officers is that the company has forward-thinking ideas for technology and marketing, including offering Social For You, a step-bystep multimedia platform for social media engagement. But it can’t stop at hiring.
“You need to give [employees] an opportunity to rise up through the ranks, just as would anyone else,” he said.
Part of that is a program called, “If you want to grow, we want to know.”
“We realized sometimes we would lose a valued associate because they didn’t think they had an opportunity to advance here,” Arvielo explained.
New American emphasizes recruiting a diverse staff, not just at the sales level, but in management as well. It has 2,963 employees in 185 branches; approximately 58% are women and 40% are minority. Originations are about $900 million monthly, and it services $28 billion.
“This is something that my wife is very passionate about. You need to hire the people that are serving the borrowers that they resonate with,” he said.