If you clicked through, it’s probably to read about Countrywide, now Bank Of America.
It’s a long story and only mortgage nerds will find it the least little bit interesting, but you did click over, so here goes….
I spent seven years of my mortgage career advancing at Countrywide.
I learned management and supervision and how to dream BIG and win!
The first two Regional Operations Centers (ROCs) in the nation opened at the same time in 2001 and I created one of them out of an empty room, a pile of leftover office supplies and my typical refusal to see anything other than possibility.
But since it’s too late to make a long story short, let’s go back to the very beginning….
My underlying passion is Affordable Housing
I fell into mortgage lending by accident, but then I spent the next 17 years advancing my knowledge of and supporting the mechanics of providing affordable housing.
I cut my teeth on FHA 203K rehab loans when there were only 5 lenders in the country closing 203K mortgages. One of those 5 was the broker where I worked my first mortgage job. I took to mortgages, especially FHA mortgages, like I was born with a mission!
One of my special memories is a series of encounters with HUD, namely understanding the complex formula for coming up with an actual loan amount and working with the Chief Architect in D.C. to rewrite the 203K manual to correct the wording of that formula in the case of a refinance.
Some months later I helped the Chicago HUD office with a series of recruiting workshops about the 203K loan and spoke to potential lenders about the benefits of working to save older housing stock in urban areas.
I had a close tie with the producer of a radio show called America Remodels, and so I worked out an entire program where callers could ask questions about rehab loans and speak directly with the primary lender (which ended up being ME) and the Chief Architect at HUD, who was nationally responsible for the success of the program.
Passion becomes expertise
You can follow my resume from the broker (5 years) to a Regional Bank with the credentials to be a part of the HUD Direct Endorsement program.
One of my dreams was about to come true: I could be a DE underwriter! The bank had branches all over the Rockford area and was busy expanding into the suburbs.
Not everything in life works out, and when I needed to find a position where I could cut back to maybe 12 hours most days and not carry files home, the title company next door created a position offering a service to Realtors. It was basically a way to use my talent for number crunching and “leave-no-stone-unturned” to increase their market share, but I was good with that!
It was there, at Title Underwriters, that the recruiter from Countrywide found me and wore me down with compelling reasons why I should come to work in a branch down the street where I could underwrite, originate loans and spend time lobbying with the Home Builders, all while earning bonuses for production, which was music to my ears!
It’s always been about business development, growing sales and being #1
I started at Countrywide in ’97 as person number 3 in a two person office in Rockford, when the new Builder Division was created and I was recruited to be the first Builder Specialist in IL.
Changes were already afoot and it only about a year before we were instructed to “grow the branch” by dividing sales and operations. That was different from the primary focus before, which was small branches where the manager and the salespeople were all underwriters who could approve or reject the loan on the spot.
Our branch was made up of 3 people who liked to be in 1st place, so we worked night and day to grow the branch and the numbers and soon we were breaking through the wall in our strip mall to double the size and make room for 13 desks instead of 3.
The paint was still wet when the Regional Sales Manager and a personal friend of my boss stopped in to see the new place. He also wanted to set the stage for offering me a chance to work in Chicago at the Regional Office; his Ops Manager was headed for FNMA and he wanted to see if we could match our branch success on a regional basis.
The changes began in the middle of my time at Countrywide
Even as I read over what I have written here, it’s colored by the implosion of Countrywide, which was still years and years in the future.
My mentor and boss was replaced just a few months after my promotion to corporate. I was traveling between branches scattered all over Chicago and downstate Illinois and the top level executives were working hard to move into 1st place as largest lender in the nation. I mention that, and let it survive several edits, because I think the obsession with being the largest in the nation affected some decision making that later contributed to the unraveling.
There was a move towards combining growth with centralization and because there was real estate sitting empty in the suburbs, our region was picked to create the first Regional Ops Center. This was just a few short weeks before I found myself without a boss, juggling regional management responsibilities with help from neighboring regions, meeting potential replacements and building a processing center in a building 45 minutes from my office and 90 minutes from home.
The opposition to Regional Processing was intense. Every branch slated to be “rolled in” fought tooth and nail to remain independent. There were no manuals or directives for creating regional processing. The closest thing to instructions other than “Do it!” was a conversation with a next-level-up who remarked that I had just supervised the closing of 3 branches. “Take the checklist and do it in reverse.”
The space we used had been a call center for the sub-prime lending division and when it was closed, the employees cleaned out their cubicles by creating a mountain of hole punches, telephone headsets and keyboard trays. Those were my raw materials.
And we did it! We closed loans without missing a beat! I might not ever figure out how much was sheer determination in the face of naysayers, but that was my method. We scheduled moving days around closings and we reconfigured spaces overnight so as not to disrupt production. The first month of operation we exceeded the number of loans that the rolled in branches had ever done on their own.
The beginning of the end for me
The ROC was producing, we were working our way through a series of managers and dealing with rising interest rates, changes in management and the politics of finding the tipping point between “old Countrywide” and “new Countrywide”.
Even though I had totally embraced the concept of centralization and worked my you-know-what off making it happen, I wasn’t so quick to catch on that my new boss saw me as part of “old Countrywide” and not what he needed for the next phase of expansion.
Old fashioned, risk-based, manual underwriting was not so highly prized as automated everything took over and Loan Officers had laptops that could say Yes or No in an instant. Overnight the criteria for everything changed.
Employees who had been around long enough to remember the “old days” (meaning last year) were considered rigid and old-fashioned. It sounds funny in retrospect, but at the time it was merely a signal that it was time to regroup and get back to business development.
Changing the Length of my Daily Commute
Plans were in the works to make my old branch an “Area Branch”, like a mini-region, and I asked to transfer back. I wanted to return to building a business where success was measured by the bottom line and the bottom line was created with quality service and winning the trust of customers.
It didn’t hurt that leaving corporate meant I was eligible for bonus again and when I’m paid for performance I’m much better off! My income was reduced during the two years as Regional because even though the salary was higher, the lack of performance bonuses made a big difference to me.
I had come from a branch that consistently ranked in the top 10 nationwide. I also changed the length of my daily drive from 2 hours each way to about 10 minutes, which made a huge difference in my life!
The Area Branch concept was perfect for Rockford. We knew how to grow in steps that made sense and we knew how to do it quickly. There was a sporting goods store in the strip mall that vacated and left some 5000+ sq feet and we turned it into a buzzing hive of activity! As long as Countrywide was reinventing itself, we had ideas!
It was pretty daring at the time, explaining why we thought a huge training room that could be divided into 3 loan app stations was a good idea! Managers visited from all over to see how we configured space to support 14 operations staff, a separate underwriting office, 3 App taking rooms (+ that conference room / training area) and used all that to support 4 branches (ours and 3 satellites).
This was just 4 years after we split our 3 person branch into 1 salesperson and 1 ops person and 1 pretending she wasn’t doing both.
Lifestyle Choices and Opportune Timing
And now the story becomes more about me and a lifestyle choice than about Countrywide
I left Countrywide for good at the end of 2003. That was before the housing melt-down; in fact the stock was still rising. I would be lying if I said things were good; it had been a horrible year in the branch and almost as bad at home.
We had a murder-suicide in the parking lot. One of my operations staff was the murdered spouse. There isn’t really a true recovery from that kind of incident. Corporate says all the right things, everyone keeps moving, but some level of crazy moves in and waits for the opportunity to create more stress.
Just a few months later, a favorite Loan Officer died in a tragic car accident. The bad things that come in threes had lost count or started over: I had emergency surgery the night of his funeral. My sister died suddenly in the months between the two deaths in the office. I met one of my best processors in the hall of the hospital while I was being discharged, she was coming in because of a cancer scare.
Dave had started to go downhill with his heart. It wasn’t so noticeable at first, with everything else that was going on, but he returned from a “guy trip” sailing and told me that he had been pretty non-functional as crew and worse, he didn’t recover his energy with a few days’ rest.
Dave and I had made a pact years before – when he was forced to retire for health reasons (or retired because of age if we got lucky), I would figure out a way to “retire” with him and spend time playing, enjoying life and racking up adventures together before it was too late.
November of 2003 was when the tragedies at the office were multiplying and it was also when the heart doctor said it was already too late to plan any adventures. The only thing that might change that would be if we could find a cardiac interventionist.
There was an unsuccessful angioplasty done just days before a long promised trip to spend Thanksgiving with family in Montana. I was recovering from surgery and Dave had similar restrictions about lifting anything heavier than a coffee pot. So we packed extremely light, kicked our little duffel bag to the airport luggage belt and went to Montana anyway.
We hadn’t even landed at Glacier National when I decided that the time had come to start spending time with Dave and developing a business that could take us into retirement (if we got the chance). We didn’t know whether or not there was a fix for his heart yet, but we decided before we came home that it was time for me to explore my options.
We got extremely lucky and the Cardiac Interventionist we saw was able to perform a miracle on Christmas Eve eve, but in the meantime I made the decision to leave Countrywide and my mortgage career for the time being and be with Dave.
I wanted to develop an online business (even thought I had never heard of affiliate marketing) because I wanted to be able to unplug it and plug it in somewhere else and never miss a beat. We wanted to relocate to a warmer climate if we got the chance and we wanted to live on our sailboat if we could find the right geography.
So again with the long-story-short – in December of 03, I left Countrywide to create some quality time with Dave. The side benefit for me was that I got out before the tumbling towards the end began in earnest and I was watching from the outside when the perfect storm hit the housing market.
I haven’t returned to the mortgage business even though old fashioned, manual, risk-based underwriting is in again, because in my experience there was no chance of combining a balanced life with any position of importance in the industry. My need to spend quality time with Dave protected me from the end days at Countrywide and the trauma experienced by so many.
My accidental stumble into affiliate marketing while I was trying to figure out how to sell an eBook propelled me into a completely different career that reflected the advertising and marketing I was doing BEFORE my life with mortgages came along.
And now, as Paul Harvey liked to say you know “the rest of the story!”