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A Q&A with Casey Cunningham: the founder of a cutting-edge originator training program tells how the business has changed since she was a top producer.


Q: How and why did you become a mortgage originator? When and where did you start your origination career?

A: I did not set out to enter the mortgage industry or become a mortgage originator.

When I was growing up, I wanted a career that made a difference in people's lives. Early on, I told my mom, who was a schoolteacher, that I wanted to do something that impacted others, as she was truly doing every day with the kids she was teaching.

So in 1984 I began working at Decatur Federal Savings & Loan, which was the top lender in Atlanta for many years. About three months into my first position there, I transferred to the mortgage department and began working with the loan officers and the department vice president. Each day, I watched them and started interviewing them about what they did, and quickly realized that it was the career I had been looking for.

My boss at the time warned me that I'd be paid straight commission, but I didn't mind. I was young and eager, and knew that each person that I met with was an opportunity, because everyone I'd get to work with was a person who I could help achieve the American dream.

So how did I get in? Totally by accident. Why did I get in? To help others achieve the American dream. Extremely intentional.

Q: What was your best year in the business in terms of origination volume?

A: My best year [in the 1990s] was when I annualized close to $60 million in volume, with an average loan amount of $100,000.

Q: After working with hundreds of originators (and would-be originators) and having been one yourself, what is the best background for a successful loan originator coming into the profession?

A: In terms of the best backgrounds, there are many. A few backgrounds stand out as easy transitions into our industry. Teachers and Realtors[R] transition into the role extremely well. Realtors already understand the industry and have an established network, and teachers love to teach-- which helps them naturally educate and guide their clients through the application process.

But one thing I've observed, over the past nearly 15 years since I opened XINNIX[R], is there's more than one pathway to success. We've coached a diverse group of people who have entered the industry with different levels of experience, and what we've found is that the most successful originators share a unique set of characteristics. They genuinely enjoy serving and they're self-disciplined, self-motivated, social people. They also tend to have a competitive streak and love a challenge--in fact, a lot of people who have participated in team sports transition very well into the field. And what matters the most, in my opinion, is that these individuals have embraced and adopted a service mindset and are passionate about helping others.

Q: What origination volume was considered the minimum for a top producer when you started in the business? What is that threshold volume for a top producer in today's market?

A: In my opinion, the threshold hasn't really changed that much. When I started in the industry, the top originators in our region were generating no less than $15 million in production. I would even say that the overall minimum to be considered a top producer was closer to $18 million to $20 million annually and about eight to 10 units per month. Back then, the average loan size was much smaller at about $90,000, and now it's approaching $250,000. So today a loan officer should be closing an average of 10 units each month and producing more than $25 million each year to even be considered a top producer.

Q: How has technology changed the origination business?

A: The real question is: How hasn't it changed the business? Technology has really been a double-edged sword for the mortgage industry for several reasons. In many ways it's made it faster to take a loan from start to finish by making it quicker to verify information, especially customer information, than ever before. You could definitely say that every facet of originating, processing and underwriting a loan has been enhanced through technology, but now everyone expects the process to move faster than it actually does.

I also think technology has impacted the personalized service experience, and when I interview top producers I'm always curious to find out how they're leveraging technology in their own businesses. It's really amazing to hear how many have come to rely on electronic communications for marketing their business and interacting with their database. In the past, it was unheard of to never meet a client, and today it is trending to be the exception as loan officers are using their websites to initiate the loan application.

I recently met a megaproducer who has never met a client in person in eight years. So this really speaks to the power that technology has to change our industry, and it's a reason why so many of our programs at XINNIX are designed to help students adapt to this dynamic, technological environment that we're in.

Q: Why did you decide to start XINNIX and what was your goal for the company in the first year?

A: I started XINNIX because I truly felt that it was God's gifting and calling for me. As a training director in a $4 billion mortgage company, I'd witnessed the success of people who had the opportunity to grow inside one organization and I felt that I could share this experience with the whole industry. To me, the industry was underserved and unprofessional from a training standpoint.

To put this in the context of when I began my origination career, almost anyone at the time could be a loan officer if they were willing to go straight-commission. Someone would hand them a business card and say, "Good luck, go do it"--and I felt that someone needed to elevate the profession. That's why I embarked on a mission that I'm still on to this day, which is to elevate the profession to one where our future children would want to grow up and move into the industry. I want this profession to be as highly respected and regarded as the careers of insurance agents, CPAs, financial planners and stockbrokers. And when you look at all of those professions, they have one thing in common: incredible training. Yet the mortgage industry had none, and that's when I realized there was a real opportunity to help the industry, using the proven best practices I'd developed while working for my regional mortgage company.

I was entering an arena where few lenders existed with an overarching goal of setting the standard of excellence for ... experienced loan officers and new loan officers coming into the industry by giving them all extensive and professional training facilitated through a very structured and proven process. I felt our industry needed the training and structure we had in my previous mortgage company, as we were clearly No. 1 for a reason. Here we are 14 and a half years later, having impacted more than I could have imagined.

Q: Why is your nickname "Blade" and what's the story behind the aviation look and feel for your company?

A: The name was sort of an evolution. Our nicknames in the office are actually call signs. Everyone in the company has a call sign because in the military, it adds a sort of familial element and signifies a rite of passage. In the earlier days, we'd give all of our students call signs when they came to our office for training. Now we give call signs to some of our contacts and customers, too, because it reflects who we are as a company and emphasizes the energizing aspect of our culture.

My call sign started from a nickname that my husband and his best friend gave me. It followed me when we started the company, partly because the training we introduced was such a cutting-edge idea. But I guess it also made sense because my colleagues would sometimes describe me as being sharp and extremely precise--almost painstakingly precise. So when our friend called me Blade, it just stuck.

In terms of the aviation theme, that was an evolution as well. When I designed the original course, we only had a training program called Ground School[TM], which was for new loan officers exclusively. For two weeks, these students would immerse themselves in a self-study program before flying out to Atlanta to train with us during live classes. Every day they'd come in first thing in the morning and stay until 6:00 at night. We'd put them through the most intense and structured training they'd ever received, to the point that many of them said it was the closest thing to boot camp they'd ever experienced. My husband, being an Air Force veteran, said that I'd unknowingly created a type of civilian boot camp for these loan officers.

When we redesigned the ORIGINATOR[TM] program, that's when we embraced the military and aviation concept more fully. Our founding vision had been to do everything we could to elevate origination into a respected profession and adopt the best practices from anywhere we could find them. As a result, we decided to model our newly designed program after the highly successful disciplines of military-grade flight training because it requires competency to be demonstrated along the way.

In the redesign, we created three phases of the ORIGINATOR program: Ground School, Flight School[TM] and Officer School[TM]. Phase One (Ground School) is "the manuals," as it's referred to in the aviation industry, and focuses on giving students complete fundamental knowledge of the industry. The next phase, Flight School, is like the simulator where students get in the cockpit, so to speak, without putting themselves or their company's reputation at risk. That's when they apply everything they've learned to their respective company's culture. Then the final phase, Officer School, gives students the chance to take their first solo flights with an "instructor pilot" beside them to guide them through the process.

Before, the industry would have new originators hop into the cockpit of an airplane, put some customers in the back and take off, but the aviation world would never dream of letting a student do that until he or she demonstrates a mastery of the basics. If they don't understand the basics, they'll never pass the simulator, and if they don't pass the simulator, there's no way they'll fly a jet.

Q: What's the hardest thing about being an originator in today's market?

A: The origination process is definitely harder than it once was, and it's become more difficult to achieve and maintain a high volume without assistance. Nowadays the challenge lies in managing your pipeline to originate compliant loans while finding time to get out into the market.

There's an overwhelming demand for compliance and quality that has slowed down the process on the front end because originators have to be exceedingly diligent to get the process right the first time. This eats up the time loan officers would otherwise spend going into the market to find new prospects and new referral partners, and without these key relationships, you can't build your database and sustain your pipeline.

I think the most significant obstacle loan officers face is finding their rhythm and balance--but that's really something we all face in our professional and our personal lives. And I'm hopeful that as we invest more time and resources into preparing these individuals and energizing them, we as an industry will be able to elevate the performance and reputation of the mortgage industry for good.

Janet Reilley Hewitt is editor in chief of Mortgage Banking.
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Title Annotation:SHORT TAKES
Comment:A Q&A with Casey Cunningham: the founder of a cutting-edge originator training program tells how the business has changed since she was a top producer.(SHORT TAKES)
Author:Hewitt, Janet Reilley
Publication:Mortgage Banking
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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