Being Comfortable in the Uncomfortable
Joe: Hello everyone. I'm Joe Welu. Thanks so much for tuning in to Expert Insights, where we talk with industry leaders across modern financial services to discuss leadership and innovation. Let's get started. Melissa Wright joined American Pacific Mortgage in April of 2015 and is responsible for leading both the corporate retail channel and the marketing organization. As a key member of the executive team, she works on strategies at the highest level of the organization related to production in all of sales and marketing. Prior to joining APM, Melissa was the president of Axiom Financial, a company she co- founded and co- built starting in 1996. She was responsible for the company's growth, culture, strategies, operations, compliance and overall performance for over 18 years. With the sale of that company to PHH, she also oversaw an initiative to integrate marketing nationwide and has a passion for enhancing many brands, distinctive identity and market position. Melissa, great to be with you as always. Thanks for joining us today. How's life in the trenches and how are things at American Pacific?
Melissa: Wonderful on both. So I'm happy to be here as well. I appreciate you asking.
Joe: Yeah. Absolutely. So we talked a little bit before we went on air, a lot of change in the industry right now, which I want to get into a little bit, but I really kind of want to start out and hear your story of coming up through the industry and becoming one of the top executives and one of the most well respected leaders at one of the most well respected companies. Maybe, start out, just tell me a little bit about your story.
Melissa: Oh, thank you. It's interesting that you talk about kind of my tenure and it's looking back at what I've been through that now, here we are going through another pretty pivotal market shift and I was on the phone with one of our great producers that said, I actually haven't been through this kind of market shift ever. I don't even know what to do with it. I need your advice. And then you pull from the memory banks of how we've done this and try to coach and communicate out that this is kind of what we do. And we know how to go through these market cycles and we know how to do it and come out the other side better, stronger, smarter, but he hadn't been through that. And so he was a little disrupted by that. So-
Joe: If you don't mind me asking before we get the rest of it, what was the advice you gave him?
Melissa: Well, first of all, I wanted him to know that you can get through it. It isn't so disruptive because it feels as if the end of his reign of being a top producer is over.
Joe: It's jarring because the production-
Melissa: It's jarring out of you. Yes, because the challenges he's had, he's never had before. So the challenges have always been, how do I make myself known? How do I create a reputation? How do I do good on the loans with the customer? Then how do I source and retain real estate agents? Everything's been sales strategies. And then I have more business on how to do it, I need help with my team. So everything's been very proactive, growth- minded and now it's like, oh wow, you just got something you haven't had to do. So now you've got to work on your mindset and you've got to work on your disciplines. We're having our upcoming cell summit, starts next week. And that's what it's all about. It's all tap into your mojo and it's trying to help our producers go back to all the things that they're good at and really tap into that good energy and that good mindset and those good disciplines that are going to leverage them. So there was a lot connected with that.
Joe: That's great. And it is so much about mindset right now, right? I mean, we were in a market for a couple of years that really wasn't reality for most executives and including myself, I came up on the real estate side, of course, but went through multiple cycles and you're just like, hey, that wasn't real. And so now it's sort of back to business as usual. And so let's start out a little bit on when you started in the industry, did you start right out of the gate and build your own company when you got into the business in the nineties? Tell us a little bit about that.
Melissa: I did. It's so crazy. So I was in my twenties and I was looking for something a little more entrepreneurial, had worked just one job out of college at a tech firm and thought that wasn't really the path I wanted to go down, wanted to go to the entrepreneurial space. And I got connected with a real estate brokerage that wanted to start their own mortgage company. So they hired me to do that. And we started from scratch, picked the name, learned the business. So I took on to start. I was a loan officer because working with these real estate agents, I didn't know the business, figured it out pretty quickly. After the first loan, I disqualified, ended up getting a mortgage 30 days later, I'm like, okay, I got to hurry and figure this out. So just dove it all in and spent all the time and just gave it my all with learning the business, sourcing the customers, working with these real estate agents. And then I moved quickly into just leading the company and building out the people. So I added loan officers and processors. We started out as a mortgage brokerage. We had to because we were brand new. We were a baby. But then within two- ish years, right around between the year two and three, I launched our mortgage banking platform. So the majority of the time we were a mortgage banker, we stayed only a broker for the beginning stages. So we grew that and grew with the real estate firm. And then the real estate firm got gobbled up by a bigger real estate firm. And then it just kept growing bigger and bigger from that. So yeah. I have literally been like, I don't know the business, I've been a loan officer. I've been a branch manager. I've been ahead of launching mortgage banking. And then to a point where I just ran things for many years.
Joe: That is really a fantastic story, considering you just dove in head first, total immersion. It's a kind of complex industry, right? There's a lot to know. And particularly, and you hadn't managed people before that, right? You hadn't been the leader of the company.
Melissa: I was in my twenties. Yeah.
Joe: Yeah. Right. None of us know anything. So what do you think was that allowed you to have so much success? I know you fairly well and you're an impressive executive and extremely dedicated and hardworking, but what was it in those early days that do you think allowed you, kind of in spite of the odds, right, to become successful?
Melissa: Well, I had nothing to lose. I was young enough. I could work for nothing. And in fact, the first year, I didn't take a paycheck. So I just dove in and worked and just scraping by because I could. I could give the time, so I mean, I worked crazy stupid hours, nearly around the clock in the beginning, just trying to learn it and dive in and figure it all out. I had some really good business partners that I ended up partnering with on the real estate side that connected me well with real estate agents. A lot of really good business partners from mortgage insurance companies to wholesale execs, to credit vendor partners in the beginning that were really good friends and really kind of helped me get started and learn the business. And then after that, just a lot of hard work.
Joe: Just grind, right?
Melissa: A lot of grind.
Joe: I'm hearing relationships, so we're obviously critical to that trajectory. And so you built and grew that company to pretty a sizable organization. How big were you at the peak that first company that you were crosstalk?
Melissa: Well, it might sound like small numbers today, but average loan amounts were down, but we were a billion a year company in volume. And at one time the largest in the state.
Joe: I mean, that was a lot of loans at that time, considering loan amounts were what? 25% or 30% of what they are today or something like that. So you guys sold the business to PHH and you stayed on there for a bit and then kind of walk me through that next stage.
Melissa: I stayed on for nine years and there were companies like mine. So we were a wholly owned subsidiary, LLC. And I had sister companies just like mine across the US. And as things evolved, I ran my company but then as things evolved, they wanted us to start doing more and more together. So these other companies, we called them our sister companies and we just started leveraging each other. And one thing I was really strong at was marketing. And so they said, hey, can you lead out and run marketing for all these companies together? We like what you've done with your company. How about you take these other companies on? So I was president of my company and head of the national marketing team for all those other things.
Joe: So kind of doing two full- time jobs. We've talked before, I'm like, you're running all of sales and you're running all of marketing. So that's not new to you. You've done that before. Yeah.
Melissa: It's not new to me. And in fact, my personality is such that I go and seek out more to do. I wish I didn't sometimes.
Joe: It's a blessing and a curse, right?
Melissa: Sometimes I'm like, wait, I have too much on my plate. And I'm like, I kind of put some of those on my plate, but I just naturally like to push myself. I feel like I can do more and more and really driven by making an impact and raising the bar. And so if I can insert and find the time to do it I want to.
Joe: So I want to talk just a little bit about your philosophy as a leader in an industry that I think has maybe predominantly been male dominated for many years, you have emerged at just not only an exceptional leader, but an exceptional female leader and have had a career that is unbelievable. As you think about building out performing teams and leading these organizations, what have been your sort of tried and true best practices, your sort of blueprint that you follow if you have one?
Melissa: I don't know if I have a blueprint, but I would say I'm really driven by, I guess, I'm not afraid. We'll just start there. My experience, this is just my personal opinion, is what ends up happening is people don't take a project on, take an opportunity on, do a job because they let fear get in their way. Fear like failure, fear of, I don't know that job
Joe: Being uncomfortable.
Melissa: Fear of, it could be that, it could be, you don't have anyone cheering you on. There could be lots of reasons for the fear, but my experience is a lot of times, people just kind of get in their own way. And they're kind of afraid of that. And that happens a lot for women is naturally... We worry about what people think and we worry about, can we really do it? And what if we are the only woman in the room, what will that be like? And I'm not saying that fear doesn't exist because it absolutely does. I just don't allow it to stop me. And what has happened is I've had several experiences that I was scared to death and did it anyway. And it came out as success. And now I use that. I have now more belief than fear. And then I hold onto that.
Joe: You draw on that because you know you've had that feeling before, you just dove in, made it through it. And you draw on that experience.
Melissa: I mean, reflect back to, what was it? Six and seven, some of those years blend together, I think six, when every single day there was a company going out of business.
Joe: It was like the Implode-o-Meter. Remember it was like the world was going to end.
Melissa: So stressful and we felt fine. And at the same time, you're just watching this. Well, yeah, there were those days that I was stressed and throwing up in my garbage can because you're getting handed like repurchase and all this crap, just because all these companies were going under. And as leading out my company, that was a lot. But we came out the other side actually a stronger organization, better. We were able to grow in that down market. And now I know I can do that, so that's just an example of... And there's buckets of these, but there are times when things are hard. When I took on as president of my company, I remember I went back to PHH headquarters and I went into a room with 100% men and walked in and gave my presentation and they wanted to know how I was going to be able to really make the company something different than it had been before. And they looked at me like, I don't think that you can. And that I was just like-
Joe: Wait a second. After he presented or before?
Melissa: Well, they made me interim president. They didn't want to give me the official title of president.
Joe: And you said, watch me.
Melissa: And after 90 days, then they gave me the job. But that was in the beginning because they just were unsure if I was the right candidate, even though I'd built the company, it'd been there from the beginning. I wasn't president at the time, my partner was. And when he resigned as president, I wanted to take that over and then they wouldn't give it to me. I had to apply for it. So I applied for the job and went through seven or nine rounds of interview. And then at the end they only gave me interim president. And then I had to put together business plans and strategies and present to them and then-
Joe: They make you jump through more hoops than maybe somebody else would've had. It been one of the good old boys in the club. Yeah.
Melissa: Hard to say. But I just remember that in particular. I mean, the second thing is you got to build relationships. And when you have really strong relationships with people that give you confidence or people that remove barriers or people that cheer lead you on, or people that teach you, you have to have those in your life. And I have been really fortunate on the business front to have those either in a business partner, in someone who could coach me and mentor me or the people I surround myself with.
Joe: For young leaders and especially even young female leaders, was it intentional that you were seeking out those types of mentors? What advice would you have for people that might be earlier in their career?
Melissa: I think there's both formal and informal. So even today I have two coaches and I look forward to those. I plan them, I have a scheduling this up, I fit them in. Those are very, very important to me, but I also have lots of informal, where these are just people I know from the industry that I have really kind of latched onto as a friend, but then also a real trusted advisor. I get a lot of advice and coaching from our chairman, Kurt Reisig, that I love.
Joe: Kurt's fantastic. Amazing guy.
Melissa: Last time with him and he advises and coach, but I've got years of that where I've just found over time. There are just people you can connect with and that you can brainstorm with and you can share ideas with and let them bounce through those. You got to have that.
Joe: You don't have to do it alone. You don't have to do it alone, right?
Melissa: No. Don't ever do it alone. I mean, I'm running marketing and I didn't get my degree in marketing. So I just naturally have moved into this space, but I surround myself with people that are fantastic marketers that I can... I'm on this CMO brain trust group that I really like and get a collaborate with and share ideas with outside of the industry. So there are abundance of that out there. So if you're a young professional looking to do more leadership, make sure you surround yourself with people who believe in you, cheer you on, want you to succeed, but then you also look at some kind of formal coach to keep you kind of disciplined, help you with some of your mindsets or your action. And then informal, build those relationships where you can really trust and collaborate with people.
Joe: Yeah. That's such fantastic advice and well said and clearly has served you so incredibly well. Would you say in terms of obviously the scale of the organization, I just want to give for people that are not familiar with APM. Give us just high level scale of the company right now. How big is the sales organization, volume wise? Give us a little sense for that.
Melissa: Yeah. So last year, we closed 24 billion. Our license in 49 states have branches in about 32 states. We have run about 1200 full- time originator positions of about 3500 company size. For years and years, were west of the Mississippi and ran the organization, being more of a west coast based company. We had even in our description of who we were, we used to explain we're west of the Mississippi. And it wasn't until 19 that we decided to go nationwide.
Joe: And what was the catalyst for that? Just we need to grow?
Melissa: No. It's never about size. It's a couple things. Number one, we want to expand and get more markets feeding our servicing pool and our pool of business that we sell at. It makes your loans stronger when they come from all over instead of concentrated areas. Another reason is we had grown all of these resources, all of this technology, all this infrastructure to support our originators and now it was built to scale. So it was easier just to grow and expand because we already had those big and fixed structure things in place. And to keep up on the demands with cybersecurity on the demands for technology, we kind of now need to operate at this higher level of volume.
Joe: Yeah. The bar for scale has just gotten higher, right? As the technology needs and yeah. As you look at this year, we're in this environment right now, where there's contraction in the market and we're in a cycle and a lot of people are really uneasy about it. And when I hear conversations with you and people at APM, it's really a growth mindset. It's really about leaning into this environment and playing offense. And I guess, tell me if I've got that right. And maybe say more about your philosophy this year, as you look at, all of a sudden having interest rates in the fives and how do you lead and navigate a company and kind of how you guys are approaching it?
Melissa: Yeah. First of all, who would've thunk we would be in the fives this early on? No one ever saw that coming, but at the end of last year, we set our strategies as organization, as a leadership team. We set three key strategies, one around production, one around people and one around profitability. And then there are subsets of those. Well, we decided for our production goal for the year that it was going to be heavily focused on the growth side. There are retention strategies as well. But when we set our number, we shifted a lot into growth. So we set that on before this change happened with crosstalk.
Joe: And when you say growth, are you talking specifically around adding new footprint, acquiring new sales footprint?
Melissa: All the above. So it could be acquiring company. It could be adding branches, going into new markets where we don't have little to no presence. And it's also adding loan officers into existing branches. And what we knew is last year and the year before, everyone was working on the business, you're just in, working all the details, loan officers aren't really looking up.
Joe: It was all about fulfillment, right?
Melissa: You just had to get the loans done. You can't even look at, is there something different? Do I want to expand? Am I looking for a new company? You couldn't even go there because you had so much volume and what we knew, it would shift away and we would have an opportunity to get in front of more people that would now take our calls and be able to sit down and look and see if there was something that we could offer to them that they were looking for. So we set out for the year and we set goals around how many branches, how many people, how many new production we wanted to add this year. And then we built all of our strategies around how we were going to do that. And so we're off to a really good start and we break things down into sprint.
Joe: It sounds like it's working pretty well so far for the crosstalk.
Melissa: I mean, yeah. We've added, I think over 30 new branches this year so far.
Joe: That's awesome.
Melissa: We hope to keep matching that throughout the year and get us to a size and we're going... There are still a lot of markets where we're still have a relatively small footprint and we want to be able to grow and expand. We're very strategic about where we're going and why we're going there. What we're looking for are the people we want to help grow that. So it's not just about numbers. We really are looking for people that are entrepreneurial minded, self starters, and people that have good solid reputations and create opportunity.
Joe: You guys are looking for culture fit always, right? That's one thing I know about you guys for working with you for so many years now is that you really pay attention. It's not just about acquiring headcount and sales and throwing money around and just buying production. It's really matching culture and making sure that the people you bring in the organization are going to line up well. How much of your success do you think is attributed to staying true to that culture?
Melissa: Oh, I think our culture is one of our best differentiators and I think that's what people are attracted to. I mean, we're independently owned and ESOP that we added last year, so now we have employee ownership opportunities, that makes us unique just because we kind of control our own destiny. We control who we are. We've been able to keep that contained. From there, looking for people that connect with us or like- minded is how you keep your culture intact because if you bring people that don't connect with that, it doesn't matter to them, they're just about doing loans. Then you'll start to see that eroded and you haven't got it perfect by any means. But first and foremost, we try to analyze if they're a culture fit.
Joe: That's awesome. And obviously the proof is the results that you guys continue to have, year over year, regardless of market, super impressive. And so as you guys think about the environment that we're in, it's really just continuing to lean into your core principles, the things that you mentioned, production, people, profit, staying focused on that. Do you guys spend much time worrying about if rates go to six versus drop back down to four and a half? Is it just, hey, let's play our game or what are the things you're thinking about every day?
Melissa: Not worried about rates other than worried about our loan officers and worried about them being in the right mindset and giving them tools and products. So we're really focused on heavily on products this year to make sure that we've got some really innovative creative ways to help them differentiate. So we've rolled out some great products so far. We have some new ones coming out next month that I'm personally been responsible for and really excited about, that we feel like we'll be somewhat a game changer for them. So we're thinking of those kinds of things. We're leveraging technology and systems to make them better smash faster, smarter, easier, all that kind of stuff. So then, the cost to produce could go down. You got to take all that into account because we know the business will be reduced. There's no doubt about that and it has. And there's new forecasts that are out, roughly 35% decrease is what we're planning on for the year. So we're trying to backfill that through growth, but then also really help the loan officers. Like I said, we've got a sales summit coming up. That it's all going to be just the things that we feel like they need to help them thrive the rest of the year.
Joe: So it's really what I'm hearing is around, it's the growth side but it's also then optimization, right? Now if you can use, you can have products that are going to differentiate for them and be a competitive advantage. That's really critical in this market and also putting tools around them, whether it's tech and data and things like that, creating opportunities for them where, maybe a deal last year that fell through the cracks was acceptable. Those things aren't acceptable anymore, right? You got to go capture all those things. So all of that sort of in your wheelhouse, from what you're working on, from what I hear.
Melissa: Yeah. A lot of tech, a lot of products, a lot of marketing. I find this is the year that loan officers are really interested in rolling up their sleeves and learning more about marketing. They've heard it, they've talked about it, they're aware of it for years, but they didn't have to do it the last couple of years. And now they really do have to. It's a tight competition out there and they've got to stand out. They've got to be relevant. They've got to be able to compete and that takes some marketing strategies to do.
Joe: It takes strategy and it takes the combination of having a great company like you guys to partner with them, right? Because the scale at which you need to be able to do things from a tech standpoint, it's really hard for some of those individual practitioners and brokers and people that don't have that scale. So really appreciate getting to hear some of your story and also from a leadership standpoint, really impressive. And in closing, would love to just hear your advice to both leadership, as well as the sales organizations out there, people that are in the trenches doing loans every day, maybe what would you advise both groups if there was something very key they should be doing right now?
Melissa: Let's just start by planning. So strategic planning is everything. And we plan in 90 day sprints and that's where we see our best success. There's a lot of ideas and things you want to do as an organization. And some of those will take longer than 90 days, same as loan officer, but we really encourage everyone to have a plan and have a plan for 90 days. So you have your overall goal that may not ever change for the year, for six months, for a couple years. But then what are the strategies that at the end of the day, roll up to hit your goal? Well, we feel very passionate about having those every 90 days. And we build plans around a 90 day sprint is what we call them, when we do 90 day sprints for everything. I also say loan officers should have a 90 day sprint. What are the things for the next 90 days? Pick two or three. You don't even need a lot, just two or three strategies you're going to do for the next 90 days. And then you'll move on to the next one. And so build it like that. It's way easier. You got to have a plan and then you got to have the discipline to work the plan. So it's great to create a real beautiful plan, but put on the discipline. So create time in your schedule for the plan. And if you're a loan officer, same thing, build a 90 day plan and build time to work on that because it's really easy to get in the business and not on the business, right? So you got to focus on that and don't forget about marketing. We spend a lot of time learning our business. We know how to be problem solvers. We know how to be consultants. We know about the market and being able to explain to the customer, but you still have to get out in front and market yourself. You've got to stay relevant. You've got to stay, how are you seen and found, do you like how you're seen and found? How do you want to fix that? How are you showing up with your business partners, your real estate partners? There's a lot of strategies on that and just really encourage loan officers to make the time. Sometimes we're really good at doing the mortgage and not so great on the sales side.
Joe: That's really, really well said, Melissa. Melissa, thank you so much for your time, always a pleasure. Congrats to starting the year off to a great start and look forward to seeing what you guys accomplished this year.
Melissa: Thank you, Joe. We appreciate your partnership and your friendship as well.
Joe: Thanks so much for joining us today. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcast.
In this episode, Melissa Wright, chief sales and marketing officer at American Pacific Mortgage, stops by Expert Insights to talk about her real estate and entrepreneurial journey. Topics of conversation include:
- Living through market shifts and adapting to challenges
- Finding strength in marketing and bringing business units together
- Creating strong relationships and choosing great mentors
- The scale and volume of American Pacific Mortgage
- Focusing on production, people, and profitability
- Advice to those in leadership and sales