Aaron Jernigan had actually considered law as a potential career. However, while attending Missouri State College, he worked as a bank teller and that experience gave him a different perspective.
“I had thought about going to law school, but upon graduating felt that the finance business was a better option,” he explained.
That was a wise decision. Jernigan has clearly demonstrated he is well suited for the mortgage lending profession. He has “grown” from a novice loan originator to become a top producer and company executive. Last year, he closed $89 million and 385 loans for Oak Star Bank in Springfield, MO.
Jernigan got his start in 1995 when he was hired as a residential loan originator at North American Savings Bank. “It was on the job training; I read a lot of manuals,” he said.
His first move was to contact real estate agents, hoping that he would get some of their referrals. He quickly learned it was a difficult process. “At the time, it wasn’t an easy niche to break into. Business was slow and I said I’d give it six months. Then after about the fifth month of talking to Realtors and working with first-time buyers, my business began to grow. There have only been two months during the last seventeen years that I’ve closed less than $1million.”
Strategic PartnersAs Jernigan, 40, began getting deals from agents, he made a major change in his approach. “Through reading and attending seminars, I realized that a lot of top producers were doing great with referrals from past customers and I decided I wanted to develop that part of my business as well. So in addition to maintaining ties with Realtors, I began doing more to generate referrals.”
Although he began delivering rate sheets to Realtor offices, Jernigan’s marketing soon expanded. “I currently work with a handful of agents, with whom I stay in contact by phone and e-mails,” he said. “I’ve found that the word spreads as you do a good job for their clients.”
He sends frequent e-mails to inform agents about new loan programs. “I try to provide updates about products that other originators might not have,” he said.
Although Jernigan considers Realtors to be an important asset of his overall strategic partner network, he has also substantially expanded his professional business sources. “Over the last five or 10 years, it became clear that many homebuyers were using agents as secondary information sources regarding referring to a mortgage lender, with the Internet and other professional contacts becoming even more critical,” he said.
Jernigan developed his business development group, which also includes attorneys, financial planners and accountants. He sends them the weekly Mortgage Market guide as a way to stay in touch. “It has been a very effective strategy; as they appreciate receiving timely market information about the economy and the direction of mortgage rates.’’
Customers for Life Marketing
Jernigan expanded his marketing outreach to past customers as well. Primary activity includes:
Direct mail: His quarterly direct mail pieces include letters that address customers’ specific needs, such as the best timing for a refinance. “We are usually targeting a specific group, such as all FHA deals that closed last year,” he noted.
He also distributes oversized postcards, including 4th of July and other select cards. “Most of our postcards include a call to action, rather than just a general message,” he noted. “It may highlight a specific mortgage program. The goal is to get them thinking about the opportunities.”
E-mailers—Jernigan also uses the Mortgage Returns database program to help maintain contact with customers. The program enables him to distribute e-mail messages specific to a customer’s interest rate and other situations. “This is an automatic program that sends us daily updates regarding our customers’ loan characteristics, so we can send them a note that encourages an action. The e-mails are customized to each person, rather than a general broadcast message.”
Company Niche—A company affinity program is another key element of his ever-expanding referral base. Jernigan met with Human Resource directors at local universities and companies to discuss how Oak Star loan programs could benefit their employees and the type of service he provides. “The organizations’ websites usually list Oak Star as a preferred lender for their associates,” he said. “During the last two years, we have spent more time developing this program, which has become a very successful part of our overall marketing.”
Community Support—In addition, Jernigan makes an effort to be involved in the community, including donations and participation in various events. “For example, we try to support schools’ athletic teams. We do this because we want to, but also know that makes people more receptive to sharing referrals.”
Jernigan contacts his customers directly at least twice a year. His efforts have paid off, as he estimates approximately 70 percent of his customers are repeat borrowers or their referrals. In addition, during the last few years, he has benefitted from customers encouraging their children to contact him for a loan. “It’s a great feeling knowing that a customer is advising their son or daughter to see you for their loan.”
For those looking for new marketing techniques, Jernigan suggests being open to ideas gained from other industries. “One way to be innovative is to look at various marketing materials that you receive or otherwise learn about. For example, I may get a postcard from a cruise line or see something that a hardware store has done; then determine how I might adapt that to mortgage finance in regards to marketing.”
Jernigan is adamant that in order to thrive in a competitive market, originators must provide a higher level of customer service. “The key thing I emphasize is accessibility,” he said. “I make myself available to meet or talk with my customers. I’m also proactive in providing information throughout the loan transaction. If I have a customer who has to call and ask me about their status, I feel I’m not doing my job. We really strive to be proactive in the process.”
He has established a formal process for ongoing customer communications. “My assistant contacts all current customers every Friday, even if there is nothing major happening. It lets them know were interested.”
Education is another major aspect of his customer support. “This is more important than ever. I try to educate customers up front, letting them know how the industry has changed and the documentation they’ll need. I think that many originators don’t adequately prepare their customers, who later get frustrated when it seems there are repeated requests for documentation. The transaction is much easier when you spend enough time up front. “
An Efficient System
Unlike many originators who conduct much of their business over the phone, Jernigan prefers to meet with the majority of his customers. “I really enjoy meeting with people and also believe it helps to minimize communication issues and strengthens the relationship. Unless the customer would rather to do it all over the phone, I generally meet with the majority of my customers in my office.”
He no longer does everything by himself; having recently hired an assistant, Tim Krekeler “I would have hired an assistant earlier but in the past I wanted to be involved in every aspect of the loan, which made it difficult to turn the file over to someone other than our processor. Plus, I wanted to find just the right person. Of course, I saw the great benefit of other originators having an assistant.”
However, Jernigan still takes 100 percent of the applications himself, with his assistant responsible for such critical tasks as ordering documents, follow-up, file maintenance and marketing efforts. “We are continuing to develop a system and finding the best ways of working together. There is always something new to learn.”
Jernigan recently began evaluating options to expand his team, which could involve adding other assistants who originate their own loans as well. “I’ve met with other producers to see how they run their operations. I’m working on a long-term game plan for a team approach.”
He also must balance his own originating with major management responsibilities. He manages the bank’s Mortgage Banking Department, directly oversees 13 other originators, and serves on the Executive Management Team and Board of Directors.
“I have learned to be very efficient so that I generally don’t work much more than 45 hours a week. That way, I can spend more time with my family, which is my first priority.”
While he balances a hectic work schedule with his personal life, Jernigan feels that originating was a better choice for him personally than being pursuing a legal career. “I love the mortgage lending profession and can’t imagine doing anything else.”
David Robin son is associate editor of Broker Banker.