Brooks Grasso got his start as a top producing loan originator after learning some of the sales fundamentals while working as a dairy salesman.
“I sold dairy products to cafeterias on capitol hill, the Library of Congress and other large institutions in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “I had friends in the mortgage profession who recommended that I become a loan originator. I started learning the business after joining American Home Loans as a part-time originator in 1998.”
A year later, Grasso went full-time with Columbia Bank (later acquired by Fulton Financial), which he found to be an initial adjustment. “At first it was a huge transition, as I went from having a regular paycheck to a full commission basis,” he says. “I set an early goal of five loans a month to be able to pay bills, which I reached pretty quickly. I worked a lot of hours and beat on a lot of doors. Of course, it helped that I was with a bank that had a good customer base.”
Grasso has proved he made a good career decision. He has been a top producer for more than 10 years and last year closed $53.3 million and 260 loans at Fulton Mortgage in Lutherville, Maryland. He is on track to close approximately $87 million this year.
Like many originators, Grasso got his start by establishing ties with Realtors. “My initial action was delivering product fliers and rate sheets to real estate offices,” he says. “My goal was to offer something that other originators didn’t have; information of more value than basic rate sheets that most had at the time.”
For example, that first year with Columbia he was able to highlight a first-time borrower program. “In 1999, we were the only banker to provide a special first-time homebuyers grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank and that helped generate interest. We also offered a popular construction loan program.”
Based on his early contacts, Grasso began working closely with a few select agents. “They sent me referrals and I did a good job for their clients,” he explains. “My Realtor base continues to expand; every week or so I start work with a new agent or builder.”
One of his early strategies was to launch a continuing education course for Realtors: “Working with First-time Homebuyers.” Approved by the state and the local board of Realtors, he offered the class every other month and still does so a few times a year. “They usually attract about 30 agents, most of whom I haven’t worked with before. It has been a great way to get to know top Realtors and strengthen relationships with others.”
He also keeps agents informed with weekly e-mail updates that focus on mortgage products such as USDA, jumbo and other programs. He provides some of the agents with print versions as well. “Some agents like the printed material while others are more inclined to respond to e-mails,” he adds.
In addition, Grasso participates in agents’ community and social activities. Previous events have included a Bowling with Santa holiday party, a Putting for Bucks golf outing and various volunteer activities. “I believe that this type of interaction is where you start to form the strongest relationships,” he notes. “It generates greater trust, and of course, more referrals. This often has led to referrals to other agents with whom we haven’t previously worked.”
Grasso is always mindful of the importance of staying in contact with agents. “It is easy to forget them when you are especially busy, such as a refinance boom. I have always made a point to stay in touch with Realtors. It’s a top priority.”
Customers for Life
Grasso has established an effective customer communication campaign that includes monthly mailers to customers and others, including recipe cards sent to his 4,000 person database. “We get good feedback from people on this, including e-mails suggesting that we add different ingredients.”
In addition, he sends customers an annual refrigerator magnet, along with birthday and holiday cards. “I know this (regular mailings) works because I’ve had calls from people who did a loan with another institution and then got my card and said ‘I was going to do my refi with them but then I got your card.’ And the magnets have great shelf life, as they stay on refrigerators for a year.”
His customers receive a quarterly e-newsletter (You Magazine, produced by Loan ToolBox) that covers a variety of topics such as energy tips, recipes and market trends. “The newsletter has my name on it so this is another reminder that I am here to help them,” he says.
In addition, he sends e-mail blasts enabling recipients to answer a question and be entered in a drawing for tickets to baseball and football games. “This has become quite popular, something customers look forward to. It’s also a good way to update your database.”
Grasso is an advocate of consistent marketing because he knows it pays off. “A borrower may not start with me but when they refinance decide to call because they have received our mailers,” he says. “Often their original originator hasn’t stayed in touch with them.”
However, he knows the importance of investing in a regular marketing campaign. “You have to spend money on marketing if you want to grow your business,” he says.
Grasso emphasized how easy it can be to develop some type of program. “As an example, you can pick 10 nearby Realtor offices and visit five on one day and five on the next. It is also important to get involved with your local Board of Realtors.”
He stresses that it is also wise to experiment, combining new ideas with proven strategies. “I’ll often read about a marketing technique and test it out, often with my own twist. I’ll try anything if I think it will work.”
Grasso is quick to point out that he could not accomplish his volume without support. “My assistant has played a key role in our production.”
Unlike other originators who wait too long to get an assistant, he made the decision after just a year. “I was to the point that I could only do so much,” he explains. “Many of the things I spent time on didn’t directly generate revenue. For example, I wanted to concentrate on getting new applications and less time on pipeline management.”
His current assistant, Dorothy Hodge, has been at his side for 3 ½ years. “She manages our pipeline; getting loans submitted, clearing the conditions and moving them along to a timely closing.”
He also credits the company he has been with for the last 14 years. “Having a strong organization behind you that provides the necessary resources makes a major difference. A lot of the people who joined Fulton when I did are still with the company.”
Grasso has succeeded at a high level during a difficult time in the lending industry for several reasons. First, he was fortunate to not have developed a subprime niche. “We have always been an A-paper company,” he says.
In addition, his market has been especially strong. “Even during the downturn of 2008-09, I was still able to do $42 million, partly because my state/region has had such a strong economy.”
Grasso also maintains a positive attitude. “There are a lot of new rules and procedures to learn, but you have to stay motivated and move forward. There will be more changes in the future and we have to be willing to adapt if want to stay in business, while also trying to make it as easy as possible for borrowers.”
Grasso noted that a more recent challenge is the influx of originators during the extended low rate period. “Many of these originators had left the profession for a period and then returned. There are more people chasing after the same business.”
He continues to look forward, anticipating the challenges and opportunities. “We are well positioned for the future, even when rates inevitably increase, he says. “It’s an exciting time to be a loan originator.”
By David Robinson
David Robinson is Associate Editor of Broker Banker.