from College Intern to Industry Superstar
By David Robinson
Even as a teenager, Joseph Bigelman believed his career path would lead him to the business world. A college internship gave him the much needed direction that eventually resulted in a highly successful mortgage lending career. “I was a sophomore at Michigan State and worked as an intern for Flagstar,” he said of his early experience that started when he was just 19. “Within a few months I became an originator.”
Bigelman learned his lessons well. During the last decade, his annual volume has steadily increased. Last year, he closed $43.6 million and 287 loans for John Adams Mortgage in Troy, Mich.
Bigelman began his lending career during a busy refi period and his initial strategy was calling homeowners to alert them about low interest rates. “I was cold calling for other loan officers,” he said. “I would review the local Registrar of Deeds and identify people who had especially high rates and we would then try to refinance them. I was calling 200 people a night and giving the leads to one of the originators. We would then work together on the loans so that I would better understand the process. It was a great way to get my ‘feet wet.’”
After becoming a full-time originator in 1998, he continued to focus on refinances. “The first couple of years, it was all refi-related. I was driving all over the state to take applications.”
Eventually Bigelman was advised that he should concentrate on purchase business and establish enduring Realtor relationships. “I asked people about their Realtor contacts and started meeting with a few so I could get deals,” he said. “Obviously, getting warm introductions was the key.”
After joining John Adams Mortgage in 2003, his Realtor base became even stronger. The company is affiliated with Real Estate One, a leading Michigan-based real estate firm and Bigelman initially worked from one of its offices. Real Estate One business currently accounts for approximately 75 percent of his annual volume. “Their agents don’t have to give us their referrals, but once we gain their trust, we can do a lot of business together,” he said.
Bigelman recently moved to a separate John Adams office that enables him to more effectively market to other (unaffiliated) real estate agents. “During the last several years, I’ve developed a lot of business from other Realtors. In some cases, I gained access to the office when the broker was the listing agent.” He currently works with about 200 agents.
Bigelman stays in contact with his network of agents through a series of e-mail bulletins that cover loan programs, market updates, interest rates and other topics.
In addition, he makes presentations to Realtor offices whenever possible. “In one instance I did an FHA loan in two weeks and the agent was so impressed she asked me to speak to her office,” he said.
He also prefers a basic marketing strategy. “One of the most effective things I do is meet with agents at lunch. It gives me a chance to see what they are looking for and to ask for their business.”
In addition to establishing long-term relationships with Realtors, Bigelman has created a solid “customer-for-life” campaign. “Since my production is completely referral-based, staying in front of past customers is so important,” he noted.
He uses the Platinum Pro marketing (from Loan Toolbox) to coordinate an ongoing “drip” marketing program that includes regular e-mail bulletins covering such topics as homeownership trends, interest rate changes and general market updates, along with holiday greetings. He also sends magnet football schedules, which are especially popular with the region’s rabid college and pro team fans. “I am usually reaching customers twice a month. I think there is a fine line between maintaining visibility and being annoying with too many contacts.”
Bigelman utilizes Face book as another way to connect with customers and prospects. While his Face book page emphasizes personal rather than business information, he considers it a valuable piece of his overall marketing strategy. “It is an ideal opportunity to let friends and others know the business you are in,” he said. “Plus it gives customers and prospects a chance to see the personal side.”
In addition, Bigelman welcomes the opportunity to speak to consumer groups, which includes serving as a presenter at Realtor-hosted seminars. “I look forward to any time I can talk to a group of prospects. It all helps.”
He makes an “investment” in the future by teaching a “Buying Your First Home” class at Michigan State University. “I get great feedback and believe that in addition to just giving back, it will pay off later when some of the graduates are ready to purchase a home.”
He believes that timely response is another significant factor in enhancing rapport with customers. “It’s so important to just answer the phone and to return people’s calls in a timely fashion,” he stressed. “While I don’t work most weekends, I am nearly always available to answer customer questions.”
Bigelman pointed out that establishing and adhering to fail-safe systems has been another major factor in his success. “Being organized with automated systems has been critical,” he said. “For example, we have the same highly organized approach for each loan. It starts with the first conversation with a client, to follow-up, the loan closing and subsequent drip marketing.”
Their origination software (Mortgage Builder) helps facilitate a smooth transaction. “When I talk to a new customer I’m entering their information into the file, rather than taking notes that have to be added later, which can delay the process,” he explained. In addition, he has instant access to loan program scenarios so he can make the best recommendations to clients. “I can advise the borrower right away, as well as follow up with the agent. Then within two days after talking with a new client, we send a pre-approval letter thanking them for calling us. Most originators don’t do that as fast.”
In addition, he credits John Adams with providing the appropriate support. “Having products that appeal to customers and quality service is so important. I can tell customers that we should be able to close their loan within two weeks; and I am confident that will happen.”
In 2010, Bigelman closed 287 loans with his team. “I certainly couldn’t do this volume without my assistants,” he emphasized.
Team Bigelman includes Marcia Hood, senior mortgage coordinator; Adam Sufka, mortgage coordinator; and Jenn Lentz, receptionist. “I originate the loan and take a thorough application up-front, which is mandatory. Then I hand the loan off to them (coordinators) and I don’t get directly involved again unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Bigelman also has a “partner”—Ronya Grohman—a licensed originator. “She originates her own business (2010 personal production of 120 loans for $17.1 million) and I also refer customers when I am not able to handle the extra volume.”
He stressed that the partnership works because they have complete confidence in each other’s abilities. “We don’t view each other as competitors. We both benefit from the other’s success.”
Bigelman also balances originating with managing responsibilities. “My main job is originating but as a regional manager, I am also responsible for overseeing six other offices (in Real Estate One branches),” he said. This involves providing back-up support, helping to structure mortgage programs, marketing, problem solving, and of course, achieving our production goals.”
Bigelman has definitely survived the mortgage industry’s “storm” and the subsequent onslaught of government mandates and industry guidelines. Like his peers, he must deal with the compensation structure changes, NMLS requirements and other pending developments. “I concentrate on what I can control,” he said. “Right now that means generating as much volume as possible.”
He is confident about the remainder of 2011 and next year. “Even with all of the changes we have faced, I am still up about nine percent over last year,” he added.
Bigelman will continue to develop his business, refine systems and take the necessary steps to ensure long-term success. “I know that the industry and my own production will only get better,” he said.
David Robinson is associate editor of Broker Banker.