By David Robinson
When Chris Hutchens began originating in 1997, his primary goal was to develop a purchase-based pipeline, not wanting to overly rely on refinances. “As a new originator, I worked with a couple of veterans who always told me that purchases were ‘the bread and butter’ of our business,” said Hutchens, a mortgage banker at Alpha Mortgage, Wilmington, N.C. “That has always been my primary focus.”
Hutchens has made great strides in accomplishing the goal he established 14 years ago. His average purchase business during the last decade has been greater than 50 percent every year and in 2010, 67 percent of his total production of 406 loans and $81,048,128 was for purchases. “It’s not easy to have a purchase-only base when you are starting out; you need to develop refinances as well,” he added. “But each year I have gradually increased that part of my production.”
Connecting with Realtors
Hutchens joined Alpha Mortgage in 1997, after a few years handling equity and other consumer loans for Nations Bank (eventually merging with Bank of America). “I made a point of reaching out to Realtors in the beginning,” he said.
His first primary marketing strategy was to network with real estate agents by attending their open houses and other events. “There are typically 60 people attending their open houses and we’ll be there to meet people and work the crowd,” he said.
He subsequently began expanding his Realtor network by seeking introductions to other agents. “I would ask one of my key agents to lunch and suggest they invite one or more of the others from their office so we can get acquainted,” he said.
During the last several years, Hutchens has benefitted even more from the joint venture relationship that Alpha Mortgage has with Coldwell Banker and Century 21 Sweyer. In addition to his main Alpha Mortgage office in Wilmington, N.C., he has a satellite office in a nearby Coldwell Banker branch. Approximately two-thirds of Hutchens’ business now comes from referrals from these two major real estate companies. However, Hutchens stressed that he doesn’t take the business for granted. “Agents in these offices certainly don’t have to use me as their originator,” he said. “I still have to earn it by being available, making presentations to the agents to keep them updated about guideline changes, providing great rates and helping their clients. The competition certainly wants to develop relationships with them as well, so I have to do a great job taking care of the agents.”
He works with about 50 agents in six companies throughout his market. “I receive referrals from a variety of agents. In a recent week, I got seven loans from seven different agents.” Most are veteran agents, while a few are more junior. “I certainly don’t avoid working with newer agents, but I do like working with experienced ones because there isn’t as much handholding necessary. Plus, veteran agents always know that we’ll get the job done.”
Hutchens strives to establish strong working and personal relationships with Realtors. “I have become friends with most of my agents and play in a regular basketball game with a few of them. Long term-friendships are very beneficial; it’s my type of networking, rather than joining a Rotary Club, formal networking group or another organization.”
Making Customers for Life
Hutchens learned early on that it was critical to stay connected with his clients. “The turning point for me came in 2004, after doing 516 loans the previous year,” he said. “However, I didn’t have a follow-up campaign in place so it is likely that a good number of them forgot about me, despite us doing a great job with the loan.” After attending an industry seminar, he learned the options for customer-for-life marketing and decided to outsource this critical function to Loan ToolBox. “I began using Loan ToolBox and Mortgage Market Guide as the primary ways to stay in contact with past customers and Realtors,” he explained.
His clients receive monthly e-mail cards and holiday greetings via the Loan ToolBox program, and they and Realtors receive the weekly Mortgage Market reports. “Every month clients and agents get one or more e-mails that include my name and photo, so it’s great visibility,” he noted. “It has been very effective.” In addition, Hutchens noted that more recent ToolBox messages have also included educational materials for originators. “They have provided some great information regarding the latest industry changes.”
Of course, a major benefit of the program is the “automatic” approach. This is a ‘hands off’ system; I don’t have to do it myself,” he said.
Advertising for Visibility
Hutchens has generated additional visibility by running a series of advertisements in local publications. “These include an ad in a publication for the 1,500 home neighborhood in which I live, a monthly Homes and Land publication and another higher end magazine. Currently our primary ad message is that ‘we can get the job done right the first time.’ It assures people that we can rescue loans from others who have had difficulty getting the clients’ loans closed, many of which are solid; that they won’t encounter problems with us. It is aimed at giving people confidence during this more challenging market and it also creates interest among people looking for a loan officer.”
Hutchens noted that while it is difficult to attribute loans/leads to advertising, he believes in its value as part of his total marketing. “The ads provide great name recognition,” he said. “They combine with everything else we do.”
The Benefit of Teamwork
Hutchens credits his team and company with helping him maintain high volume over a long period of time. “Very few loan originators in my market have assistants,” he said. “I went quite a while without support and adding an assistant was the best thing I have done. Then I got another one. It has enabled me to focus on developing more business and ensure that we can close on very tight schedules.”
His two assistants, Emily Kuykendall and Amanda Wishon, handle a wide variety of different tasks, including file-set up, follow-up, customer contact and marketing. “They wear 50 different hats,” said Hutchens. “They do whatever is necessary to get the file opened and closed in a timely fashion.”
Hutchens and team have developed an efficient system to handle his increased production. “Although most of our business is on the phone and e-mail, I encourage first-timers to meet in the office so we get a chance to get acquainted,” he said. “I originate the loan and start the file, then Emily or Amanda take it from there, obtaining verifications, following-up with clients and preparing the loan for underwriting.”
Hutchens emphasized that having a supportive company is also a major factor in his overall success. “Of course, there is great name recognition, which can make a big difference with consumer queries. In addition, the company has been very helpful with supporting our team and providing all the resources we need.”
He noted that being with the same company for 14 years has been a special advantage. “I think it is important to get with a good company and stay there. Too many people think the grass is greener somewhere else. I am known for working at Alpha Mortgage for many years. I get calls all the time from people who say ‘you did a loan in 2001 and I need your help again.’ If I had moved somewhere else, I would have missed so many of those calls.”
Hutchens stressed that prompt reporting procedures has enhanced his rapport with clients. “I respond quickly to client questions and they appreciate that. One of the best ways I market myself and my team is to be proactive with my communication through a purchase transaction. “Instead of waiting for the agent to call me and ask if the client has applied, if we have set up the file, if the appraisal has come in, and other details, we have a series of e-mails we send throughout the process. They begin with letting the buyer and listing agent know the loan documents have come back from the client and then follow up to let agents know the client did a good job bringing things in that were requested or an e-mail that says ‘we have work to do.’ This generally gives them an idea of what they are faced with, without providing a lot of personal information that we shouldn’t disclose.”
During the next few weeks, they continue with e-mails that detail the documents continuing to come in, the appraisal completed, the file going to underwriting, the title and insurance being finalized and “eventually the approval and loan package being finalized as we get to closing.” Hutchens noted that agents are especially impressed. “I have picked up a ton of referrals from listing agents (who I often don’t know) because other lenders aren’t communicating like this. They frequently say ‘I don’t hear from my lender at all during the process.’ Agents and clients want to know that things are moving forward, this level of communication will not only satisfy all parties involved in each transaction, it will highly impress them for future business.”
Dealing with Challenges
Although he has maintained superstar volume during the last several years, Hutchens obviously has faced the same challenges as other originators. “The lending industry has obviously undergone substantial changes that have impacted all of us.” he said. One of the most critical responsibilities has been to help customers adapt to the new marketplace. “All originators are spending more time educating customers. You need to advise clients of the potential problems and the change in qualification criteria. We advise consumers that the market isn’t like it was in the past. I strive to deflect their initial focus on rates and concentrate on the steps we need to take to get them qualified. Some can get frustrated but I tell them that the world has changed. They may not want to hear that we need so much information, but I convince them that this is the new reality.”
Hutchens maintains a positive outlook. “I embrace the changes because we don’t have an option,” he stressed. “There is no sense in complaining about the situation. Also, because others have left the profession for one reason or another, it means more business for those who remain. I am confident of our industry’s and my own future. This will be a good purchase year and I believe the 2012 housing market will be even better.”
David Robinson is associate editor of Broker Banker.