Changemakers 2021: Harlan Accola, National Reverse Mortgage Director at Fairway

Being a change agent in an industry as often obstinate to progression as the reverse mortgage business can sometimes be frustrating, but those highly dedicated to the business usually take the time to understand the upside: the ability to help seniors have a secure retirement is an important component of this business, and one that makes it far different from the forward mortgage sector.

That’s one of the major attributes that drives the industry advocacy of Harlan Accola, the national reverse mortgage director at Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation. With a broad forward mortgage footprint in numerous branches across the country, Fairway may be uniquely suited to the task of expanding the proverbial “umbrella” of the reverse mortgage industry by getting more forward-facing mortgage professionals talking about the potential benefits that a reverse mortgage could present to some clients. Accola believes this and is pushing these ideas in his work.

He also strongly believes in the viability of reverse mortgages for anyone at or over the age of 62, and makes no bones about the fact that his patience can wear thin for anyone who tries to say seniors can’t benefit from the product category, especially if such voices come from within the industry itself. Because of this tireless work and the belief he brings to the table at his company that now stands as a top 10 reverse mortgage lender, we are very pleased to welcome him into the 2021 class of Changemakers.

RMD: Do you think that the reverse mortgage industry is conducive on its own to change? Or as a company leader, do you find that you have to exert pressure to try and make it change?

Harlan Accola: People are naturally resistant to change. They get to a certain comfort level. But this industry, I believe – and I’ve been in it since 2003-2004 – has been incredibly resistant to any kind of change. And because of that, not only have we not grown, we’ve contracted, and some people are okay with that. And so I have to admit, I’m deeply disappointed right now in the willingness of the industry to change the way that they do things.

You know, we’re still doing 50% HECM-to-HECM [refinances], churning the same stuff over and over again to the detriment of the industry. Everybody somehow thinks that’s okay, instead of reaching out to new referral partners and new groups of people and new frontiers, whether it’s real estate, attorneys, financial advisors, 55-plus communities, whatever it may be. They’re just going back to the old direct-mail days, when you can mail x number of pieces, you get x number of prospects, and then you target these people that might have a higher interest rate and do a bunch of [refinances].

This industry has been more resistant to change than most other industries.

RMD: Obviously, there have been external realities that have forced the industry to change, maybe kicking and screaming. But in terms of the current landscape, do you think that the reverse mortgage industry is changing fast enough today?

HA: Yeah, not even close. […] Until everybody understands that this product makes sense for everybody, we’ll remain stagnant. I [will turn] 62 myself next year, and the day I turn 62 I’ll be getting a reverse mortgage.

There’s a whole bunch of people in leadership positions at [reverse mortgage] companies that are over 62, and who have not gotten their own reverse mortgage or have not gotten one for their parents. There are people over 62 at the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association (NRMLA) that have not gotten a reverse mortgage. That’s ridiculous. Until we change that mindset, how are you going to sell it to the masses, if you’re not even doing it yourself?

And not even talking to your own parents? That’s the biggest thing that has to change. It’s that mindset that says “we’re going to sell that to people.” A guy just told me this week, “you know, Harlan, it’s a lot easier to sell a reverse mortgage to somebody with a 600 credit score than to someone with an 800 credit score.” Well, yeah, it’s a lot easier to sell a sandwich to a starving man, too. But it’s probably a good idea to collect the benefits of your sandwich, so you can sell it to people that are not necessarily starving.

RMD: On that point about the idea of industry leaders who aren’t engaging with the product themselves: do you think that it’s important that they do in order to set an example to their peers, or to communicate to the broader audience of borrowers that this is something that is worthy of exploration? Or, is it all of the above?

HA: It’s all of the above. [The reverse mortgage] has been referred to a lot of times as the “Swiss Army knife” of retirement. Some people say that they don’t need it yet because they’re not broke, so why should they get a reverse mortgage? Many clients have told us that some people inside the industry are telling them the same thing.

There’s a guy who called me up a few years ago, I’ll never forget it. I asked him just what his future plans were right after he turned 62. He said he’d probably work for another seven or eight years, and then he’d hang it up. And I said, “well, fortunately, you can ride off into the sunset with your own reverse mortgage. When did you get yours?” He said, “as many people as I’ve helped with this thing, I sure as hell hope I’m never going to need one.”

Well, that just blew me away. It just communicated to me that he really doesn’t understand what he’s selling, and there’s a lot of people in this industry that don’t realize it, either. It’s not just about getting one to be an example, but understanding it well enough that you can even explain to your spouse why you’re getting one. I mean, my wife has to sign the papers, too. I need to be able to at least sell it to my wife to say, “we’re doing this because we can use it for tax purposes,” or  “we can use it for increasing our Roth conversions.”

We need to be able to sell this to our own spouses, and our own parents. My wife’s parents are still alive, and they still got a reverse mortgage because I explained to them how great it was 10 years ago. Not because I wanted another sale, but because I wanted to take care of my own family.

I don’t want this to come across as negative, but I bet if you did a poll of the number of people that either did a reverse mortgage, or their parents did one, it might even fall below 50% within the industry. I could be completely wrong, and I hope that I am. But why aren’t you using your own product? I mean, Ronald McDonald does not shop at Burger King. We’ve got a picture of that in our training material. Ronald McDonald eats as long as he’s hanging out at McDonald’s. I mean, if we’re not eating our own product, why didn’t we get that?

RMD: Is there any one thing that you think might be holding the industry back from embracing some of the changes that might be necessary, at least from your perspective? Or, do you think that there’s just a broader-based institutional attitude that might be holding the industry back in several areas? Is it just one thing, or is it many?

HA: I think it’s primarily one thing, and that’s the true thought process that this is a product that can work for most people. This is for more than 90% of people when they turn 62, and most people don’t believe that. Even people inside the industry, they will question me in that. One of our branch managers in Colorado, Christine Jensen, will consistently tell financial advisors, “I dare you to send me a client who’s over 62 that I can’t help a little bit or a lot.” That’s the attitude the industry has to have, and they don’t.

I think that is the single biggest thing holding us back is a lack of belief that this product works for a lot of people. There’s a bunch of people that did not believe that electricity should be put into houses, because it could cause fires. Sure it can, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put it in every house. A lot of people were against that change of mass electrification. And yet, obviously, that’s a pretty significant thing at this point.

It was the same thing with cars. When those started being sold, others said that people were better off with horses, because horseless carriages were a problem and they broke down all the time. “Horses are more reliable,” they said. I just don’t think that people have enough of a belief in our product. So, it really comes down to this idea that we’re missing that solid, unwavering belief that our product is way better than even we think it is.

RMD: People seem excited to come to work for Fairway. What do you think excites people who have been in the industry about the prospect of working at Fairway as an organization? What do you think Fairway helps to provide to the industry that may not be present elsewhere?

HA: Well it’s not me, it’s our team. I mean, the reason that Fairway liked bringing me over is because I brought a team of people that knew about ops, training and marketing. We’ve expanded on that. A lot of companies have that, but we certainly have a more robust support system, because Fairway is all about support. Fairway will not do anything without a whole lot of support.

If they’re going to make a change in a product or on a system, whatever they’re going to do, we have our own coaching company. We’re training people before they ever start with Fairway on a program called Grit to teach them how to be loan officers before they ever start at Fairway, for free. We just start training them in what a career being a loan officer or a processor is like. If you don’t have support, you might as well just go run your own broker shop, or be somewhere else. That’s the number one thing.

But, the biggest reason people come to Fairway and want to stay here is because of the culture, which is very hard to duplicate. Every single morning, we get a story called “keep playing” by one of the employees that’s overcome some problems or just ran into difficulties. And then they kept going, and they succeeded. The CEO continually sends stuff out about dealing with change, dealing with negativity, being kind to everybody else that you work with, giving money away, donating money to Fairway Cares to help people that are going through cancer, or losing a loved one. We’re huge on veterans, trying to save people from PTSD. We’ve given away hundreds of thousands of dollars in service dogs to veterans, which has surely been life-saving for them.

So, it’s about a whole lot more than “this is just a mortgage company, and you come here to make money.” What I was concerned about when I came is that I expected the company to be bought out, because of its size. Well, that’s right when they went to the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). And I think the ESOP is a very huge statement.

It’s not just about the money and that you get stock in the company, but it’s also about the fact that we’re going to be able to preserve this culture because we own the company. That means we’re not selling out to a different entity that’s going to change everything.

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