Editor’s Note: This is the ninth installment in the “Industry Warriors” series, a collection of profiles on veteran real estate professionals and lenders who produced high volumes pre-9/11 and pre-2008, weathered those economic downturns and rebounded even stronger.
In over 25 years in the mortgage industry, Roger Strecker has been no stranger to agility. He’s maneuvered the wave of bank consolidations and closings through his career.
“A majority of my career, I went from one bank to another as they were absorbed or consolidated,” said Strecker, now regional manager, field mortgage operations for Navy Federal Credit Union. “I worked 15 years with Washington Mutual, left WaMu, went to a large independent (bank) and then all of a sudden, WaMu goes under. The independent I went over to, CTX Financial, they went under. I looked for the next largest umbrella I could find at Wachovia. I thought, ‘I’m good to go; this is Wachovia.’ Taken over by Wells Fargo.”
Strecker’s journey also included working at MetLife, Capital One and PNC Bank before he ended up at Navy Federal. Now six years into his role at the credit union, Strecker’s region of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia typically does about $2 billion to $2.5 billion in purchase first-mortgage originations annually, he said.
HousingWire spoke to Strecker about the importance of agility in navigating today’s lending market.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HousingWire: What are you doing within your lending business to adapt to the current market situation?
Roger Strecker: Our members are the mission, so for us, no matter what the lending environment is, we are looking for ways to be available for them and to reach them. We went from having maybe 10% of our workforce of almost 20,000 employees in a remote capacity, and overnight our ISD technology group performed a miracle and put the 90% of us out, able to work with laptops, phones, monitors, MiFis. So just to get that set up for us to be available for the members was moving mountains.
Since all of this has gone down, we have looked at retooling our workflow, and how do we optimize our availability for our members. For example, we have 9 million members who are global in nature. They all know our phone number, our web address, and where the branch is, so we have to be available for them, and we currently are working through those dynamics now.
I was at the branch last week. One of them does not have a drive-thru. They are physically meeting members face to face, either with a mask or without, but those employees are doing that service for the members, regardless of their own personal health risks.
HW: Has there been any change that you’ve had to make to any of the processes, in terms of lending or applications?
RS: Everything, with all of us being remote or remotely located now, just from getting in contact with our members. Not every employee is used to being a remote employee. Not every employee has the tools to be a remote employee. Not everybody wants to be a remote employee and operates in that environment really well.
So we’re concentrating on employee engagement, member engagement. Really, in all of those capacities, our contact center is focused on 24/7 availability, accountability for our members. They’re an essential part of the operation. Our branch people are either working the drive-thru or doing drive-up service, handling documents in and out of car windows with gloves and masks.
From a mortgage-specific change, it’s really getting our employees the accessibility to the members and letting them know we are available and we’re here for you.
We are focused on meeting the members wherever they need us to, whether they’re calling into the center, whether they want to go to the branch — we’re trying to remain open and available. Our loan officers are not in the branch any longer, but if they are needed by a member who comes into the branch, it’s redirected to us.
We handle all the website inquiries and applications as normal, which is immediately filtered to our loan officers. We are also working with our partners, whether they’re Realtors, Navy Federal title services on the closing side, whether it’s our servicing group, we are making sure that the funding and the servicing are all handled seamlessly for the members.
From an employee standpoint, we’re always very engaged. For me and my team, we have huddles, we talk on the phone, we’re on IM. We have each other’s personal cell phones anyway. Then we’re just trying to be as understanding as possible with our employees from a work situation. All of a sudden the schools have closed. Many of our employees have younger kids so we’re being proactive with working with them on a schedule, and we’re just being flexible with the membership and our employees.
HW: How are you encouraging your team to stay positive during this time?
RS: That’s probably paramount for where we are in the industry right now. For me, I think being completely transparent with your staff is number one. I love to be open and honest about what we’re working on, what the company is working on, how we’re going to address the members’ needs. And sometimes I don’t have all the answers, and I let them know that.
This environment is unprecedented, and sometimes you may have to fly by the seat of your pants. I don’t mind sharing that with them. I think also listening to their feedback is vital. My team knows that no topic is off the table and that any idea that would help us to better serve the members is up for consideration.
For me, I think I have to model positive behavior, which is really easy for me because I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of person. I think for people who that’s really not how they’re built, they need to find their reason why they need to be upbeat and positive for their people, especially in this remote environment. Handling employees is one thing; dealing with employees that are now remote is a whole different ball of wax. It’s an additional skillset that you have to have or work on developing.
HW: How are you staying positive?
RS: I’m just built this way. I love life. I love what we do in mortgage. Because where do you have an opportunity like this to make such a huge impact on a member’s life? It’s something I remind my team about as often as possible. For me, for my group, I bring the fun and maybe a little radical behavior, because I think laughter is the medicine that we all need. It’s a great stress reducer.
(I do that) typically on the telephone because I think it’s quicker and easier to connect with people. They can hear my voice. They can hear the inflection. They can hear when I’m backpedaling, or I’m laughing or whatever it is, but I also try and give them little brain teasers and just keeping them engaged on IM.
I’m constantly engaging them in different ways because not everybody’s crazy about the phone, but they might love email, or they might like IM. Especially our younger people, they like to text so I’ll put some text in there. I’m not afraid to make fun of myself, just to get them to just have a moment where they’re not worried about what’s going on in their own life or the lives of our members.
HW: What did you do in past economic shocks to successfully navigate the downturns?
RS: I tried to just remain positive. I tried to see the upside. I’m typically very realistic and honest with myself and in dealing with others, and I kept telling myself: You can only control what you can control, but I can still make a big impact in someone else’s life. So whether I was emailing someone, a follow up to a conversation about a possible purchase or refi, whether I was communicating with a Realtor, I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m still here. Hope you’re doing well. How’s business?’
Back in ’07, ’08, you just never knew; sometimes security showed up and they just shut your place down, or they just told you, ‘Today is over,’ and they just moved friends of mine right out of the building. It was a crazy time.
You know, now I can learn from history as I look back. How can I accomplish something today that’s positive? I think my advice to others would be don’t be afraid to retool, how and whatever you’re doing every day. Re-look at your process flow for opportunities. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; try and try again, test it, then test it again. And you have to collaborate with others in like situations.
I’ve always been very connected to the rest of the mortgage industry, especially in the DC area. I earned my CMPS (Certified Mortgage Planning Specialist) along the way; I recently earned my CMB (Certified Mortgage Banker). So I rely on the CMB Society and other CMBs to keep me in check because that brain trust and what they have been through is remarkable. I rely on the MBA (Mortgage Bankers Association) a lot, from a learning and education standpoint.
HW: What did you do in 2007-2009’s recession to succeed during that time?
RS: In ’07, ’08, every place I went, they were shutting the doors. I really thought it was me. The rubber really met the road for me in ’07 and ’08 and that’s when I really had to kind of tighten the belt buckle down, remain positive and be realistic. I just had to keep focusing on, ‘There must be a way to do business.’ I went and asked other people who were, in my mind, successful and still making it happen: ‘How are you doing that?’ I’m not afraid to go and ask for help either. ‘Hey, can you show me that? Hey, where did you get that product from? Where did that loan come from?’ But ‘07, ‘08 was rough. It was rough on a lot of us.
HW: Given your history in those past economic downturns, what do you think LOs need to know now that they might not be thinking about?
RS: You still have an opportunity today, even in this market, to make a huge impact in someone else’s life or their family’s lives. You are involved in the largest financial decision a person will ever make, and they need your expertise. They need you to be engaged. They need you to stay focused.
I know it’s hard, but our members need that. Many of our members are active duty military, so our goal of lowering their stress level with our attention to detail, that is paramount for us. When you talk to someone whose husband just went down-range, and she’s relocating the entire family, and I can hear the stress in her voice, and if we can make her get through the process of moving one more time, you can come home at the end of the day and say, ‘You know what? I helped someone today through something they never thought we could get through together. But because we are together, we got through it.’
HW: What piece of advice from your history in downturns would you give to others in your field trying to navigate COVID-19?
RS: I would say you’re not alone. We’re all in this together because COVID-19 is not a financial crisis of ’07, ’08. It’s a health and emotional crisis, which will drive a financial crisis. So we’re all in this together from a global perspective.
From a member perspective, I think you need to partner with a lender that you trust. Because there are going to be some people who used to be mainstays for Realtors at the regional level who do a fantastic job that, in my opinion, may or may not make it, based on leverage and warehouse lines and things like that. So you want to make sure that your trusted partner is going to be able to fund your purchase deal.
From an employee standpoint, I would say you need to stay connected to your employees. Give them the sounding board to be heard. I think it’s important to validate people’s feelings, not always to solve the problem, just to listen. That’s probably the most important thing, is to just listen to your employees and just to know that history has shown us that we will get through this. We will be better and stronger in the end.
From a business continuity standpoint, this is going to be looked at, I think, in my opinion, through MBA, graduate and PhD classes for many years to come — what we did right, what we did wrong, what we could have done again, how would we prep for another potential pandemic. But in the end, I think things are going to be okay. Just control what you can control, which is yourself, your personal perspective, how you deal with your members, and just bring your A-game every day.