Patrick Stone was looking both ways when he took steps to launch Williston Financial Group (WFG) in January 2010. Behind him, the recent financial crisis still cast a cautionary shadow over new business development, but ahead he saw opportunities for a client-centric, tech-focused family of companies in the title insurance and real estate settlement services industry. Now, at WFG’s 10-year anniversary, this vision holds even more relevance.
“The market remains underserved in the sense that the mortgage lending market has changed so quickly that everyone is still trying to keep up,” Stone said. “The opportunity for a new player to come in 10 years ago, and be client-oriented and use technology to replace hierarchical management structures, is exactly the kind of firm lenders want to partner with today. In these uncertain times, we see our vision of a fully integrated tech stack as the main force of customers’ stability.”
WFG had an advantage a decade ago, according to Stone, because although established title insurance underwriters had made some changes to take advantage of new technologies, those companies remained burdened by sunk costs and committed to traditional operating standards.
Decades of experience had taught him how to build an enterprise that could help move the mortgage industry into the 21st century andhelp rebuild the nation’s economy.
WFG’s mission had a central goal: to create a single technology platform that could bring together allreal estate transaction participants, then leverage that platform to provide maximum collaboration and efficiency. A corporate philosophy was established that could be summarized in three words: “communicate, collaborate, co-exist.” They would be further distilled into the company’s three C’s logo.
WFG hit the ground running and was receiving national attention within months. By July 2010, WFG already had a national workforce nearing 200, had become licensed in 34 states and was on target to expand its footprint to include more than 40 states by the end of the year.
Building the right team to build the best reputation
Along with its bedrock principles and service-oriented goals, the emphasis on technology has allowed WFG to grow both steadily and securely into a family of companies providing products and services across much of the real estate and mortgage spectrum. Its Enterprise Solutions group includes title and closing service providers WFG Lender Services, WFG Default Title Services and Valutrust Solutions, a national appraisal management and property valuation provider.
In January 2018, WFG National Title Insurance Company, its Portland-based flagship, became one of only six national underwriting firms and accomplished it faster than any other company in history. Together these business units provide nationwide, centralized processing and coordination of appraisal, title, and closing services, with personalized service and rigorous quality control and follow-through, all at highly competitive pricing.
Another important landmark in 2015 was the addition of WFG Board Member Steve Ozonian as president and CEO. Ozonian, who created the nation’s first real estate research portal while CEO of REALTOR.com, served as Bank of America’s national homeownership executive, and served as chairman and CEO of Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services, joined WFG’s executive leadership team, complementing Stone’s own prominent career in real estate and real estate-related services.
Prior to forming WFG, Stone held C-level positions with three public companies and directorships on two Fortune 500 boards, including a software company, a real estate data and information company, and a national title insurance underwriter, where he oversaw 2,000 offices. Most relevant were his nine years as president and COO of the nation’s largest title insurance company.
During the five years leading up to the company’s 10-year anniversary, Stone and Ozonian built a solid team of executives, managers and staff as they continued to acquire and partner with companies to secure a lasting, national footprint.
Stone and Ozonian have both been repeatedly honored for their leadership, as Progress in Lending “Lending Luminaries” in 2019, as well as HousingWire Vanguard Award recipients in 2019 for Stone and 2020 for Ozonian. Stone also received October Research’s “Leadership Award” in September 2020.
“One of the things I believe very strongly in, and had a great deal of success with, is to refrain from establishing a hierarchal organization. I encourage everyone to say what’s on their mind. There’s no downside to disagreeing with me,” Stone told HousingWire‘s Vanguard Award committee. “I would rather people say what they are thinking right now than find out later that they thought differently.”
Record success, new challenges mark 10th anniversary
In January 2020, on the threshold of its second decade, the company had much to celebrate. Its C-suite was seasoned with more than a century of industry experience and WFG was now well-established as a nationwide provider and industry innovator. The stage was set to roll out a slate of new products and services while driving advocacy for greater regulatory uniformity in several key areas.
The 2020 anniversary began with the first of three product launches, all created by WEST, a wholly-owned WFG subsidiary that supplies technology and data security services to the settlement industry.
Powered by robust AI, DecisionPointis an automated title decisioning system that enables lenders to know almost instantlya loan’s application-to-close time. The assessment includes the curative steps needed based on the results. Selected as an HW Tech100 Award recipient in 2020, the DecisionPoint platform uses a proprietary algorithm that automates title decisioning to help lenders manage their pipeline more efficiently by proactively identifying problem loans and quickly assigning the necessary resources to correct them.
In September 2020, WFG rolled out a new cybersecurity website called WESTprotect with alerts on active Internet fraud threats for real estate agents, lenders, title agents and other settlement service providers.The only cybersecurity helpdesk service in the industry and a recipient of HousingWire’s 2020 HW Tech100 and Progress in Lending’s 2020 Innovations Awards, WESTprotect.com provides self-service sign-up for fraud alert warnings and access to an extensive library of in-depth articles and reports, the 411 blog.
Its unique email-analysis subscription service analyzes suspicious emails and reports findings within one hour. WESTprotect subscribers also have access to cybersecurity training and customized phishing simulators for each real estate, mortgage or title company, something that would have previously been prohibitively expensive for offices with less than 50 employees.
Coming in the final quarter of 2020 will be MyHome for mortgage lenders, another technology solution developed by WEST and actively in use within the company’s direct title operations. MyHome will provide transparency to every participant in the real estate transaction – consumer, Realtor, lender, loan officer, processor and funder – through direct, immediate access.
Notifications are sent to the subscriber or available on an easy-to-access portal. Because WFG operates on a single platform, lenders benefit from greater efficiency and predictability, and a consumer-facing piece is available to help remove a source of consumer anxiety. It will also provide brand awareness for the Realtor or loan officer involved in the transaction because every communication has their photo and branding.
To 2021 and beyond
The 10th anniversary follows a twelve-month run in which WFG’s client-first culture was rewarded with consistent Net Promoter Score (NPS) ratings in the high 70s or above, considered a “world-class” service rating across all industries. Adopted by WFG some years earlier, NPS has helped it measure its performance and improve service levels based on feedback.
The pandemic further validated the essential rightness of WFG’s design. The shift to working at home was smooth, thanks to office technology integrated long ago. As an early proponent of remote and online validations, notarizations and other innovations, WFG was already a trusted vendor when the industry looked for safe systems to maintain security, compliance and timetables. Not surprisingly, despite the turmoil, WFG had the highest volume months in its history during the second and third quarters of 2020.
As WFG continues to look for new ways to serve its clients and consumers, its industry, and a nation once more struggling with severe economic challenges, Stone is ever-optimistic with what this company will provide.
“It’s not a game of perfect,” he said. “Don’t look for the perfect answer – there are none. There’s only the best answer, find it quickly and move on.
“I want to thank and salute everyone in our vast and varied industry for the way we are responding to a challenge unlike anything we have faced in our lifetimes,” he continued. “I am tremendously proud of how our industry continues to maintain such high quality and service levels while continuing to focus on the welfare of the consumer.” To view a special 10-year anniversary message from WFG Founder and Executive Chairman visit: https://national.wfgnationaltitle.com/wfg-news/10th-anniversary/