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Atlantic Bay Mortgage’s Brian Holland on remote working

This week, HousingWire’s Editor in Chief Sarah Wheeler interviews Brian Holland, the CEO of Atlantic Bay Mortgage Group to discuss one of the biggest changes in the workplace over the last year — the move to remote work. Additionally, Holland discusses the importance of company culture.

Here is a small preview of the interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

Sarah Wheeler: How has the opportunity to work remotely affected your retention rates? Do you have any company surveys or data that show this is important to your employees?

Brian: Yeah, so it’s interesting. While we have surveys, I still meet with 10 to 12 different people every month. In these meetings, I get a great sense of what that looks like, and I’ve discovered an overwhelming amount of people want to continue working remotely. This kind of surprised me. I mean, more and more of our salespeople want to be back in the office because they need to be around people, they feed off of people. But from our operations and corporate team, for the most part, I would say 80% and more want to work remotely because of the reasons we’ve talked about. They don’t have the commute time, they don’t have to get dressed, they can take their dog for a walk at lunch, or they can be there when their child gets off the bus. So, yeah, I think we will see more of that continue to trend in that direction, especially in this business.

The Housing News podcast explores the most important topics happening in mortgage, real estate, and fintech. Each week a new mortgage or real estate executive joins the show to add perspective to the top stories crossing HousingWire’s news desk. Hosted by Sarah Wheeler and produced by Alcynna Lloyd.

Below is the transcription of the interview. These transcriptions, powered by Speechpad, have been lightly edited and may contain small errors from reproduction:

Sarah Wheeler: Welcome, everyone. This is Sarah Wheeler, editor in chief and HousingWire with the latest episode of the Housing News Podcast. Really excited to interview our guest today, Brian Holland, who’s the CEO of Atlantic Bay Mortgage Group.

Brian has grown Atlantic Bay from a company of four employees in 1996, to more than 900 Associates today. And we’re going to be talking about a really incredibly timely topic, which is remote work and how to handle that with company culture. So really excited to dive in.

Brian, welcome to the podcast.

Brian Holland: Thanks for having me.

Sarah Wheeler: Great. Well, you know, the first question we always ask is, “How did you get into this business?” We love hearing about how people found their way to the mortgage industry. And we know the journey is different for everyone. So how did you get here?

Brian Holland: Well, it seems that most of these stories are pretty random. And mine is certainly random. I had just graduated from Old Dominion University with a degree in finance in May of 1993. And I was waiting tables at Red Lobster. And two really important things happened to me at Red Lobster. One, I met my lovely bride there. That’s the most important one to me. But then also fell into the mortgage business, one of the managers called one day and said, “Hey, I need to talk to Brian Holland.” And I had no idea what he wanted. And I went and answered the phone and said, “Hey, Dave, what’s up?” He said, “Well you can’t tell anyone, but I’m trying to get out of the restaurant business to get in the mortgage business, and I think you’d be great.” And I said, “Why do you think I’d be great?” And he said, “Well, you just got a degree in finance a few weeks ago, and you sell more strawberry daiquiris than any of our other servers, so I think that makes you a great mortgage candidate.”

So I didn’t know anything about the mortgage business or what it was, but went in, got the job. And what I loved about it was the harder I worked, the more I was compensated, and that’s really…growing up without a lot of money. You know, I was motivated to work really hard and I wanted to see my efforts turn into results.

So, like many, a random kind of story to get in the business.

Sarah Wheeler: Oh, I love that. Okay, I think that’s our first one that started at Red Lobster. You know, it’s got to start somewhere. But I think one of the things that I see is a theme, every time I ask this is, it’s usually someone who’s doing it, who knows it, pulling in someone that they know, and it’s just amazing. That could be a family member, that could be, in this case, your boss, that sees something in somebody and says, “Hey, you’d be great in this.”

And it’s just I mean, to see you being like, “Hey, you have a finance degree and you’ve been selling daiquiris. Now you should do this.” Obviously, the guy was right, you know?

Brian Holland: Yeah, it’s become a pretty funny story throughout my company. I actually got a text from one of our mortgage bankers in Charlotte yesterday, and he’s on vacation, and took a picture of himself on a on a beautiful boat and said, “Man, I’m sure glad you stopped waiting tables at Red Lobster. That was a great decision.” Yeah, it’s been great.

Sarah Wheeler: I love hearing that. You know. So the topic we’re going to talk about today is really important. You know, one of the biggest challenges in the workplace over the last year, obviously, has been the move to remote work. And this is really a seismic shift. And as we navigate life coming out of an acute COVID period, or going into one depending on what happens next, right? Companies are having to deal with this on every level. And I would love for you to give me a sense for what Atlantic Bay was doing even before the pandemic when it comes to remote work.

Brian Holland: Yeah, well, we were pretty fortunate that we had a number of our people working remotely prior to the pandemic, so it made it an easy transition for us, or probably a lot easier than most. You know, some years ago, probably, I don’t know, 10 to 12 years ago, we determined that, you know, we could have, you know, three or four op centers all over the country to get the right talent, or we could allow people to work remotely and we could draw from the entire country. And so that’s what we decided to do.

And as most people know listening to this, you know, operations, as one of my mortgage bankers say, is the key to happiness, but being able to find the talent in one small market, or even one large market, to support an entire company is very difficult.

So the opportunity for us to pull people, we’re in Virginia Beach, but to pull people from Texas and Washington State and North Dakota, you know, all these random locations, just to get the most talented people, we thought was really important to allow us to grow and have, you know, the knowledge level that we wanted to have with our team.

Sarah Wheeler: Really interesting, and such great timing right? Seeing what happened in 2020. Well, what kind of job titles were more natural to being distributed versus which were a bit harder or don’t work at all for remote work?

Brian Holland: Well, I think initially it was underwriting seemed to be the most, you know, the job that made the most sense that can be remote. And so that’s where we started. And then we kind of, you know, we felt that probably next was closing. And then we felt that processing kind of really needed to be, you know, in a hub. But even that has changed significantly.

And prior to the pandemic, we had some processers working remotely. And then many more working remotely. Yeah, I think that the, unfortunately, it’s still a few things that we have to do with paper and wet signatures. And those are the only positions that are difficult from a remote standpoint, you know, final docs and delivery and some of those things, with the documents for packages.

So we have been, you know, since March of, I guess, 2020, 95%, promote, with just those few positions that are having to actually touch paper in the office.

Sarah Wheeler: So when you hire someone for one of those, when you just start doing something remote, like people were in the office, and they’re going out, what does that transition look like? Do you have your leaders? You know, try it out first with a few people? Do you do it all at once? What does it look like?

Brian Holland: Well, I think that, you know, when we first tested it, you know, we wanted to have our more experienced people do it that we knew, because I think what happens with remote work is if you have someone that’s really motivated, and super-efficient and productive, they’re just going to be even more productive from home. Right, if you have someone that’s not as productive and not as motivated, they’re gonna be less motivated from home. So the key, as in every position, whether it’s remote, or it’s in the office, is to find the right person, and the right people that are motivated and passionate about not only what they do, but about the company, and in our case about the borrowers that they serve. And then they can make themselves even more productive.

You know, there’s lots and lots of stories. And it’s allowed us to recruit as well, because there’s people that have been, you know, working remote for 20 years, they may have only been with us for two or three. But they love that lifestyle, they love not having to, you know, spend an extra hour a day, you know, on a commute, having to get ready every day, they like wearing their pajamas, you know, so.

And there’s other people that want to be around, they have that need and that drawl to be around others and have those relationships and, you know, and don’t like working remotely, so it’s got to be the right fit for that, that individual.

But, you know, so to back up and answer your question, you know, we would try with our more experienced people, and then we found that it worked really well. And it was just about hiring the right people that were self-motivated, that could, you know, drive themselves having someone, you know, standing over them, which is not something that our culture is about anyway. So, you know, it’s worked out amazingly well for us.

Sarah Wheeler: Let’s talk about your culture, because I know that’s a huge focus for you, and something you guys are known for. So how do you define Atlantic based culture and how remote work fits into that?

Brian Holland: So it’s easy to define our culture, and that’s with our core values. So you know, our core values are something that we really live every day and believe in, it’s not something on the wall. So we genuinely care, is our first core value. And that means, you know, we care about our team first, we care about our borrowers, we care about our community, the communities we live in.

Secondly, we inspire growth, we have the most amazing stories of part time receptionists that are now directors of departments, and, you know, beer truck drivers that are presidents of departments, and, you know, just all kinds of amazing growth stories.

And then three, and importantly, I think a lot of companies are afraid to say this, we have fun. So, you know, we genuinely care, we inspire growth, and we have fun, are our core values. And, you know, those are truly important to us. We hire based on those; we promote based on those. And I actually do onboarding with every single person that joins our team and tell them that we’ve built an amazing culture over the last almost 25 years, 24 and a half years, and it’s on them now to maintain that culture. Because if we hire someone that doesn’t, you know, live those core values, then our culture will deteriorate quickly.

So, you know, it’s really important for us to make sure that we continue to bring the right people in and fortunately for us, about two thirds of our new team members are either relatives, we have so many relatives, mothers, mother daughters, mother sons, cousins, you know, husband wives, and, you know, about two thirds of our new people are either relative or someone that they know really well, that that works for Atlantic Bay.

And, you know, I will say that, you know, we’ve received a lot of amazing awards over the last 24 years that I’m super proud of but none more than last year National Mortgage News, we won the number one large company in the country to work for. And I think that just speaks to, again, our people and our team.

Because it was easy for me…well, it wasn’t easy, but it was easier for me when we had 20 people to make sure our culture was where it needed to be and people were living out our core values.

But with almost a thousand, you know, there’s a lot of people that have to kind of shepherd that culture and make sure that we’re hiring the right people and then they’re treating the people the way they want to be treated. And so that’s something that’s really important. And I think it’s really fueled our success over the last 24-25 years.

Sarah Wheeler: Let’s talk about that just a little bit. Like, how do you do that? I mean, 900 people is a lot of people to ensure that your culture stays strong there. And you know, especially if they’re distributed, you know, what are some ways that you keep your company culture strong among a distributed workforce of so many?

Brian Holland: Well, it has to start with the vision, and then it goes through our executive leadership team, and then, and then their managers have to believe it, and their managers have to believe it, and so on. So we do a lot of cool things, I think that help the culture stay what it is, and I’m a big believer of doing a lot of little things. I sign birthday cards and anniversary cards for every single employee every month. Someone has a baby, you know, were sending an embroidered, the softest baby blanket you’ve ever felt, put their name on it, to them.

If you have if one of our mortgage bankers has their best month ever, we’re sending them a note and a gift that’s personalized to something that they really like, those types of things. We have an amazing company sales trip every year that our people just absolutely love.

During the pandemic, we’ve done happy half hours about every two weeks, where we get everyone together virtually and do some type of fun event, whether it’s Family Feud, or virtual horse racing.

We also started something a couple of years ago, that’s been really amazing for the pandemic, and we have one called breakfast with Brian and another one called coffee and conversations where I’ll just meet once a month with somewhere between eight and 12 people on our team from all over the country and we’ll just talk and learn about each other and their families and what they do and what they’re passionate about, and what charities that they love to support, etc.

So I think it’s about doing a lot of little things to make sure that people know that you care. And again, that’s why that’s our number one core value, we genuinely care and it’s so important to us.

Sarah Wheeler: Really interesting. I mean, I think about the time that all of those things take and so clearly, it’s a huge priority. I mean, I think you said something about you know, it’s not just on the wall. And, you know, you can always tell when priorities are lived out by the way that people spend their time, spend their money, spend their efforts, right.

So, you know, I’ve been at company headquarters where you see that, you know, up on the wall, and then you’re at companies where you feel it from the people. You can have both, it can be on the wall and the people can feel it, but it really has to be something that, you know, your employees are embodying and not just you, so really interesting there.

I do think, oh, sorry. Go ahead.

Brian Holland: No, I was just gonna say one other thing. I mean, I think that, you know, we talk to our team a lot about that. And I think they really have a good sense of it, that our operations, we call them ODG and our corporate team, really need our Mortgage Bankers, our salespeople, and our Mortgage Bankers really know that they need them. And we talk about in sales, a lot of times, there’s this tug of war between sales and ops and sales and ops. And we talk a lot about, hey, if both sides are pulling from the same side of the rope, it releases the tension. And you realize that you both need each other to be successful.

And I think that’s a key component, you know, to us, our operations team doesn’t work for our sales team, but we have them treat our sales team as if they’re their clients, just like our sales team would treat the borrowers. So I think that’s it, it has a different dynamic when you do that, and everyone knows that they need each other and they want to support each other.

And I get an email every single day, or a team’s message about how an operations person or a corporate person went over the top to help out one of our Mortgage Bankers or our salespeople. And it’s great to consistently hear, and that helps me know that our culture is still alive and thriving like we want it to.

Sarah Wheeler: Is there something that you can, you know, you’re talking about like emotional intelligence and hiring for that.

If caring is one of your core values, how do you hire for someone who’s going to have that value the same that you do?

Brian Holland: Yeah, that’s really tough. I think the best answer to that is what we talked about that earlier that about two thirds of the people are family members, or people that they know really well. Because I think, this is my opinion, and I’m sure for most people listening, you know, you want your…especially your kids to achieve more, to live a better life, to be in a better position than you are. And there’s no greater compliment for us when a parent that works for Atlantic Bay, that’s been here for a long time, works hard to try and get their child to have a job with us.

Because that means that, you know, they think it’s the best place that they could possibly be, and they want them to have a better experience than they do.

So I think it’s, you know, having like-minded people bring in others. And we also have an amazing recruiting team, an HR team that, you know, does a fabulous job. But I think a great start to it is having your team recruit for you. And getting the right kind of people that they want to work with, and they want to work beside every day.

Sarah Wheeler: Great insight there. You know, you talked about how getting beyond Virginia Beach, or just being able to hire from anywhere gets to, you know, the best employees. So, you know, how does enabling remote work open your recruiting possibilities? How have you seen that open things up for you?

Brian Holland: I mean, it’s been huge, it’s allowed us to get, you know, so much talent from all over the country. I mean, we’re in Virginia Beach, which is, most people don’t know, but it is the largest city in Virginia. And this is kind of where we grew and our headquarters was, but still only five or 600,000 people, you know, to get the best talent and the mortgage industry all in one city, you know, no matter what the city is, is very difficult.

So to allow us to expand that, you know, throughout the country, and just get the very best talent has been a game changer for us, and it continues to be.

And, you know, what we see is, you know, there’s some companies now saying that their people have to come back in the office, and not everyone’s necessarily comfortable with that. So it gives us an edge, you know, recruiting as well, that we are set up for very nicely, and our team does an amazing job.

I was with someone yesterday that just recently came on board. And they were just so amazed at our process, because they’re working remotely on how they got their computer and information. And they had a booklet on how to set up their computer and, you know, their swag that they got that we send them when they start. There’s just, you know, it’s really thought through. And it’s, again, a lot of little things that make people feel comfortable right from the get-go. Because when people are making a change, there’s always some nerves there, and anxiety. And we want to try and relieve that as much as we possibly can.

Sarah Wheeler: That’s so important. You know, can you share some examples of recruiting more diverse employees, whether that’s from a geographic perspective, or some demographic such as, you know, age or race or people with different abilities? Or, you know, what is that diverse strategy? What has that done for your company?

Brian Holland: Yeah, so in 2020, we actually signed up with a platinum partnership with Namba to try and recruit, you know, a more diverse workforce, but we’ve always been very diverse. And the biggest, you know, one that comes to mind is we’ve got an executive leadership team that really runs the company and is in charge of, you know, making all the decisions, you know, a lot of the decisions, there’s you know, outside of the ownership group.

And, you know, four of the five of the people in the executive leadership team are females, you know, ladies, so it’s all for us, it’s about the people and having the right people, you know. And we we’ve formed a DEI committee, and we’ve done a lot of things in the DEI realm, but, you know, we want great people. And they come from, you know, all over the place and, you know, they’re different, you know, different race, different sexual orientation, different everything.

And, you know, I think that it’s important to focus on the people and their skills and talents. And again, for us, you know, we’ve got to start with the core values, because they can be the most knowledgeable mortgage person in the world, but if they don’t fit our core values, if they aren’t confidently humble, if they aren’t passionately positive, you know, they’re not going to fit in our organization.

Sarah Wheeler: So interesting and great to hear, because, you know, we’ve talked about how we increase lending to diverse sets of people or you know maybe underserved borrowers, or just whole borrowers who don’t see themselves or haven’t seen themselves in home ownership. And I think so much of that is having people work for mortgage companies who look like them who look like the borrowers you want to reach, who look like the borrowers that you’re trying to, you know, show the path to. So I think that’s super interesting.

Brian Holland: One other thing I didn’t mention is we also introduced a Limited English Proficiency, I think this is what it was called, LEP, program where we are, you know, it’s helping us with, you know, borrowers that you know, speak limited English, I think that’s exciting.

And historically, you know, we’ve served under certain markets, we’ve been the number one or number two, Bond housing lender in Virginia, North Carolina, which are our two major markets for the last 10 years or so, as well as rural lending.

So we do a lot of, you know, underserved markets, you know, and we have for a number of years.

Sarah Wheeler: Wow, that’s great to hear. You know, how has the opportunity to work remote and just your whole culture affected your retention rates? Do you have any company surveys or data that shows like, this is important to your employees?

Brian Holland: Yeah, so it’s, it’s interesting, we have surveys, we have a lot of things, but I mean, I meet with 10 to 12 different people every month. So I get a great sense of what that looks like. And overwhelming amounts of people want to continue to work remotely, which has kind of surprised me. I mean more and more of our salespeople want to be back in the office, because they need to be around people, they feed off of people.

But from our ODG, which, again, is our operations and our corporate team, they really, for the most part, I would say 80% plus, want to continue to work remotely because of those, you know, the reasons that, you know, we’ve talked about and everyone knows. They don’t have the commute time, they don’t have to, you know, get dressed, and they can wear their pajamas, you know, to work and you know, they can take their dog for a walk at lunch, or they can be there when their child gets off the bus.

So, yeah, I mean, I think that we will see more of that, especially in this business, continue to trend that direction, which we’re just in a good place with that technology wise, and our management team is very comfortable.

Sarah Wheeler: That’s great. What are some of the things that you guys learned when you when you started putting people remote, even, you know, three, four years ago, and then the pandemic, that you wish you had known earlier, or that you think, “Oh, wow, this, this ended up being really important, and we didn’t even know it at the time”?

Brian Holland: I think, you know, what we’ve learned over the years is just to continue to be more, implicit to remote work, with virtual events, and, you know, sending them lunch once in a while, you know, to their house, or send them a coupon to buy pizza, or, you know, whatever have you, just to make sure that we’re including them in as many of the things as we can, as someone that would be, you know, in the office.

I think a couple of places where remote work doesn’t work as well as in person is we’d love to get back to doing orientation that first kind of week or so, to be face to face, you know, with the human, so they can make sure that they really get a strong grasp of who we are and where we’re going.

And then, you know, certain types of training as well just work better, we feel, in person. So we’re working on trying to do those things.

But other than that, you know, we’ve really found that working remotely is amazing. It’s a funny example, but I was in the office for the third time in the last 18 months, earlier this week to do a video. And I was there with my executive assistant, and we’re sitting there, we’re trying to go through emails, and she was on the other side of the desk. And we realized, you know, when she couldn’t share her screen with me while we were going through emails.

So there are a few things that, you know, we were not used to doing face to face which we do all the time now, and it just makes us, again, more efficient in some of the things that we’re doing.

Sarah Wheeler: Really interesting, I know we have had the same, you know, thing that you talked about, we hired so many people during the pandemic. And that first part of really doing that orientation is probably, for us anyway, the hardest nut to crack, especially when you think about a [inaudible 00:25:18] team and trying to orient people to a whole new industry in some ways. In some cases, some people are coming in with lots of experience.

So really, really interesting and fun to see how you guys are already sort of ahead of the curve of something that now is going to really I think give you a huge advantage going forward. Because if that’s what you’ve already built, and you’re already there, you can see how that would be very attractive to people as they look for jobs in this space. So interesting.

So I guess my last question for you is like, what makes you excited about the future for mortgage lending? When you look at it, what are you excited about for our industry or for your company?

Brian Holland: I mean, I’m really excited about our leadership team for our company. My brother and I have been kind of working with them and kind of grooming them for years and years. And they have just grown so much and I’m so proud of the things that they’ve done over the last year, 18 months. And I’m excited about the foresight and some of the things that they’ve seen, you know, on things that can make us better, long term. So I think that they’re in a great place.

I think that there’s a lot of newer people coming into the business, and we’re hiring a lot of, you know, new people in the industry that are passionate, that really want to grow, as you well know, there’s been a lot of conversation over the last 10 years about how old the average originator was. And when I started Atlantic Bay I was 24. So as I continue to hear, you know, as I get older, the age gets older of the average mortgage banker, you know, it seems like it used to be 58 and 52, now you’re at 57. And, you know, and we’ve seen that coming down, and we’ve seen people getting drawn to the industry. And I think that’s exciting.

I also think that, you know, some of the initiatives…I mean the biggest asset that anyone has is their home. And, you know, I think that there are a lot of initiatives now that are trying to help close that wealth gap.

And, you know, I think that the new mortgage initiatives with that, and the lending that’s available, the bond lending and the things that we’ve done for years, if more people will have access to that, that will help close that wealth gap that you’ve heard a lot about, you know, recently that’s absolutely true. And that’s a passion of ours to try and reduce that.

Sarah Wheeler: Brian, thank you so much for talking today. It’s been really great to get to know you and your company a little bit better, and we appreciate it.

Brian Holland: Yeah, thanks for your time. It’s great chatting with you and excited about the future for our entire industry and helping to provide homeownership for everyone.

Sarah Wheeler: Awesome. Thank you.

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