Finance of America CEO on changes in mortgage industry
For today’s HousingWire Daily, Finance of America Companies CEO Patti Cook joins us for another episode of the Women of Influence series that spotlights the latest accomplishments of our award winners. As a 2021 Woman of Influence, Cook has been a pioneer in financial services since her earliest days in the industry. Over the course of her career, Cook has held executive roles at numerous companies, including Prudential, JPMorgan Chase, and Freddie Mac.
Cook shares her personal journey for how she got into the mortgage industry, as a woman in the finance space who has risen to the highest level of her business. She also addresses one of her most notable accomplishments — taking the company public in the midst of a global pandemic.
Now, as CEO, Cook highlights how Finance of America helps advance women into leadership positions and offers other women in the industry advice on how to advance their own careers.
Here is a small preview of the interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity:
Brena Nath: What are you most proud of in your career, and what advice would you give to other women who are looking to rise into leadership positions in the mortgage industry?
Patti Cook: Certainly, from a career perspective, being the CEO of a company, a financial services company, that I was able to take public is just incredible. I even still kind of get goosebumps when I say it, like who knew, right? I never thought I would get there. But at the same time, equally as important to me, I have three grown daughters, five grandchildren, and they are the light of my life. So, if you just stop there and say, like, wow, I’m so proud of being able to have accomplished so much professionally, and so much personally. I have the opportunity at Finance of America to ensure that the things that enabled me to get here are in place for future generations, and hopefully, to continue to be perceived as a leader in someone that’s forging those policies.
One other bit of advice, along with something that I’m proud of, is this notion of a marathon, not a sprint. I used to say to people, you know, it’s like a report card. When you’re trying to do multiple roles, you can’t necessarily get straight A’s all the time. The thing that you need to do, is you need to take a step back and take stock of how you’re doing overall. How’s your role as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, as a sister, as a professional? Look at it and say, “Am I happy with the whole package?” Do I give myself an A as to how I’m moving that whole universe of things forward? And I think that perspective is really helpful.
HousingWire’s Women of Influence podcast miniseries spotlights the significant contributions of women who are driving the U.S. housing economy forward, interviewing our honorees over the years on the impact they’re making today. Hosted by Brena Nath and produced by Alcynna Lloyd. If you have a pitch or an inquiry relating to podcasts, you can reach our team at [email protected].
Below is the transcription of the interview. These transcriptions, powered by Speechpad, have been lightly edited and may contain small errors from reproduction:
Brena Nath: Hi. I’m Brena Nath, HW+ Managing Editor here at “HousingWire.” I couldn’t be more thrilled to continue our “Women of Influence” podcast miniseries, where we’ve been spotlighting the women of influence in our industry, and just catching up on what they’ve been doing, and some of their accomplishments over the last year, and even what the year ahead looks like. So, first off, I wanted to welcome Patti Cook, who’s the CEO of Finance of America Companies, to the podcast. So, welcome, Patti.
Patti Cook: Thank you very much. Delighted to be here.
Brena Nath: I know during this podcast episode, we’re gonna jump into your journey to being a CEO, female leadership, and so much more. But I always like to kick start by reading a little bit of your profile for the Women of influence award programs. It’s also on the website. I think it just does a great job kind of summing up everything that you’ve done in your career, just a small few sentences, I would say, sum up. There’s so much here to unpack. But a quick boilerplate so people understand just kind of some of the things that you’ve accomplished. I’ll go ahead and read that real fast.
Patti Cook is a pioneer in financial services since her earliest days in the industry. She constantly displays grit and a knack for pivoting successfully to seize new opportunities. As CEO of Finance of America Companies, Cook has helped build and scale the company diversified lending platform, which offers consumers a comprehensive suite of financial solutions, aimed at meeting their needs at each phase of the financial lives. Upon earning her MBA at New York University, Cook joined Salomon Brothers in 1979, as one of the very few female MBAs on Wall Street in that area. And over the course of her career, she has held executive roles at numerous companies, including Prudential, JP Morgan, and Freddie Mac. I know there’s so much more there, but I know it wraps up kind of saying you joined Finance of America Companies in 2016. And I’m sure, a lot from there, we’ll kind of get into during this podcast episode. So, wanted to share that.
Patti Cook: Thank you.
Brena Nath: So, starting off, I like to kind of start with that foundation question. Which is, how did you get started in the industry? I know I shared a little bit in that paragraph, but there’s so much more there to unpack. And how has gender equity evolved in that time?
Patti Cook: So, if you go one step before my MBA, I was an elementary education major, as an undergrad. So, I got out of college, taught for a little while, decided I wanted to do something different, and made a huge pivot into finance and got my MBA. And as you mentioned in your summary, there were very few women that had MBAs at the time. So to be honest, getting hired by one of the large Wall Street firms probably wasn’t that hard. But nonetheless, I was lucky to secure a position in Salomon Brothers. And it was just a fascinating decade to be there. The amount of innovation that was occurring in the financial markets was breathtaking. You know, it was in the news every day. The innovation, mortgages as we know them today didn’t really exist in 1980. So, watching that evolution was tremendous for me. I didn’t start out saying I wanted to be in the mortgage market. I knew I wanted to try finance. It was only over time that the innovation, the complexity of the product was attractive to me. And I started out as a strategist, talking about how to invest in mortgages, then I invested in mortgages, and ultimately moved to what I’ll say is the operational side of it.
But one thing on sort of gender equity during that time period, I’ll give you a quick anecdote. It was 1983, I’d been at Salomon four years, and I was having my first child. So I went to tell my boss that I was pregnant. And he said to me, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t even know if we have a maternity leave policy.” And then I went on to have three children in less than five years. And it was a bit of a joke, if you will, at Salomon Brothers, that I held the record for the woman that had taken the most maternity leaves. And I still see my boss at the time, occasionally. He thinks I might still hold the record. So, I mean, at the time, women in this business were very… It was unusual. Yet they were supportive. It’s not to suggest that they didn’t want women there, they just never had them before, and needed to figure out how to deal with the new issues that were coming up by having women in your workforce. So, huge pivot for me, from elementary education, to finance, to mortgage. And it’s been over four decades.
Brena Nath: I appreciate you sharing that personal anecdote. I just was talking to a branch manager, and she gave that exact analogy. That when she got into the industry, she went to tell her boss that she was pregnant. And they received it well, but she was so nervous going into it, because she was kind of, to your point, kind of paving the way and wasn’t sure what they would say. And I think those personal anecdotes, I think, are so important to share. So appreciate you sharing that story.
Patti Cook: Sure.
Brena Nath: But tell us about… I mean, I think that’s just one example of some of the obstacles that you’ve had to overcome during your career. How have these obstacles informed your leadership style at Finance of America? And if so, how have they? And just maybe even unpack a little bit more of some of those obstacles.
Patti Cook: So, looking back on it, I think the biggest obstacle was our culture. And by that, I mean, up until that point, working women, working mothers were a little bit unusual. So let’s start there. When I look at my friends from college, and as we all made choices, some women to stay home, some women to maybe work part time if they could, and others to work full time, they were polarizing decisions. We were each pretty defensive about the choice that we took, right? I was feeling guilty that I was going to be a working mom, and I wasn’t staying home with my children. And yet my friends that had invested in their own career, that chose to stay home, were feeling badly of, like, what, did they give up too early? Why were they not pursuing their career? So, when you think about it, I think the biggest obstacle, the thing that was the most uncomfortable was the cultural change that was going on. And the result being, women themselves weren’t always that supportive of each other. That is totally different today. Right?
Not only are women more supportive of each other, right? I think we applaud the choices our peers make, right? And we want to be supportive of whatever choice they make, whether to be an at-home mom, whether to work part time, or to work full time. For me, now, I love mentoring women about that choice, right? There is no right… There’s not one answer. The answer is, what’s the best for you, personally, your immediate family, your extended family. And then I love being in a position to be able to, at this point, lead a company to provide enough flexibility so that women can have those choices. And look, this isn’t just about women, the definition of our nuclear family’s changed, right? Maybe there are more at-home dads than there certainly were in the 80s. And they, too, need that flexibility. So, I think looking back at the cultural change, companies need to change with it, and provide the appropriate amount of flexibility so that people can manage those choices. And everybody’s is going to be a little different.
Brena Nath: That’s been a side… What I love about these interviews is you get to hear stories like yours, and you are, you know, a leader at Finance of America Companies. And it’s amazing to see, to your point, like, how that narrative has changed over the years. And I’ve been honored to listen to stories like yours of mentorship. Like, that’s how you kind of pave the way for the next generation. So, it’s great to hear the importance of mentorship. And, you know, both sides, males and females. One thing that I was able to spotlight, I oversee the Women of Influence profiles here, put them in our magazine. And we’ve spotlighted a number of women at the company in our Women of Influence profiles. I know there’s even more women in leadership roles at Finance of America. Can you tell us more about the culture of opportunity and advancement that you’ve looked at to create? And how has that impacted job satisfaction? And maybe even on top of that, tenure, over time?
Patti Cook: Yes. So, first of all, I think when I look at Finance for America, the variability in the types of jobs we offer has been helpful in attracting women. Because right from the beginning, there are definitely some jobs that are…I’m going to use the word more time consuming than others. So, I think we offered, from the beginning, a fair amount of choice. The other thing that I think people need to realize is, you know, it’s in our best interest to be flexible and work with our employees over time, so that they stay with us, right? Companies invest, if they’re doing it right, a lot, in their employees. They’re training them, they’re promoting them. And you don’t want to lose that investment. So doing right by your employees is also doing right for the company. Right? It’s a virtuous cycle. It’s not like we’re doing everybody a favor. Not that we wouldn’t, but you see what I mean? It works for both parties.
There’s no question that as employees, and women in particular, face new challenges, our ability to be flexible has provided them an opportunity to stay here longer. Therefore, their tenure, I think, is probably longer than many of our peer group. And therefore, they have the opportunity to advance. You know, COVID was a great example for us. We’re distributed anyway, we offer a lot of flexibility. So when COVID came, we pivoted quickly. As we look at everybody’s big discussion, what’s going to be your policy post-COVID? Are you going to require people to go to the office? I’m like, “No, we’re going to go back to our policy pre-COVID, which was to give flexibility.” So, I’m proud of the commitment we’ve made to investing in our employees and our women, in particular, over time, so that they can stay and have a long-term career.
One last comment on that, if you look at mine, it was a marathon, not a sprint. I never would have achieved, and never thought I would, the spot that I had, today, but I just kept going. Right? And the ability to keep going is really ultimately, what propels women to, let’s call it, leadership roles.
Brena Nath: And speaking of that marathon, not a sprint, throughout this conversation, we’ve kind of touched on some of the things you’ve done in your career. I know sometimes this is a big question. I’m sure there’s multiple things that you could list here. But what are you most proud of in your career? And what advice would you give to other women who are looking to rise into some leadership positions in the mortgage industry?
Patti Cook: Yeah. I mean, certainly, from a career perspective, being the CEO of a company, a financial services company that I was able to take public is just incredible, right? I kind of…like, I even still kind of get goosebumps when I say it. Like, who knew? Right? Never thought I would get there. But at the same time, equally as important to me, I have three grown daughters, five grandchildren, and they are the light of my life. So if you just stop there and say, like, wow, I’m so proud of being able to have accomplished so much professionally, and so much personally. And I think now, I mentioned this already, but I have the opportunity at Finance of America to ensure that the things that enabled me to get here are in place for future generations. And hopefully, you know, to continue to be perceived as a leader in some limit, sort of forging those policies.
And I guess the one other bit of advice, along with something that I’m proud of is this notion of marathon, not a sprint. And I used to say to people, you know, it’s like a report card. But when you’re trying to do multiple roles, you can’t necessarily get straight A’s all the time. And the thing that you need to do is you need to take a step back, and take stock of how you’re doing overall. How’s your role as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, as a sister, as a professional? And look at it and say, “Am I happy with the whole package?” Right? “Do I give myself an A as to how I’m moving that whole universe of things forward?” And I think that perspective is really helpful.
Brena Nath: I always enjoy being able to receive some of that advice to being someone who’s still early on in her career, I will receive that advice. It’s such a good piece to leave listeners with. Now, most of these podcast interviews, I like to end with, like, the same question, especially from our leaders in the industry. And that’s, you know, to wrap, what do you think it would take to get more women and more diversity into the industry? And from your perspective, why is this important?
Patti Cook: So, I think that how starts with equitable hiring policy. So I think you have to look hard at how you search, how you hire, how you portray yourself in the industry so that you are attracting a diverse population to your company. I think in addition to doing that, once people arrive, you need to be supportive. Like, it’s one thing to say, “Okay, I’m going to hire X percent of my workforce is going to be in the following diversity categories.” But if once everybody gets there, you’re not supportive of them, then they’re unlikely to be successful, and that hiring will not have proved to be useful. And, you know, in our industry, not only is it the right thing to keep people there for a long time, but if you look at mortgage, or even consumer borrowers overall, they’re diverse. Men, women, their ethnicity is diverse, their race is diverse. We need to mirror that population. Right?
And if you look at the mortgage industry, historically, it’s been dominated by white males. Well, our current borrower is very different than that. So, ensuring that we have a employee base that mirrors the customers we’re facing off against, are going to make us better at what we do. We’ll understand them better. We need to be in the locations where they live. So I think getting a more diverse population starts with your hiring practices. It is very much a function of what you do to support them. And it’s really important for our business that we do that, so that we continue to provide good service and good products for the customers we’re seeking.
Brena Nath: It’s really that other side of the hiring, it’s also retention, tenure, which you were talking about earlier in another answer. It’s hiring them and also retaining them, and ensuring they’re successful.
Patti Cook: Hundred percent true.
Brena Nath: Well, I know we covered so many things in this podcast, Patti. We went, everything from your journey into this industry, gender equity, how that’s evolved, the challenges, the obstacles. And always wanted to say, thank you for your time and just sharing the stories of the changes in the industry and where we’re headed. So, thank you so much for joining me today, Patti.
Patti Cook: Thank you. I enjoyed it.