Being Comfortable In The Uncomfortable With Melissa Wright

EXIN 6 | Being Uncomfortable

In this episode, Melissa Wright, chief sales and marketing officer at American Pacific Mortgage, stops by Expert Insights to talk about her real estate and entrepreneurial journey. Topics of conversation include:

  • Living through market shifts and adapting to challenges
  • Finding strength in marketing and bringing business units together
  • Creating strong relationships and choosing great mentors
  • The scale and volume of American Pacific Mortgage
  • Focusing on production, people, and profitability
  • Advice to those in leadership and sales

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Being Comfortable In The Uncomfortable With Melissa Wright

Melissa Wright joined American Pacific Mortgage in April 2015 and is responsible for leading both the corporate retail channel and the marketing organization. As a key member of the executive team, she works on strategies at the highest level of the organization related to production and all sales and marketing.

Prior to joining APM, Melissa was the president of Axiom Financial, a company she co-founded and co-built starting in 1996. She was responsible for the company’s growth, culture strategies, operations compliance, and overall performance for over eighteen years. With the sale of that company to PHH, she also oversaw an initiative to integrate marketing nationwide and has a passion for enhancing many brands’ distinctive identities and market positions.

Melissa, it’s great to be with you, as always. Thanks for joining us. How’s life in the trenches, and how are things at American Pacific?

Wonderful on both. I’m happy to be here as well. I appreciate you asking.

We talked a little bit before we started. A lot of change in the industry right now, which I want to get into a little bit. I want to start out and hear your story of coming up through the industry and becoming one of the top executives and most well-respected leaders at one of the most well-respected companies. Maybe, start and tell me a little bit about your story.

It’s interesting that you talk about my tenure. Looking back at what I have been through, we are now going through another pretty pivotal market shift. I was on the phone with one of our great producers who said, “I haven’t been through this market shift ever. I don’t even know what to do with it. I need your advice.”

You then pull from the memory banks how we have done this and try to coach and communicate that this is what we do. We know how to go through these market cycles, how to do it and come out the other side better, stronger, and smarter. He hadn’t been through that, so he was a little disrupted by that.

If you don’t mind me asking before we get to the rest of it, what was the advice that you gave him?

First of all, I wanted him to know that you can get through it. It isn’t so disruptive because it feels as if the end of his reign of being a top producer is over. It’s jarring out of it because of the challenges he’s had he’s never had before. The challenges have always been how do I make myself known? How do I create a reputation? How do I do good on the loans with the customer? How do I source and retain real estate agents?

Everything’s been sales strategies, and then it’s, “I have more business to do with. I need help with my team.” Everything’s been very proactive, growth-minded, and now it’s like, “You got something you haven’t had to do.” Now you’ve got to work on your mindset and discipline. We are having our upcoming sales summit and that’s what it’s all about. It’s all tap into your mojo. It’s trying to help our producers go back to all the things that they are good at and tap into that good energy, mindset, and disciplines that are going to leverage them. There was a lot connected with that.

That’s great, and it is so much about mindset right now. We were in a market for a couple of years that wasn’t a reality for most executives, including myself. I came up on the real estate side. I went through multiple cycles and was like, “That wasn’t real.” Now, it’s back to business as usual. Let’s start out a little bit with when you started in the industry. Did you start right out of the gate and build your own company when you got into the business in the ’90s? Tell us a little bit about that.

It’s so crazy. When I was in my twenties, I was looking for something a little more entrepreneurial. I had worked one job out of college at a tech firm and thought that wasn’t the path I wanted to go down. I wanted to go into the entrepreneurial space, and I got connected with a real estate brokerage that wanted to start its own mortgage company. They hired me to do that and we started from scratch. We picked the name and learned about the business.

To start, I was a loan officer working with these real estate agents. I didn’t know the business but I figured it out pretty quickly. After the first loan, I was disqualified. I ended up getting a mortgage 30 days later, and I’m like, “I got to hurry and figure this out.” I dove all in and spent all the time and gave my all to learning the business, sourcing the customers, and working with those real estate agents.

EXIN 6 | Being Uncomfortable
Being Uncomfortable: When starting in real estate, dive in and spend all your time learning the business, sourcing the customers, and working with real estate agents.

I then moved quickly into leading the company and building out the people. I added loan officers and processors. We started out as a mortgage brokerage. We had to because we were brand-new. We were a baby, but then, right around between the years 2 and 3, I launched our mortgage banking platform.

The majority of the time, we were mortgage banker. We stayed only a broker for the beginning stages. We grew that and grew with the real estate firm. The real estate firm got gobbled up by a bigger real estate firm, and then it kept growing bigger and bigger from that. I don’t know the business. I have been a loan officer and branch manager. I was the head of launching mortgage banking, and then to a point where I ran things for many years.

That is a fantastic story considering you dove in head first and took total immersion. It’s a complex industry. There’s a lot to know. Particularly, you hadn’t managed people before that. None of us know anything. I know you fairly well. You are an impressive executive, extremely dedicated, and hardworking, but what was it, in those early days, that you think allowed you, despite the odds, to become successful?

It had nothing to lose. I was young enough and I could work for nothing. The first year, I didn’t take a paycheck, so I dove in and worked and scrapped by because I could give the time. I worked crazy stupid hours nearly round the clock. In the beginning, I was trying to learn it, dive in, and figure it all out. I had some good business partners that I ended up partnering with on the real estate side that connected me well with real estate agents, from mortgage insurance companies to wholesale execs and credit vendor partners. In the beginning, we were good friends and helped me get started and learn the business. After that, it is a lot of hard work.

I’m hearing relationships, so we are obviously critical to that trajectory. You built and grew that company into a pretty sizeable organization. How big were you at the peak of the first company that you were a part of?

It might sound like small numbers, but average loan amounts were down. We were $1 billion a year company in volume and, at one time, the largest in the state.

That was a lot of loans at that time, considering loan amounts were 25% to 30% of what they are now or something like that. You guys sold the business to PHH and you stayed on there for a bit. Walk me through that next stage.

I stayed on for nine years. We were a wholly owned subsidiary LLC and I had sister companies like mine across the US. I ran my company, but then as things evolved, they wanted us to start doing more and more together. These other companies, we called them our sister companies, and we started leveraging each other.

The one thing I was strong out was marketing, and so they said, “Can you lead out and run marketing for all these companies together? We like what you’ve done with your company. How about you take these other companies on?” I was president of my company and head of the national marketing team for all those other companies.

It’s doing two full-time jobs. We have talked before and I’m like, “You are running all of sales and marketing.” That’s not new to you. You’ve done that before.

It’s not new to me. My personality is such that I go and seek out more to do. I wish I didn’t. Sometimes I’m like, “I have too much on my plate. I put some of this on my plate.” I naturally like to push myself. I feel like I can do more and am driven by making an impact and raising the bar. If I can insert and find the time to do it, I want to.

I want to talk a little bit about your philosophy as a leader in an industry that has predominantly been male-dominated for many years. You have emerged not only an exceptional leader but an exceptional female leader. You have had a career that is unbelievable. As you think about building outperforming teams and leading these organizations, what have been your tried-and-true best practices or blueprint that you follow if you have one?

I don’t know if I have a blueprint, but I would say I’m not afraid. In my experience, and this is my personal opinion, what ends up happening is people don’t take a project on, take an opportunity on or do a job because they let fear get in their way. It’s fear of failure, fear of I don’t know that job, or I don’t have anyone cheering you on.

People need to learn not to let fear get in the way of opportunities. Click To Tweet

There could be lots of reasons for the fear, but my experience is a lot of times, people get in their own way and are afraid of that. That happens a lot for women. We worry about what people think and be like, “Can we do it?” What if we are the only woman in the room? What will that be like? I had all of that. I’m not saying that fear doesn’t exist because it absolutely does. I just don’t allow it to stop me. What happened is I have had several experiences where I was scared to death and did it anyway. It came out as a success, and now I use that. I now have more belief than fear and I hold on to that.

You draw on that because you know you’ve had that feeling before. You dove in, made it through it, and drew on that experience.

Reflect back to 2006 or 2007. Some of those years blended together when every single day, there was a company going out of business.

It was like the Implode-O-Meter. Remember, it was like the world was going to end.

It was so stressful and we felt fine. At the same time, you are watching this. There were those days that I was stressed and throwing up in my garbage can because you are getting handed repurchase and all crap because all these companies were going under. As leading out my company, that was a lot. We came out the other side a stronger organization and better. We were able to grow in that down market, and now I know I can do that.

EXIN 6 | Being Uncomfortable
Being Uncomfortable: There will be hard times, like in down markets, but just know that you will come out of the other side as a stronger organization.

That’s one example and there are buckets of these, but there are times when things are hard. When I took on as president of my company, I remember I went back to PHH headquarters. I went into a room with 100% men. I walked in and gave my presentation, and they wanted to know how I was going to be able to make the company something different than it had been before. They looked at me like, “I don’t think that you can.”

Is it after you presented or before?

They made me interim president. They didn’t want to give me the official title of president. After 90 days, they gave me the job, but that was in the beginning because they were unsure if I was the right candidate. Even though I’d built the company and was there from the beginning, I wasn’t president at that time. My partner was.

When he resigned as president, I wanted to take that over and then they wouldn’t give it to me. I had to apply for it. I applied for the job and went through 7 or 9 rounds of interviews, and then at the end, they only gave me interim president. I had to put together business plans and strategies and present it to them.

They make you jump through more hoops than maybe somebody else would have had. It has been one of the good old boys in the club.

It’s hard to say but I remember that in particular. The second thing is you got to build relationships. When you have strong relationships with people that give you confidence, remove barriers, cheerlead you on, or teach you, you have to have those in your life. I have been fortunate on the business front to have those either in a business partner, someone who could coach me and mentor me or the people I surround myself with.

You need strong relationships in your life. Connect with people who can give you confidence and help remove barriers. Click To Tweet

For young leaders, especially young female leaders, did you make it? Was it intentional that you were seeking out those types of mentors? What advice would you have for people that might be earlier in their careers?

There are both formal and informal. Even now, I have two coaches. I look forward to those. I plan them. If I miss, we have scheduled this up, and I fit them in. Those are very important to me, but I also have lots of informal where these are people I know from the industry that I have latched onto as a friend, but then real trusted advisors. I get a lot of advice and coaching from our chairman, Kurt Reisig, whom I love. The last time I was with him, he advised and coached. I have got years of that where I have found over time there are people you can connect, brainstorm, share ideas with, and let them bounce through those things. You got to have that.

You don’t have to do it alone.

No, don’t ever do it alone. I’m running marketing and I didn’t get my degree in Marketing. I naturally have moved into this space, but I surround myself with people that are fantastic marketers. I’m on this CMO Braintrust group that I like and I get to collaborate and share ideas with outside of the industry. There’s an abundance of that out there. If you are a young professional looking to do more leadership, make sure you surround yourself with people who believe in you, cheer you on, and want you to succeed. You also look at some formal coach to keep you disciplined. It helps you with some of your mindsets or your action, and then informal. Build those relationships where you can trust and collaborate with people.

That’s such fantastic advice and well said. It has served you so incredibly well. In terms of the scale of the organization and for people that are not familiar with APM, give us a high-level scale of the company right now that you guys have. How big is the sales organization volume-wise? Give us a little sense for that.

In 2021, we closed $24 billion. We are licensed in 49 states and have branches in about 32 states. We run about 1,200 full-time originator positions in about 3,500 company size. For years and years, they were West of the Mississippi and ran the organization as more of a West Coast-based company. We had even in our description of who we were. We used to explain we are West of the Mississippi, and it wasn’t until 2019 that we decided to go nationwide.

What was the catalyst for that? Do we need to grow?

It’s never about size. It’s a couple of things. We want to expand and get more markets, feeding our servicing pool and the pool of business that we sell. It makes your loans stronger when they come from all over instead of concentrated areas. Another reason is we had grown all of these resources, technology, and infrastructure for our originators, and now it was built to scale. It was easier to grow and expand. We already had those big and fixed structure things in place. To keep up with the demands, cybersecurity, and technology, you now need to operate at this higher level of volume.

EXIN 6 | Being Uncomfortable
Being Uncomfortable: When you scale your business, it’s never about size. You want to expand to get more markets in your servicing pool. It makes your loans stronger when they come from all over.

The bar for scale has gotten higher as the technology needs. As you look at 2022, we are in this environment right now where there’s a contraction in the market. We are in a cycle and a lot of people are uneasy about it. When I hear conversations with you and people at APM, it’s a growth mindset, leaning into this environment and playing offense. Tell me if I have got that right and maybe say more about your philosophy for 2022 as you look at, all of a sudden, interest rates in the fives. How do you lead and navigate a company, and how are you guys approaching it?

First of all, who would have thought we would be in the fives this early on? No one ever saw that coming. At the end of 2021, we set our strategies as an organization and as a leadership team. We set three key strategies. One is around production, people, and profitability, and then there are subsets of those. We decided that our production goal for the year was going to be heavily focused on the growth side. There are retention strategies as well, but when we set our number, we shifted a lot into growth. We set that on before this change happened.

When you say growth, are you talking specifically around adding or acquiring a new sales footprint?

All of the above. It could be acquiring a company, adding branches, going into new markets where we don’t have little to no presence, and adding loan officers into existing branches. What we knew is in 2021 and the year before, everyone was working on the business. We are working on all the details. Loan officers aren’t looking up. You had to get the loans done. You can’t even look at, “Is there something different? Do I want to expand? Am I looking for a new company?” You couldn’t even go there because you had so much volume.

What we knew is it would shift away, and we would have an opportunity to get in front of more people that would now take our calls and be able to sit down, look, and see if there was something that we could offer to them they were looking for. We set out for the year and we set goals around how many branches, people, and new production we wanted to add in 2022, and then we built all of our strategies around how we were going to do that. We are off to a good start and break things down into sprints.

It sounds like it’s working pretty well so far.

We have added over 30 new branches in 2022. We hope to keep matching that throughout the year and get us to size. There are still a lot of markets where we still have a relatively small footprint, and we want to be able to grow and expand. We are very strategic about where we are going and why we are going there. We are looking for the people we want to help grow that. It’s not about numbers. We are looking for people that are entrepreneurial-minded, self-starters, and have good solid reputations and create opportunities.

You guys are looking for culture fit always. That’s the one thing I know about you guys. I’ve been working with you for so many years now. You really pay attention. It’s not about acquiring headcount, sales, throwing money around, and buying production. It’s matching culture and making sure that the people you bring to the organization are going to line up well. How much of your success do you think is attributed to staying true to that culture?

Our culture is one of our best differentiators, and that’s what people are attracted to. We are independently owned and ESOP that we added in 2021. Now we have employee ownership opportunities. That makes us unique because we control our own destiny and who we are. We have been able to keep that contained.

From there, I’m looking for people that connect with us or are like-minded. It is how you keep your culture intact. If you bring people that don’t connect with that, it doesn’t matter to them, or they are about doing loans, then you’ll start to see that eroded. We haven’t got it perfect by any means, but we try to analyze if they are a culture fit.

If you bring in people who don't connect with your company culture, you'll start to see that culture eroded. Click To Tweet

The proof is the results that you guys continue to have year over year regardless of the market. It’s super impressive. As you guys think about the environment that we are in, it’s continuing to lean into your core principles, the things that you mentioned, production people, profit, and staying focused on that. Do you guys spend much time worrying about if rates go to 6% versus drop back down to 4.5%? Is it like, “Let’s play our game?” What are the things you are thinking about every day?

I’m not worried about rates other than our loan officers, them being in the right mindset, and giving them tools and products. We focus heavily on products to make sure that we have got some innovative and creative ways to help them differentiate. We have rolled out some great products. So far, we have some new ones coming out that I have personally been responsible for and excited about that we feel will be somewhat of a game-changer for them.

We are thinking of those kinds of things. We are leveraging technology and systems to make a better, faster, smarter, easier, and all that stuff. The cost to produce could go down. You got to take all that into account because we know the business will be reduced. There’s no doubt about that, and it has. There are new forecasts that are out. A roughly 35% decrease is what we are planning on for the year. We are trying to backfill that through growth, but then also help the loan officers. As I said, we have got a sales summit coming up. It’s all going to be the things that we feel they need to help them thrive the rest of the year.

What I’m hearing is it’s not only just the growth side but also optimization. If you can have products that are going to differentiate for them and be a competitive advantage, that’s critical in this market. Also, putting tools around them, whether it’s tech, data, and things like that. Creating opportunities for them where maybe a deal in 2021 that fell through the cracks was acceptable. Those things aren’t acceptable anymore. You got to go capture all those things. All of that is in your wheelhouse from what you are working on from what I hear.

There are a lot of techs, products, and marketing. I find that 2022 is the year loan officers are interested in rolling up their sleeves and learning more about marketing. They have heard it, talked about it and been aware of it for years, but they didn’t have to do it the last couple of years, and now they do have to. It’s a tight competition out there and they have got to stand out, be relevant, and be able to compete. It takes some marketing strategies to do that.

It takes strategy and the combination of having a great company like you guys to partner with them. The scale at which you need to be able to do things from a tech standpoint is hard for some of those individual practitioners, brokers, and people that don’t have that scale. I appreciate getting to hear some of your stories. Also, from a leadership standpoint, it is impressive. In closing, I would love to hear your advice to both leadership as well as the sales organizations out there and people in the trenches doing loans every day. What would you advise both groups if there was something very key that they should be doing right now?

Let’s start by planning. Strategic planning is everything. We plan in 90-day sprints, and that’s where we see our best success. There are a lot of ideas, and things you want to do as an organization and some of which will take longer than 90 days. It’s the same as a loan officer, but we encourage everyone to have a plan and have a plan for 90 days.

You have your overall goal that may never change for the year, for the six months, or for a couple of years, but then what are the strategies that, at the end of the day, roll up to hit your goal? We feel very passionate about having those every 90 days. We build plans around a 90-day sprint, is what we call them. I also say loan officers should have a 90-day sprint.

What are the things for the next 90 days? You don’t even need a lot. Pick 2 or 3 strategies you are going to do for the next 90 days, and then you’ll move on to the next one. Build it like that. It’s way easier. You got to have a plan and then you got to have the discipline to work to plan. It’s great to create a real beautiful plan but put on the discipline.

You got to have a plan and the discipline to work the plan. Click To Tweet

Create time in your schedule for the plan if you are a loan officer, same thing. Build a 90-day plan and build time to work on that because it’s easy to get in the business and not on the business. You got to focus on that. Don’t forget about marketing. We spent a lot of time learning our business. We know how to be problem solvers and consultants. We know about the market and being able to explain to the customer, but you still have to get out in front and market yourself.

You’ve got to stay relevant, and how are you seen and found you? How do you want to fix that? How are you showing up with your business and real estate partners? There are a lot of strategies for that. I encourage loan officers to make the time. Sometimes we are good at doing the mortgage and not so great on the sales side.

That’s well said, Melissa. Thank you so much for your time. It’s always a pleasure. Congrats on starting the year off to a great start, and I look forward to seeing what you guys accomplish.

Thank you. We appreciate your partnership and your friendship as well.

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