Each month, National Mortgage Professional Magazine will focus on one of the industry’s top players in our “Mortgage Professional of the Month” feature. This month, we had a chance to chat with Bruce Lawner, senior vice president of the wholesale division for Melville, N.Y.-based Presidents First Mortgage Bankers. Presidents First opened its doors in March of 2008. Bruce works on a daily basis with quality mortgage brokers to expand the wholesale division. Under Bruce’s leadership, Presidents First has experienced steady growth over the past two years.
Bruce draws upon his 20-plus-year career in the mortgage and housing finance industry to lead Presidents First Mortgage Bankers. He began his career with a Mineola, N.Y.-based mortgage broker in 1986 as a loan officer, taking applications and specializing in condominium and co-op conversions. In 1989, he began his long journey into the mortgage banking world and joined Arbor National Mortgage in Westbury, N.Y. as a senior loan officer.
Earning great achievements such as the company’s President’s Club for high volume of originations and closings with his tenure there. He remained with Arbor until the company was sold to Bank of America in 1993, when he then moved to a mortgage banker in Melville, N.Y. in his first of many management roles as sales manager, responsible for all recruiting and the training of sales staff for the company. Bruce helped grow the company by working with all members of the operations staff on improving turn-time and increasing quality customer service. It was there that he began learning all facets of the mortgage banking industry.
In 1995, Bruce became vice president of operations for a Westbury, N.Y.-based mortgage banker, obtaining his Direct Endorsement (DE) from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), overseeing all members of the operational staff, including processors, closers, funders and secondary marketing representatives.
In 1996, he furthered his career as a sales manager for Roslyn Heights, N.Y.-based PMCC Mortgage Corporation, a publicly-traded company. Bruce managed the company’s retail sales production team and was instrumental in increasing originations to over $1 billion. He was later promoted to executive vice president of sales.
In 1999, Bruce became vice president of sales for Sterling National Mortgage in Great Neck, N.Y., managing the company’s retail sales department and specializing in the growth of FHA and Alt-A originations.
In 2002, Bruce was recruited by president and chief executive officer, Frederick Assini, to join Franklin First Financial Ltd. in Melville, N.Y. as vice president of branch banking. He supervised 25 of the company’s branches, overseeing more than 500 employees in the retail division.
At that time, there was only one last challenge in his career that had to be met, so in 2006, he partnered up as co-owner and chief operating officer of Garden City, N.Y.-based Mortgage Source LLC, a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) direct lender.
In 2008, Bruce returned to Franklin First Financial d/b/a Presidents First Mortgage Bankers as senior vice president of the wholesale division. Presidents First is a multi-state, full-service mortgage banker that prides itself on its dedication to providing its customers with mortgage products at aggressive rates and industry-best service levels.
How did you first get involved in the mortgage business?
After graduating from SUNY College at Old Westbury in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, I started working in the family business, an import/export brokerage based out of John F. Kennedy Airport. After about a year-and-a-half of doing that, I realized that working for the family might not be the best future for me. One of my friends at that time had a mortgage broker company. He told me how he was taking a lot of mortgage apps, and asked if I was interested in helping out on the weekends, taking applications on-site at condominium conversion projects, and offered to pay me to do so. Seeing how easy it was and the fact that I was making money on the weekend, I started to inquire more and more about the mortgage business and decided to leave the family business in 1988 and enter into the world of mortgage and housing finance.
Do you feel that when you first started in the mortgage industry, you were working on deals that might not make sense?
Yes and no. In the late1980s and early 1990s, I specialized in co-op and condo conversions, and there were bushels of them. Some of the lenders back then, such as Citi Corp., Columbia Federal Savings Bank, Dime and some of the others, had these phenomenal products for people already living in a condo or co-op complex. They were offering 100 percent financing with no money down. So, it was fairly easy if someone had good credit and employment to get them these mortgages. Banks didn’t even qualify their borrowers because there were many no-income check programs available. Even though I had my own apprehensions that the applicants qualified, they were ultimately the final decision-maker.
Were there any points in your career where you didn’t have the luxury of having a captured audience like you did with the co-op conversion market?
Absolutely. When that particular product and market dried up, we had to develop other areas to specialize in or other niches to market to. And that’s what we did.
There were many new investors coming into the market, and they all wanted to gain market share; hence the birth of Alt-A, stated-income, no doc, etc. The LTVs kept rising higher and higher. to a point of 105 percent. That made the originator’s job a “no brainer.”
You do business in one of the East Coast’s capitals of the mortgage market, on Long Island and in Melville, N.Y. to be exact. Are there others in this area who may have influenced you and have provided guidance throughout the years?
My parents were a big influence on me. They were very hard-working individuals who worked crazy hours, and I idolized them for that. In fact, I believe that work ethic is hereditary and was passed down to me. They didn’t make a lot of money, but were good providers. As hard as they worked, they always found time to make themselves available to me early in my childhood when I was growing up … they came to all of my ball games. I’ve taken many of these values to my work ethic and management style.
Early in my career as a retail loan originator … the first seven to eight years of my career … I was just originating loans. I worked for some very good companies and took pride in my knowledge of the company’s products and offerings.
In 1989, I started working for my first mortgage banker, American Mortgage Banking, which later became Arbor National Mortgage. The company’s owner and chief executive officer, Ivan Kaufman, sold the company to Bank of America in 1993 for approximately $60 million. He is still operating Arbor Commercial Mortgage to date. He was one of the guys who definitely influenced me as a young man in this industry. One of the most fascinating things about Ivan is that he was just a regular guy who did some amazing things which keeps me motivated to this date.
My current employer, and a man who I consider a good friend, who has treated me like a brother for some eight years, Fred Assini, has been a major influence and mentor as well. We have learned a lot from one another, compliment each other and always maintain positive energy in the work place. His work ethic is second to none and it shows in the success of the company.
What keeps you in the industry?
I think what keeps me in this business is the challenge. Right now, it is more challenging than ever to stay in this business. Some people love challenges in their life and some people thrive on pressure, while others simply fold. I like to think I am up for the challenge of surviving in today’s mortgage marketplace. These last few years were unquestionably the biggest challenge in my mortgage career. I like to say that Presidents First Mortgage Bankers is still here and we are surviving, paying our bills and hoping that this current phase of the industry will be a thing of the past, and the industry will get back on track with the help of politicians and the investors.
What do you say to mortgage brokers to urge them to stay in business with all of the obstacles facing them today? What is your advice to the broker community, a community that is facing issues such as legislative and regulatory pressures, the Home Valuation Code of Conduct (HVCC), mounting negative media coverage, etc.?
Whether you are a mortgage broker or mortgage banker, we have many similar obstacles lately to overcome. I know we are in the first year of change to guidelines of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) and the many other industry changes that have come across. I’ve been in this business for a long time, and ever since I can remember, there has always been a mystique about mortgage brokers. They’ve been trying to ban mortgage brokers for many years, and they have yet to be successful. A lot of brokers are still around who are compliant and have a good book of business, and there are different ways of marketing to that book of business.
In the old days, I used to pound the pavement and get my deals straight from real estate brokers, real estate attorneys, certified public accountants (CPAs), and by word of mouth. I feel that this is still a very good and viable way of getting business, as well as being confident with doing some traditional marketing. You have to be diversified in order to survive in this current state of the marketplace.
There is still this perceived matter of the bad aura of mortgage brokers being responsible for the downfall of the mortgage business, which I do not agree with at all. I truly feel that mortgage brokers were not part of any market demise; they just originated and followed the bank’s guidelines, which happened to be very lax at that moment in time. That is part of the reason why there is this mystique … brokers are not empowered to make the loans, they are just the third-party seeking the best deal for the customer. Ultimately, it’s the banks and their lack of quality control procedures, and greed and outdoing each other that led to the mortgage crisis.
I think we learned a very valuable lesson during this recent mortgage and housing crisis, and if and when things do ease up, I think the housing finance industry will still be a viable industry to earn a good living in.
What does Presidents First Mortgage Bankers do for the mortgage broker? What do you offer the mortgage broker that the big banks cannot?
I think that part of not being one of the big boys, we offer great personal customer service, in addition to our great turn-times. We personally know these brokers who deal with us locally.
Especially at this stage in the mortgage market, with RESPA, regulatory changes and so forth, we work with brokers through the red tape and the challenges they are facing, along with other obstacles. We have the ability to make phone calls that are more personable than the big banks on working through these issues facing the brokers. Sometimes, the reps at the big banks are difficult to even get on the phone. Even if you do get them on the line, they are not going to necessarily have all the answers for you. That sort of personable service will continue to help us, and that personal attention that Presidents First gives to them shows that we have our finger on the pulse of the industry as far as turn-times are concerned to compete in this marketplace. We pride ourselves on our turn-times, and pride ourselves on our aggressive rates and quality product offerings.
A lot of the bigger banks have closed shop in their wholesale divisions. There is a significant amount of volume going to the big banks that are left, and they are facing a backlog based on all of this volume. Part of our corporate strategy is that we’ve already received approval for is becoming a Fannie Mae Seller/Servicer, something that we are looking forward to working with this year.
We are also actively trying to make the right types of loans in this challenging economy, and when the time is right, apply for our Ginnie Mae Seller/Servicing License as well. This way, we are not at the mercy of the big boys left who are buying the loans. We are holding our own and are optimistic that, in the next few months, we will be in a position to continue in this marketplace and continue to grow our company.
What can mortgage brokers do to get a leg up on the competition from the big banks?
Mortgage brokers, unfortunately, have to work within the confines of the guidelines of the HVCC. That is something on the conventional end we have been following very closely. I don’t think the brokers have suffered much from turn-time issues, they have been okay.
Brokers may use things like the SAFE Act [Secure and Fair Enforcement for Mortgage Licensing Act] and things like licensing requirements to their advantage when telling a borrower that, because of the SAFE Act and licensing requirements, they had to learn more about compliance and their business. This shows the borrower they are dealing with a more ethical and knowledgeable individual. The borrower can feel comfortable in dealing with a broker, as opposed to somebody who works for federally-chartered banks who may not have the answers to the questions a borrower may have. Reps in federally-chartered banks haven’t been asked to brush up on any SAFE Act or RESPA requirements because they are exempt from it.
In this industry, I have seen it all. I have been a broker and a banker, I’ve spent time on the retail side, and now, in wholesale, so I’ve experienced all the channels of loan origination. Some of the products that these investors came out with, looking back in retrospect as we were all in the midst of enjoying the financial rewards from these products, you have to think about who actually came up with these guidelines and just how did the industry let itself go? There were no governing factors involved that looked at these products to realize what the repercussions would be down the line. Whoever came up with these guidelines did not have the foresight to really think these things through clearly enough. That is why we have all of these federal regulations coming forth these days, so that something as catastrophic as the recent mortgage and housing crisis does not repeat itself.
Mortgage brokers are just an extension of the banks. It is ultimately the lender who has to do their due diligence and perform quality control checks on that file … brokers do not approve these loans. Whether it was an 80/20, 100 percent, stated-income deal for a W-2 employee as they felt a janitor could make $150,000 and approved that loan; it was the doing of the major lending institutions, not that of the broker. Things like that will likely never happen again in this marketplace.
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