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Laura Lawson holds the title of chief people officer at United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM). Admittedly, it is not the type of title that one would find in most mortgage companies. But Laura Lawson is not the type of person you find in most mortgage companies—nor, for that matter, is UWM your run-of-the-mill mortgage company.
National Mortgage Professional Magazine traveled to UWM’s headquarters in Troy, Mich. to learn more about this fascinating individual and her distinctive company.
Where did your career begin?
I am a graduate of Michigan State University, with a major in advertising. After graduation, I thought that I would do what a lot of professionals do in the metro-Detroit area—work with one of the big three auto companies. I tried it, working for Chrysler in marketing and advertising, but I had a bigger dream and vision for myself. I loved entertainment, television and the music industry, and I had a sister living out in Los Angeles. So, I thought “Well, why not? Now’s the time!”
I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue my dream, and I got connected with an executive producer that had an overall producing deal with Fox Television Studios. After working there for nearly three years, I moved with this producer over to Warner Brothers, which was looking to start some talk shows.
Warner Brothers was launching a talk show with Sharon Osbourne and another show with Ellen DeGeneres. Neither one had ever done a talk show—Sharon was really in the spotlight with The Osbournes reality show, while Ellen was just kind of starting to reclaim her fame. We made the wise choice of structuring a deal where we had the option to choose which of those shows to work on—and went towards Ellen DeGeneres. I was the first staff member that joined The Ellen DeGeneres Show, along with an executive producer, and we hand-picked and grew the staff for Ellen’s show.
What year was that approximately?
It was 2003. At first, there were the test shows, and then from the test shows, of course, it was green-light. The nature of The Ellen DeGeneres Show was to make people feel good and to appreciate people. I could always be proud to tell my mom to watch the show.
But after five years into the show, my mom was battling cancer back in Michigan. We could never take a break from the show, so I was just waiting for that summer hiatus, so I could come home and be with her. And once I finally got home, 12 days later, she passed away, and that changed my life forever. I realized at that point: I’m single, I don’t have a family. I am “Ms. Midwest Values,” it’s time to be with my family. So, I left all of it. I left this job where I was able to work with all of these idols on the big screen, attend all of the cool parties, and enjoy all of the cool incentives. I came back home to Michigan. But I came back and didn’t worry about what I was going to do next.
After I moved home, I talked to all the TV stations about news reporting. But I could not do the news … it just wasn’t me.
By chance, I met up with someone who was telling me about this great company called United Wholesale Mortgage and its CEO, who was looking to build a dream team. When I met with Mat Ishbia, I thought, “Okay, it sounds a little crazy to come from Hollywood to go into wholesale lending.” And it wasn’t the Google-esque office that it is today, but you could just tell there was this energy and excitement about it, and I took a gamble on it and I believed in Mat’s vision.
What year was this?
It was around 2011.
What was the title that you were originally hired for? Do you remember the position?
I came onboard as a marketing supervisor to build the marketing team. In reality, it was Marketing and anything else related to sales, growth and company culture. We were small and mighty … and made things happen. To be honest, for me I’ve never been about a title in an organizational chart. It’s about the impact that you make; not the titles that you carry.
After experiencing all of that, the excitement of Hollywood, what specific things that Mat said about this position intrigued you enough to step into a field that you had no knowledge of, yet you felt you had the ability to step in and take over?
He was uncertain of the impact that marketing could have on UWM. Mat started here working through every level of the company, but had never really experienced the magic of marketing. So it was the opportunity of him saying, “Well, show me what you’ve got. You’re going to take a gamble on me, I’m going to take a gamble on you.” He gave me that dose of “prove yourself” that was like “Game on … let’s do this thing and win together.” Mat and I share a competitive nature. My sports background is in soccer; his is in basketball.
I loved the challenge.. And it’s been exciting here ever since. That’s why I love being here at UWM every day. I park my car every morning and practically run in here because I cannot wait to get started. I cannot wait to see what I can achieve each day, but I know that I’m never going to end the day finishing my to-do list. We are constantly innovating and coming up with new ideas that aren’t just amazing for UWM … they’re amazing for the whole industry! This is what keeps me driven, this is what keeps me excited; it’s that same spirit of my first ever interaction with Mat until today: The constant challenge of how can we do more and get better every day.
Mat infuses a tremendous amount of passion into the corporate culture of UWM. As chief people officer, which is a unique title, you’re the one responsible for delivering a lot of that passion and fun within the workspace. What do you feel makes United Wholesale stand out from the competition?
One of UWM’s key corporate pillars states “our people are our greatest asset.” We know that our secret sauce is our people and that cannot be replicated. It’s something magical we have, and it is part of our model of bringing in and retaining the best of the best in the industry. I feel like it’s rare to go into a company in the mortgage or financial service industry and experience the energy and family feel that we have here.
How important a role do you feel the mortgage broker plays in the current residential finance sector? What do you feel lies ahead for the future of mortgage brokers, and how do you think UWM is going to be able to support the growth of that sector?
Mortgage brokers play a huge role in creating a bright future in this space. We are very focused at UWM on how we can champion their success—letting consumers know that brokers are the best choice when it comes to purchasing or refinancing a home. We especially love bringing brokers to visit our headquarters—so they can see firsthand all the resources we have put in place to ensure their success—from technology to marketing tools to training and all the speed of service measures we have created. Our hope is that our broker clients see how we do it and can take the tools, coaching and learning from our techniques back to their own respective offices. The same things that work for us here at UWM can work for our brokers, as well. If our clients are successful, then we’ll be successful.
What would you regard as your major accomplishments at UWM since you joined the company five years ago?
My biggest impact here is proposing new ideas and executing on them. I think a company dies without great minds, brilliant minds and innovators. It’s just pushing the limit on what we can do, it’s taking care of people, and it’s believing that anything is possible.
I want to make sure that when our team members come in every day that they are energized to come to work and excited about what’s ahead. Everyone has had that job where you dread leaving home, you dread the drive, you dread coming to work. Here at UWM, everyone makes an impact and I want everyone to be excited to come into work each day. It gets to be 6:00 p.m. and it almost stinks that you have to leave. We have so much fun, and we always have more great work to do.
Where do you hope UWM is five years from now?
My hope is that UWM continues to gain market share as the number one wholesale lender in the country and are known beyond the mortgage industry for always putting our people first. I’d love for UWM to be nationally recognized as the premier champion of mortgage brokers—the company that put all its effort into helping brokers grow their business, and ultimately, the company that helped brokers make a successful comeback.
When you leave here at the end of the day and you leave your co-workers behind, how do you spend your leisure time?
It’s all about my kids. I have two little boys, a one-year-old and a three-year-old. What I do here in giving it my all and the passion to work, I do that for them as well. That is what my life is all about now. It used to be about celebrities and living the crazy Hollywood life and all of that excitement … my children are my excitement now!
Phil Hall is managing editor of National Mortgage Professional Magazine. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 print edition of National Mortgage Professional Magazine.