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Soft Spoken, War Wearied
A weaker man could be an insufferable “tough guy,” maybe a boastful pugnacious braggart. But Rocket Pro TPO’s ambassador to brokers isn’t a weak man.
Growing up in war-torn Liberia, there were many days Mike Fawaz was forced to keep silent in his basemewnt. Above, soldiers and enemy fighters patrolled the war-torn streets in a civil war that lasted from 1989 to 1997.
Food was scarce. For some stretches of time, it would be little more than bite-size moldy doughnuts, called African Kala, made by his mother and aunt.
During lulls in the fighting, when he could emerge from the cellar for a limited time, he saw what no child should see: a neighborhood cluttered with mangled bodies and destroyed buildings. On occasion, people died right in front of him.
‘A Soft Dude’
Those impressionable experiences — learning what it took just to survive — could have justifiably turned Fawaz, now Rocket Pro TPO senior vice president, into a troubled soul.
“He saw multiple dead bodies in the street and lots of destruction — things you shouldn’t see growing up,” said Samir Dedhia, CEO of Holmdel, N.J.-based Lemon Brew Lending. “It made him tougher. You can become a hard ass as a result. He’s not. He’s a soft dude. Seeing all those things — plus homes being broken into by soldiers — made him compassionate.”
Fawaz joined Rocket in May 2011 as one of its mortgage bankers, and he’s been on a meteoric rise ever since, taking on his current position in September 2020, as the senior vice president for sales for Rocket Pro TPO, where he’s charged with leading the mortgage writing initiatives by independent brokers and loan officers.
In interviews with the many who surround Fawaz — Austin Niemiec, Chris Behrns and mortgage brokers — they all describe a man who treats everyone generously. And Behrns, Rocket Pro TPO divisional vice president, notes, Fawaz does it with empathy, adding its part and parcel of Rocket’s culture.
“Empathy should be first and competency should be second,” Behrns said. “You need to be competent at what you do but if you lead with empathy, you’re going to build that relationship and that rapport.”
As Dedhia sees it, the way Fawaz treats everyone harkens back to those impressionable days in Liberia, when life was fragile.
“I think part of it is his upbringing,” he said. “Mike truly values everyone he meets. He’s willing to listen when I disagree with him. And he’ll let me know his opinion, too. He does it all very respectfully.”
Fawaz isn’t riding herd over the country’s hundreds of independent mortgage brokers. His approach is more akin to that of a deft diplomat. He travels the country, meeting with many of them in their offices, making friends and delivering Rocket’s message to this audience that’s critical for the company’s success.
In the 17 months since United Wholesale Mortgage issued an edict that brokers couldn’t work with Rocket or Fairway if they wanted UWM to continue to fund their loans, Fawaz’s role has taken on an added importance. He’s often the first high-ranking Rocket executive that mortgage originators meet. He’s more than just another suit pitching business. To them, he’s the face and, some say, the soul of Rocket.
“I can tell you this. When someone told us to make a choice (about wholesalers last year) it was the easiest choice I could make,” said Christian Plocica, the chief operating officer of Orlando, Fla.-based VIP Mortgage Group. “The other wholesalers don’t have the people and the desire and the dreams to help people like Rocket does.”
“Empathy should be first and competency should be second. You need to be competent at what you do but if you lead with empathy, you’re going to build that relationship and that rapport.”
– Chris Behrns, divisional vice president, Rocket Pro TPO
And that had to do with Fawaz. What makes this man so special? What sort of competitive edge does he provide Rocket?
“He just makes you feel good, like you’re doing business with a good company,” said Raj Kandola, chief financial officer of Murrieta, Calif.-based Omni Fund. “He comes across completely sincere.”
This sincerity surely has its roots in his family life. He waited decades for his parents to follow him to America. Now that his mother and father are here, surviving the country’s second civil war that lasted from 1999 to 2003, he shares a roof with them in the home where he lives with his wife and two children.
“We had to fight tooth and nail to get their Green Card,” Fawaz said. “My mom came here three years ago, and my dad got here about a year or two before her.”
“I don’t want them to live in a house by themselves,” he said. “I want to give them the best life they can ever have. I owe it to them. They’ve been through hell.”
One way Fawaz provides that best life is by running an errand for his father every morning before going to work.
“Around 5 a.m., he goes to a nearby Lebanese bakery and buys his dad coffee and a pastry that he likes. He makes sure he’s eating before going to the office,” Dedhia said.
Not Just A Buzzword
Family, family, family. It’s a virtue — not an empty buzzword in this instance — that constantly comes through when talking with Fawaz or about him.
Observes his boss, Rocket Executive Vice President Austin Neimiec: “When you talk with Mike, he uses the word family all the time. He calls our partners (mortgage brokers) family, and he really views them as family.”
One partner, in particular, was quite vociferous about what Fawaz means to him.
“I never had a father. My mom was a single mom and she’s deceased. He (Fawaz) is always there and willing to listen and offer advice,” said VIP Mortgage’s Plocica. “He makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the room, even if there are 50 or 100 people in the room. He’s always saying, ‘You’re my brother. How can I help you?’”
Adds Lemon Brew Lending CEO Samir Dedhia: “We’re all family as he sees it. We’re all in it together. Regardless of whether you’re blood-related or not. We’re watching out for each other.”
It was extended family that brought Fawaz to the U.S. He landed in Detroit in March 1998 in the midst of a snowstorm. He was an 18-year-old with plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus.
What was it like to enter a country so different from the one he knew?
Hallmarks of his Liberian youth included showering in and brushing his teeth with salt water. The “shower” was a small bucket, pinned to a wall. “It wasn’t even a bathroom,” Fawaz said, while describing his home in the west African country. “Someone would fill the bucket with water from the [Atlantic Ocean] because we didn’t have running water. I didn’t even know how toothpaste tasted until I moved here.”
“The first time I actually knew what hot water was, like to take a bath or a shower, was in the United States. That’s the first time I knew that this even existed,” Fawaz said.
Other observations of his adopted country included how the buildings looked, how the streets were organized — and that the lights worked.
“It was just an experience, man,” said Fawaz. “And I knew, right then, that I fell so in love with it.”
It’s a country Fawaz frequently crisscrosses. As he sees it, the travel is worthwhile — better than a Zoom call. Just like he keeps his parents close, he keeps in close contact with his clients.
He lives an excruciating travel schedule. He’s on the road about 90% of the year, visiting mortgage originators. Between April 2021 and April 2022, by Rocket’s count, he met nearly 250 in their offices, and that doesn’t include the many he met at conferences, says Rocket spokesman John Perich.
As COVID-19 vaccinations became available, making it possible to travel again, Niemiec recalled, Fawaz came into his office and said, “I gotta get out there and see our partners,” adding it was Fawaz’s idea — not his — that he travels as much as he does today.
Life on the road with Fawaz is no vacation, says Behrns, who’s ridden shotgun with him during his many calls on brokers.
“We spend about an hour with each partner,” he said. “We usually don’t eat lunch. At the end of the day, we recap what happened. We’re game planning by 7:15 the following morning and after eating breakfast, we’re back on the road by 8 or 8:30 a.m. and our first meeting is usually by 9. We’re constantly working.”
Both Niemiec and Behrns says Fawaz keeps the same schedule on the road that he does in the office.
“He’s up at 3:30 a.m. running meetings from his hotel room in California,” Niemiec said. “If you travel with him, it’s nonstop. He loves it, by the way. He genuinely loves meeting, talking and breaking bread with partners. It’s not just a job to him. It’s really a passion of his.”
The inspiration for these hours came from his dad.
“He always said if you want to be successful, don’t let the sun beat you in the morning,” Fawaz said. “It’s always been with me.”
And it appears, all of the travel is having an impact.
“I’ve had countless partners (mortgage originators) reach out and say, hey, I’ve been reluctant to sign up with you over the years, or reluctant to leave the lender I’m working with, but, my goodness, after meeting Mike, he embodies your culture, who you are, and, my goodness, the passion he has is the reason I came over to your platform,” said Niemiec.
“A lot of them say the same things: He treated me like I was family. He was very vulnerable. He was genuine. And that’s who he is, and partners feel it,” he added.
Rocket, of course, is a sizable company with lots of talented executives but Fawaz had something unique, something that made him the perfect candidate for his current role.
“There are two reasons we chose Mike,” Neimiec said. “One is something you can’t coach, you can’t teach, and you can’t train – it’s heart. He has the biggest heart out of anyone I’ve ever worked with. There are a lot of ways you can define heart. It’s his genuine care level for brokers and team members. He genuinely wants everybody to succeed and takes it personally to make sure they do.
“You can also define heart as work ethic. There’s no one I’ve ever met that works as hard as Mike Fawaz,” he added.
“I never had a father. My mom was a single mom and she’s deceased. He is always there and willing to listen and offer advice.”
– Christian Plocica, chief operating officer, VIP Mortgage
Glad To See Him
What does Fawaz think about his job?
“2021 was a challenging year from just a COVID standpoint. It was hard to get in front of people. But I wanted to make sure I was on the road every single day, having conversations and really showing brokers who we are,” he said. “It’s a much better conversation when you can have it in person.”
“Look, there are lots of people who can have their opinions of who we (Rocket) are, but when you get in front of them, you at least get an opportunity to speak about who you are,” Fawaz said. “And I’ll tell you — not to brag — but the reception from the brokers has been incredible.”
And what message does he convey during those meetings?
“I talk about the ‘Isms’ (Rocket philosophies) that we believe, who we are, our mission from a Rocket Pro TPO channel and what we want to accomplish,” he said. “When I’m speaking with brokers, I’ll give them an hour of my time, even two hours, whatever they need, because I want to get to know them.”
This isn’t just the typical sales call — a conversation that’s all business, highlighted by the features and benefits of what Rocket offers mortgage brokers. There’s some intimacy, too.
“I want to talk about their business and family,” he said. “I bring my story and my family into every conversation. People know me on a personal level.”
In fact, Fawaz is so determined to know the broker community, he no longer carries business cards.
“I want to exchange phone numbers right away,” he said, describing the opening moments of those meetings with mortgage brokers. “I give them my cell number, and I want them to text me so I can save their number in my phone.”
“Sometimes,” he added, “my assistant thinks it’s crazy because I get a lot of texts and calls. But guess what? If you want to have an impact at a high level, you have to do these things.”
“Because Rocket is all about partnerships. It’s not about transactions. To us, a broker who does one loan or a broker who does a 1,000 are treated the same,” Fawaz said. “It’s about the service we can offer our brokers.
“It’s how can I work with brokers, knowing that every single one of their LOs have a family that’s dependent on them. It’s all about partnerships. It’s all about relationships. It’s all about how we grow together,” he added.
Lasting Influences From Liberia
Like any immigrant, Mike’s many experiences in his native land influence his habits in his adopted country.
“I hate Timbits,” he said during an interview with National Mortgage Professional, referencing the tiny, bite-size doughnuts sold at Tim Horton’s restaurants in the Detroit area.
His sour feelings for the pastry stem back to Liberia.
“We only had one bag of flour,” Fawaz said. “It was filled with mold, but my mom and aunt would sift through it with their hands to clean it up as much as they could. They would fry up these little balls of doughnuts. We call them African Kala. I ate those for 20 days straight during the war, and it was the only thing I ate.”
Life in Liberia during the first civil war that lasted from 1987 to 1999 also turned him off to tap water. “He’s big into bottled water,” said Rocket Pro TPO Divisional Vice President Chris Behrns. “He won’t drink tap water because of his experiences over there.”
His boss, Executive Vice President Austin Niemiec, sees another trait that’s a result of Fawaz being an immigrant.
“Gratitude. He’s one of the most gratefully unsatisfied people I’ve ever met. He has this perspective,” he said. “He has such a good perspective on how the world works and how blessed he is.
“He’s always grateful for the opportunity he has to work at Rocket, to talk to brokers and to lead people,” he added.