Still In The Game

From LO to CEO, originating all the way

Still In The Game
Associate Editor

The world dazzles a little each time a retired home run hitter steps up to plate, a celebrity chef returns for a shift on the line, or a mortgage CEO gets out there and pounds the street. Seniority is earned, but when a leader, a delegator, a veteran shows their willingness to get their hands dirty again, it inspires others all around.

Most mortgage brokerage heads started their careers in the trenches, as they say. Once loan originators who put in the long hours, they followed every lead and built referral networks from the ground up, too. Here, some of the top names in lending reflect on being LOs and what it means to stay on top of this craft.

The Pulse

E Mortgage Capital Founder and CEO Joseph Shalaby is still an active LO, which he calls, “keeping my fingers on the pulse” and “staying in the weeds.”

Joe Shalaby
Joe Shalaby, CEO, E Mortgage

“I’ll always originate. I have to know what’s going on,” he explains. “I can’t just turn a blind eye to what an originator is facing. Like in 2022 and 2023, if I did not figure out what was working, my originators would have died. We would have been like a lot of the other mortgage companies and gone out of business. We dominated those years. We gained so much market share. We crushed it. We allowed so many of our loan officers to grow and grow big teams.”

Shalaby says he still originates between four to eight monthly loans but credits his own team with assisting in those transactions.

“I have a team that works with the clients on my behalf. So there’s not a lot of demand from me, other than the first phone call dealing with some of the fires. I’ve automated a lot of the process, workflows, and updates, and the clients still get an incredible experience.”

The husband and father of four says that staying in the game shows E Mortgage’s LOs that they have no excuse. Success is the only option.

“That’s the reason why we’re as innovative as we are as a company,” he says. “I’m figuring out marketing, lead generation; I’m figuring out automation, new technology strategies; I’m figuring out the best practices to help my originators win in any environment. What are the real life challenges they’re undergoing and how am I personally solving for them?”

Joe Shalaby, CEO, E Mortgage Capital

US Mortgage Corp. founder and CEO Steven Milner was a high school math teacher before he was ever an LO. After starting the company in 1994 and surviving the Great Recession of 2008 Milner became licensed in every state and still maintains those licenses to this day.

Steven Milner
Steven Milner, founder and CEO,
​​​​US Mortgage Corp.

“The state-specific exams required that I travel to a testing center in every state,” he says. “So from 2008 to 2010, I went from Hawaii to Alaska to California, all over the country … I still do my own continuing education, which is about 236 hours every year. I think it’s about 33 states. The other 18 are reciprocal.”

If US Mortgage risks losing a deal in Bismarck, North Dakota, Milner can take over.

Steven Milner, founder and CEO, US Mortgage Corp.

“I still originate 6-10 loans a month with my assistant, who’s been with me for 25 years,” he says. “When referrals come in, I’ll take some basic information, spend 15 minutes to half an hour, and then I will do a mutual introduction email to my assistant, and she will take over from there. It works very seamlessly. It keeps me in touch with our manufacturing process, our assembly line. And by continuing to originate, I’m very sensitive to the challenges and frustrations that loan officers are going through.”

Watch it on The Interest: Still Swinging

Giving Up His Production

Not every mortgage mogul has the same strategy and mindset as these.

NEXA Mortgage CEO Michael Kortas was once among the top 1% of LOs in the nation. He gave up originating due to potential conflicts with compensation, per attorney counsel. This was soon after starting NEXA with President and co-founder Mat Grella.

“My business partner continued to originate while I focused on the growth of the company, but shortly thereafter, he also stopped originating,” Kortas recalls.

Mike Kortas
Mike Kortas, CEO, NEXA Mortgage

The last loan he personally closed was around January 2019. “I’ll always miss putting deals together. There’s no doubt about that. It was a difficult day for us … but it made sense and was what we needed to do in order to grow a company from the size we were to the 2,400 loan officers that we are today.”

Nowadays, he supports NEXA LOs by doing legwork they don’t necessarily have the time or resources to do on a regular basis.

“I focus my time on providing our loan officers with more tools, more products, better rates through our investor and lender partners, more marketing, and just creating as many opportunities as I can for them.”

On any given day, one might run into Kortas at a conference of real estate agents or on a speaker panel at a networking event for finance professionals.

“The big part about originating loans was a lot of the networking,” he says. “The partnerships, the realtor connections. I still do those things heavily — I just do them for our loan officers now instead. I will travel around the country on my own dime and get a stack of business cards. I will work the room on their behalf and build those relationships … I still talk to consumers and take complaints. I still do all those things that a loan officer would do in order to get the business. It keeps my pencil sharp. I’m just never the actual loan officer on an application or on a closing.”

Mike Kortas, CEO, NEXA Mortgage

Going from LO to CEO is always possible, he tells his employees.

“You don’t even have to be a successful originator to get where I am today. You just have to have work ethic and be willing to grind harder than the guys next to you.”

Keeping Up

Milner is also privy to lunch and learns, happy hours, and educational seminars.

“Every month, there’s a new type of product that becomes available, and I love talking about it and sharing with loan officers how they can create referral business from those products,” he says.

Thuan Nguyen
Thuan Nguyen, CEO, The Loan

The Loan Factory CEO Thuan Nguyen estimates he does between 50 and 60 loans a month.

“My peak in 2021, I closed 10 times that, so my production has dropped,” Nguyen says. “I would love to continue to originate. It’s fun to interact with consumers. It’s fun to help people. And at the same time, I can keep my knowledge fresh.”

But he is very much attuned to the fact that being a company’s top LO is not how a CEO grows the business.

The Loan Factory’s business model pivoted this past year to focus on just that — growing its LO base. It has since gone from 50 LOs to more than 500, according to Nguyen.

“I would like to have 5,000 loan officers who can go out there and replace me and help a lot more clients, so I can make more impact and help more families,” he says. “It’s more meaningful for me to do that than originating. The only reason I originate right now is to help the company. We are still losing money, and originating helps reduce the stress and reduce the loss that the company has right now.”

NEXA has a large support team of LOs who take over loan transactions when one of their cross-country counterparts leaves the company or gets shut out of a deal. Or when a product proves difficult and they need guidance. Kortas calls bluff on CEOs who claim to have closed copious amounts of loans themselves.

“A lot of the broker-owners out there ‘originating’ — they’re not originating. They’re doing it for notoriety because they want the fame and fortune of having production in their name,” he says, clarifying that this doesn’t include small ventures with 50 or fewer employees.

“Some of these companies are dependent on the owners to continue to produce because they’re not going to make enough money to survive otherwise. And those owners have to take haircuts on their transactions. We’re not in that position,” Kortas says. “When you start getting over three or four hundred employees, if you’re still the highest producer of that company, either you’re not hiring the right people or you’re just putting loans in your name, taking that pride of ownership away from the people who actually did the loan.”

Originating all the way

Maybe Someday

Kortas still maintains his NMLS license in his home state of Arizona, just in case a family member or friend asks him to quote a rate. Is there an instance when he might actually go back to the grind?

“If things go really wrong at NEXA — sure,” Kortas says. “I made substantial income doing it so I could always fall back on it. But for me to stop supporting my loan officers and to start taking that business for myself again — something drastic would have had to have happened. I don’t know what could go wrong though. I mean, we’re compliant and profitable still and we’re liquid. We have no debt. So, no — I don’t see it happening.”

Shalaby can’t imagine he will ever hang up his LO hat.

“The head warrior should know how to fight and be the best fighter. And that’s how I look at my position,” he says. “Like I’m still the best originator here.”

Does Milner ever think about giving up the game? “No,” he says. “I truthfully believe that it keeps me in touch with the challenges and frustrations that loan officers have.”

Nguyen struggles with the daily demands of running a company while still being an active LO, but mostly with the fact that he’ll have to pass on the latter role eventually.

“I do believe that I will stop. I cannot keep going,” he says, as if trying to convince himself. “I have to choose between growing the company or originating. I cannot do both.”

Surrendering those precious connections with potential borrowers in favor of growing The Loan Factory is the hardest thing for Nguyen, who calls it “growing pains.”

“I have a lot of customers that love to work with me, and whenever they need mortgage advice, they reach out to me. Or if their family members or friends need help, the first person they think of is me. A lot of people out there need help and I love to help them.”

This article was originally published in the NMP Magazine April 2024 issue.
About the author
Associate Editor
Erica Drzewiecki is an associate editor at NMP.
Published on
Mar 28, 2024
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