The Tide Rises all Ships

A talk with California MBA CEO Susan Milazzo about the importance of networking and cooperation among the mortgage industry

While busy coordinating the 47th annual Western Secondary Market Conference earlier this month in San Francisco, California MBA CEO Susan Milazzo had several other organizational plates spinning at once – the Mortgage Innovators Conference looming in mid-August; a commercial real estate finance conference; and the day-to-day concerns of promoting the industry’s interests in the state and nation.

Milazzo took time out from her busy schedule at the secondary conference to discuss with Mortgage Media’s Eric Souza what she sees as the status and future of the industry; how the state MBA works with its national counterpart; and what’s on tap for the upcoming innovators conference.

“All of our conferences are created and developed through committees of our membership. So, everything that we do is really a reflection of our membership, which we’re very proud of,” Milazzo said. 

Each year brings something new, she noted: This year’s secondary conference added a servicer panel, as many originators who come to the conference are looking to expand into servicing or sub-servicing. She also pointed proudly to the conference’s “really robust” CEO lender panel. Next year’s secondary conference relocates, after many years in San Francisco, to Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, CA (July 8-10, 2020).

The Mortgage Innovators Conference, taking place Aug. 11-13 at Sheraton San Diego, is a concept Milazzo says she’s been working on for about three years. The new conference is aimed at highlighting all innovators, with topics addressed ranging from Day 1 Certainty to blockchain, “and everything in between,” as the conference website states.

“Our goal, if you kind of step back from the California MBA’s perspective, is that we need to be a … valued resource for independent mortgage bankers in California and in other states — because we’re a big state and of course we draw from other states as well,” Milazzo said.

The conference is aimed at helping small and medium-sized companies get a broad picture of what technological innovations, processes and products are becoming available, to better analyze what might work within their particular company and sphere. The key questions, of course, are “What do they do? And how might that make my company more efficient or more productive?” 

“Big companies have sometimes multiple people on staff that can review a wide variety of technology solutions, but the small and mid-sized mortgage banks don’t necessarily have that,” Milazzo noted. She said CA MBA wanted to create a conference where attendees could experience 25 to 30 stage-level demonstrations and review a wide variety of tech solutions for every aspect of the lending cycle. 

Complementing the demonstrations will be tech talks and innovator insights from industry thought leaders including Bill Dallas from Finance of America, Avenu’s Dave Zitting, SimpleNexus’s Matt Hansen and representatives from AmeriHome, loanDepot, Quicken and more. 

But the conference is not all business: Milazzo touted a “Top Gun” themed party on the midway, complete with 80’s music and a Tom Cruise impersonator dressed as Maverick. What you won’t find, she promised – boring 90-minute panels with PowerPoint slides.

Stepping back from planning for this and other events, Milazzo took a look at the current terrain for independent mortgage bankers like her members.

Coming off 2018, she said, everyone was struggling with lower volumes and worried about how to handle staffing as a result. Most figured 2019 would be about the same and were bracing for it. The first quarter was pretty much the same, she said. But Q2 saw a nice pop, she added.

“Independent mortgage bankers are always having that balancing act between straddling … we want to be able to handle our volume and at the same time, I’ve got to manage my expenses. I have to manage my operational costs, so I can’t be paying people when I’m not bringing the volume in. But I have to be ready for the volume when it’s there,” Milazzo said.

At this point, lenders are seeing healthy productivity and production, she said, and are in a position to evaluate what technology they’re using and should be using from a profitability perspective. Adopting new tech doesn’t automatically equate to savings and efficiencies, but it can if it’s the right tech, with the right business model.

“Right now my members are doing well, but they’re cautiously optimistic about what the rest of this year and ’20 are going to bring,” Milazzo said.

The state MBA works closely with the national association as well as its counterparts in other states to share information that will have an effect on the industry as well as perspectives that may be of use and application elsewhere.

“We all work really closely together and we recognize that — and using or state as an example, we are a big state from an advocacy standpoint; we have a very active full-time legislature here, and we have very active lobbying presence in our state capitol,” she said.

They report what’s happening in California to the national MBA if it’s of interest and application on a larger scale, and the national MBA serves as a resource providing a broader base of information than may be available on a state level.

“They’re a great partner with us in that we’re still a smaller organization,” Milazzo said. “If, from a legislature perspective, I need, for example, specific data or information on what’s the cost to produce a loan, how’s that changed over the last 15 years or even five years for that matter, the national MBA has that information for me. And, so they’re very quick to be a good resource for us so that we can make sure that policymakers are educated on any particular issue.”

On a state and regional level, IMBs get together annually for a state and local MBA workshop, right before the National Advocacy Conference in D.C., which provides a great opportunity for networking and discussing challenges and what’s worked and hasn’t worked, Milazzo said.

“Anybody can have a great idea, and we’re all very willing to share those great ideas so that we can, you know, everybody can benefit. We always say … ‘the tide rises all ships.’ So, you’ve got to share that information when it’s important.”