The Secret of Success in a Digital World

Quicken Loans Vice Chairman Bill Emerson talks about the business culture and technological focus that has helped the company thrive — and transform an American city along the way.

Quicken Loans has been the largest mortgage lender in the US for five quarters now, beginning in the final quarter of 2017. The company has been recognized by J.D. Power for nine years running as highest in customer satisfaction for primary mortgage organization, and for the last five consecutive years for customer satisfaction on the servicing end. Quicken Loans has proved wrong the naysayers who doubted the company’s online focus to loan origination was sustainable on a large scale. Among its clients, says Mortgage Media’s Dave Stevens, including users of the popular Rocket Mortgage component, “the rave reviews are outrageous.”

How did Quicken Loans get to this industry pinnacle?

“Success is somewhat driven by culture,” says Bill Emerson, vice chairman of Quicken Loans, who served as the company’s CEO for 15 years and recently took over as CEO of Bedrock, a Detroit-based commercial real estate company. A culture that keeps the needs and satisfaction of the consumer first and foremost, and that empowers staff to innovate and to execute — a culture in which their input is heard and heeded.

“I will tell you this right now, you can have great technology, you can have incredible marketing, you can have all of those things,” Emerson said. “But if you don’t have great people who are lit up every single day to come to work, that care about the organization, that feel like they’re a part of the organization — you will not be able to achieve greatness.”

Emerson recently spoke with Stevens — with whom he worked alongside back when he was the chairman of  the MBA —about the secret of Quicken Loans’ success.


The Quicken Loans story

Emerson was in on the early stages of the company, starting with what was then Rock Financial in 1993 as a mortgage banker. “We had 25 loan officers. Probably about 100 people in the company, and we were your typical feet-on-the-street loan officer-driven organization. And we were that way probably until about 1999,” said Emerson, noting it went public in 1998. In 1999 came the purchase by Intuit, maker of the Quicken software — Intuit had some 20 million customers at that point on the Quicken platform, serviced by 18 lenders, whom Emerson said were just not getting good service. They were looking for a solution, and they found it in Rock Financial.

“They found us, they bought us, we became Quicken Loans,” Emerson recalled. “We were with them for about two and a half years, and then lo and behold, about six months after Dan Gilbert decided he was going to step away and not be the CEO anymore, and he handed the reins off to me — which there are days, I’m sure, he regrets that. We bought the company back, and we became a private company.

“Then, from that point forward, we started building, truly building out the centralized model.”

Emerson, Gilbert and team spent hours — “and hours and hours and hours,” he recalled — building the technology and the processes that would propel Quicken Loans to the top of the market, “building systems and processes that would allow us to be able to communicate with consumers across the country without having to sit down with them face to face.”

There were naysayers, of course. “They couldn’t wait for us to go away because, you know, ‘hey, you guys aren’t going to be able to make it when rates go up.’ Or ‘you guys aren’t going to be able to do this business without sitting down with someone face to face.’”Emerson, Gilbert and company had a better grasp of the shifting consumer desires and expectations, as a generation has risen that is very comfortable — maybe most comfortable — doing business online. The millennial generation appreciates a streamlined, automated and easy-to-use approach to the mortgage process — most processes, for that matter.

Stevens likens Quicken Loans’ place in the mortgage industry to tech giants such as Amazon and Uber — both online-focused in establishing contact with customers.

Other lenders would say, “Well, that model isn’t going to work on scale,” he said — but he wasn’t buying it. “I’m on the other side of this. … I have four kids, and the only way they’ll talk to me is by text,” Stevens said. “It’s a different world.”


Creating a culture

Back when Emerson first walked into Rock Financial a quarter-century ago, he saw an energy and passion that he and his colleagues have striven to foster and build on ever since.

“I walked into this place, it was a small company, very entrepreneurial in nature, and it was something about it that just grabbed me,” Emerson said. “There was a competitive nature inside of our organization, and it made it okay for people to compete, for people to create ideas, for people to be curious, for people to kind of be passionate about how we could make things better. And you know, one of the things that we talk about from a cultural perspective a lot is, ‘it’s not about WHO is right, it’s about WHAT is right.”

In other words, a good idea is a good idea, no matter who came up with it. Sometimes organizations get caught up in the “who,” Emerson noted.

“If it’s about the ‘who,’ you’re not going to make really good decisions,” he said. “If you step back as a CEO or as a leader of an organization and realize that you don’t have all the answers, and that when you empower curious, creative people and give them an opportunity to think about how you do business, and give you solutions because they’re on the ground; they’re the people interacting with consumers every single day. … They have all the gold. They have all the information. Empower them to be able to bring that information first.”

Coupled with that staff empowerment is a corresponding sense of responsibility to the client. One of the company’s “ISMs” — 19 core, foundational values for all its workforce to live and breathe — is “Every client, every time; no exceptions, no excuses.” Emerson and Gilbert to this day spend 10 hours with new people in the organization reinforcing this and other “ISMs.”

And that particular ISM is as basic as making sure customers get their calls returned — which Stevens noted has been something of a problem industry-wide. When he was CEO, Emerson (as well as other leaders) would get copied on every communication that had anything to do with client service — positive and negative. And if a consumer complained about someone not returning their call, they would go to the person who was supposed to call back and investigate — sometimes the consumer was misinformed — and make sure the situation was resolved and that the customer-service responsibilities are clearly understood.

“So we have a conversation about that — educate people so that they understand what it means to take care of a consumer,” Emerson said. “At the end of the day, for us it boils down to two things: Love your people, love your clients. Create an environment where people can feel empowered, they can create, they can innovate, they can compete, they can feel good about what they’re doing, because this is where they spend the majority of their time.

“And when they do that, and you keep the consumer in mind, you keep the customer and the client in mind first — then you’ve got a tremendous symbiotic relationship that ultimately leads to more business for an organization. And you can do that and facilitate it through technology, with the option for a consumer to communicate with you via phone — and be able to build an exceptional business.”

There’s an emphasis on leadership development, with people who started on the ground floor and learned how to execute, who know the client experience and needs: “I mean, there’s so many organizations that the leadership is so far removed from what a client is really going through that they can’t properly prioritize what to work on because they’re just not close enough,” Emerson said.

And when ideas are executed, Emerson said, he’s not so much concerned about perfection from the get-go, of overthinking a project or process. They knew Rocket Mortgage wasn’t perfect when it was rolled out, he noted: “We knew there were a lot of things that were going to have to be worked on, but we knew as soon as we put it in front of consumers they would start telling us everything that needed to be improved and fixed, which allowed us to improve it faster than we ever would have if we had left it in the laboratory.”

They might not call them “isms,” but successful companies in any field tend to have similar core fundamentals that everyone in the organization lives, Emerson said.

“If you don’t create the culture that you want, one will create itself for you — and the one that creates itself for you is probably not going to be good.”


New motor for Motown

Along with continuing to grow the business, Quicken Loans — spearheaded by founder and chairman, Dan Gilbert — is a driving force in the resurgence of a great American city.

Gilbert moved the Quicken Loans headquarters to downtown Detroit in 2010, and founded real-estate firm Bedrock a year later. (Emerson is now Bedrock CEO, running the commercial real estate portfolio). The city was among the hardest hit regions by the Great Recession, with considerable vacant commercial real estate. Since moving downtown, Gilbert and his companies have infused billions into downtown, purchasing and rehabbing multiple properties, starting up new businesses, luring robust companies to downtown. Initially bringing a couple thousand team members with the move, Quicken Loans, Bedrock and related companies now employ more than 17,000 people in downtown Detroit. Gilbert’s family of companies is Detroit’s largest employer and taxpayer.

“Dan, with his vision of coming in and helping a great American city rebound, really was about finding opportunities to knit together retail opportunities and building opportunities up and down Woodward Avenue,” Emerson said. Acquiring the properties was fairly inexpensive, he said; fixing them up and rebooting was not. But it was important, he said — to do it right, in the historic nature, and create the density they wanted. It had to be done downtown.

And so it was. Emerson takes pride in the impact that Gilbert and Quicken Loans have had on the city.

“Today we have 17,000 people living, working and playing in the city of Detroit, and as a result of this real estate process that we went through in improving this, we made opportunities available for companies like LinkedIn, and companies like Twitter, and companies like Microsoft, and you know the list goes on, and on, and on. To be able to come to Detroit. To experience what’s happening here. To really be a part of a great American city — which in a lot of places, because it’s so developed, you really can’t come in and make a difference. When you come to Detroit, you can see tangible effects of your participation in this city.”

There’s a robust internship program for young people with more than 1,000 paid summer interns — largely to give them an opportunity to see what’s happening in Detroit, in the hopes that in their communities and schools they’ll spread the word that the city is an up and coming place to be.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done here, and we’re working hard at it every single day, but it’s a passion of ours,” Emerson said.


‘Run a good business’

What’s the landscape look like for mortgage banking, and how can companies poise themselves for success?

What’s key is to be attuned to what the consumer wants and to deliver it — and that is going to require investment in technology. It will require a willingness to embrace changes in framework, to not be hidebound to old ways. Emerson noted Quicken Loans was no fresh, young, upstart pop-up when it launched Rocket Mortgage; it had been around for three decades — but it was willing to embrace the changing climate, embrace the future.

Emerson’s advice is twofold. “First of all, whatever business model you have, run a good business. … Make sure that you’re paying attention to the capital that you have inside of your business and continue to grow and build that business. And if you do that, regardless of what happens from a market perspective, I think you’ll do pretty well.”

And second? Embrace and adopt technology — the industry has been slow to do that, he said.

“It is beyond the time for folks to be able to invest in technology, and to understand the consumer of the future, the millennial generation, which by right now is starting to come into first-time home buyer age.” (The average age of a first-time buyer is 32, he noted.)

“We see it every single day at Rocket Mortgage. The vast majority of people coming there are coming there to buy a home, and more than 50 percent of them are first-time home buyers. They want the ability to be able to see what’s happening with their situation, get answers to their situation. They don’t necessarily want to talk to somebody out of the gate. They just want to be able to get information.”

Think about what you’re offering the consumer through your website, through your online interactions, and how to cascade that into your operational processes. How to embrace the digital world, which is where we’re living now, where income and asset data are increasingly commodities

“I’m talking about investing in your company, in the technology of your company, for the future of your company — which really follows right along with advice number one, is run a good business. In order to be able to do that, you’ve got to invest,” he said.

What’s the role for the traditional loan officer?

There’s business to go around, Emerson noted — and there will still be some consumers who don’t necessarily want to go the full-digital route. This is, he said, an evolution, not a revolution.

“There’s going to be shifting and changing consumer sentiment, and how people want to interact,” he said. “There’s going to be a certain percentage of the population that wants to sit down and talk to somebody. I mean, I think that percentage of the population will get smaller and smaller with the advances of technology, but you know, I think the traditional mortgage banker — again, running a good business — will be able to survive and do well.”

Making sure to fulfill that niche is one thing, but burying your head in the sand, ignoring change and staying married to an old model — that is what can do you in.

“We can rail against the establishment, we can rail against anything that we want to, but when we actually dial in and see what consumers want, that really kind of answers the question of what you should be doing and how you look at it going forward,” he said.

Any company can transform, innovate, redefine who they are and redevelop their business model; it requires decisive and mindful leadership.

Just as in the old days, there are still naysayers — but that’s where another one of Quicken Loans’ “ISMs” comes into play: IGNORE THE NOISE. Like Henry Ford, Emerson noted, quoting the auto titan: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”

“Stay focused on what you do well,” Emerson advised. “Stay focused on what you believe is the next step for your business Don’t listen to others who tell you can’t do it, especially if you’re trying to do something new. … Change is a part of the process. If you’re not willing to change, then you’re going to stay status quo — and there’s no worse place to be than status quo.”