Susan Stewart on How to Thrive in the Industry

The MBA’s vice chair talks with Mortgage Media’s S.A. Ibrahim about changes in process, demographics, and representation in the industry — and notes that innovation must go hand in hand with experience.

“I would say for me I am really passionate about housing. I think I grew up that way — my parents owned homes, built homes and we were all engaged as a family. I understood what a big thing it was to own a home and so I have always felt that: One, it is wonderful to be able to own your home. Two, it’s a great way to build wealth for many, many people in this country.

“So for me it’s super easy to feel passionate about housing. It’s a wonderful thing. If you’ve never owned a home, the first time you own a home, I don’t think it ever changes. First time, second time, third time, it’s still a wonderful thing to own a home.”

So says Susan Stewart, CEO of SWBC Mortgage and vice chair of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, during a conversation with Mortgage Media’s S.A. Ibrahim at the MBA’s Independent Mortgage Bankers Conference last month in San Francisco.

Stewart and Ibrahim discussed, among other issues, the need for embracing innovation and technology while maintaining the personal touch with home-buyers. They also discussed the growing role of women in the mortgage industry and the changing demographics in the housing market as Hispanics account for a rising percentage of buyers.

“I think like most people I just got into the mortgage industry because somebody just hired me into it. — I knew nothing about it, did not know that they had a T in ‘mortgage,” Stewart recalled, noting she started at the bottom with no experience other than on the buyer’s end. “I started answering the phones and I processed and I underwrote and then I managed operations and then I went into loan productions.” And she loved it from the get-go — both the people part and the “story part” of creating a mortgage. (She tells people, “If you don’t love it, you’ll get out — it’s kind of hard.”) She has been at SWBC, based in San Antonio, for 29 years now.

“This is an industry which still provides that kind of opportunity,’ Ibrahim responded. “… And you’re an excellent role model to somebody who’s now starting out and that they could be in your shoes.”

Following are the key points of their conversation:

GSE reform: Stewart’s (and Ibrahim’s) main concern as policymakers talk about ideas for GSE reform is to make sure that what has been good and beneficial about them — what has worked — is continued. Stewart noted that independent mortgage bankers like her company found a real opportunity to participate at a higher level, delivering loans directly — “being sort of that old-fashioned community mortgage lender that you had a relationship with.”

“Let’s make sure that the lenders that have been good partners, that have been good counterparty risks, that have been good community lenders and are working with people at all levels in the home buying spectrum don’t lose the opportunity to have access to that kind of capital,” Stewart said.

As Ibrahim put it, “Let’s not tamper with the liquidity that is so critical to keeping a smooth running of the mortgage engine in good times and bad.”

Innovation, efficiency and technology: The industry needs to embrace the efficiencies that innovations borne largely of technology foster — but in such a way that companies can provide the same, or higher, quality product to consumers, Stewart noted — and at a lower cost. “You need to kinda get on the bandwagon and start looking at what’s next, and start positioning yourself and your company to be able to accept the challenges and make the changes,” she noted.

She drives home the point: It’s not an either-or; it’s not an Old Ways vs. New Ways dynamic in the industry — you need the traditional and the innovative to not just survive, but thrive. People want the ease and efficiency of an automated experience — but still want someone to talk to if only for comfort’s sake.

While companies have to be open-minded and amenable to change — and independent mortgage bankers have something of an advantage in the ability to be nimble, flexible and adaptable — “you don’t want to throw the experience out.” The home buying process is “really personal for people,” after all; most, or many, need the personal touch.

“And so having the experience and that old knowledge is really still comforting, if you will, to the consumer. But they also want the technology, want the tools and they want that as well,” Stewart said. “So we don’t see one overtaking the other one right away. Maybe in future generations — but from our perspective the experience and the knowledge and the management of that process for people is still so valuable to all consumers.  Even if you make it really easy, even if you don’t meet up ’til the closing table, even if you’re doing things long-distance. At the end of the day the combination of the two is the perfect world, right? People aren’t quite ready to make a huge purchase without some human interaction. They’re not there yet —  and thankfully they’re not.”

Demographics: Indications are that 40 percent or more of future home buyers will be Hispanic before long, and markets like San Antonio are already there, Ibrahim noted. What are charges that the industry needs to make in how it does business?

Ultimately — with any demographic — “we’ve gotta really find out what the customers want and meet those needs in a way that satisfies those requirements,” Stewart said. “And that may be through some technology, it may do some different loan products, it may be from different ways that you market and message what you’re doing. But you need to make what you’re offering accessible to everybody, and I think that is the big challenge.” The questions to ask yourselves: Are we offering what people need? Giving the right advice? “Are we dealing with things that are desired and pertinent to a specific group?”

And part of meeting the challenge of a growing Hispanic housing market is the need for a correspondingly growing Hispanic presence in the industry — for greater understanding of the market, and for greater comfort and identification on the homebuyers’ part. This needs to take place across the board in the company as well as in the pathways to senior management, Stewart said.

“I went to a great diversity inclusion meeting and a young man made such an impression on me,” Stewart said. “He was a Hispanic young man; he said, ‘I was at a good company, it was fine but it wasn’t like me and I really wanted to work at a company like me.”’I think our lending communities understand we need to be like our customers — and if we don’t look like our customers, we better find a way to start looking like our customers and be like them so they feel good about doing business with us. And that’s a big change in our industry, but we can get there.”

The growing role of women: Back in the day, Stewart noted, “we used to talk about, you’d come into the room and there might be three or four us in a corner.” It’s a much more open field for women now — and she credits the MBA with support and empowerment. But, she added, women who have benefited from support and empowerment need to pay it forward with mentorship — “you need to look back and pull up some people,” she said. “Maybe we haven’t been as conscious about that as we needed to be, and we need to be proactive.”

Women are the ones making the home-buying decisions, by and large — which in and of itself makes it important to have women in leadership positions, to have diversity at all levels. It’s a similar scenario as with the discussion of the Hispanic market. “Think about who your customers are at the end of the day,” she said.

“I was fortunate,” Stewart noted. “I was fortunate; I never felt like I was held back in my career — and if I did, I would make a change. Obviously, I haven’t changed in 29 years so I must have landed in the right spot for me.”