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November 2005
Courting the Customer
By Heather Head

     Executives at LandAmerica made the decision to stir things up and go after increased market share aggressively across the country. In the Carolinas, they brought in John McDermitt to Charlotte to head up commercial operations. After recruiting and hiring L. Hunter Meacham Jr., a past president of the North Carolina Land Title Association, as North Carolina state manager, LandAmerica also brought on board John T. McLean, a well-respected local attorney, as their North Carolina state counsel. They quickly filled several additional key positions and began working on rebuilding team dynamic and developing a new culture for superior customer service. Together, this new leadership group implemented a structural reorganization, the addition of new services, and a revamped commitment to customer service to expand the company’s market share.

The company’s goal is to double their market share by 2008, and they are working tirelessly. They are building on what they identify as a “three-legged stool” for superior customer service: focused expertise, a single point of contact for multiple real estate transaction services, and the technological platform to facilitate outstanding communication both within the company and with clients. What it boils down to, he explains, is differentiating LandAmerica from the competition based on service.

Just as market share is an important indicator of growth and success in other industries, title insurance is no exception. Says McDermitt, “Fundamentally, we understand that we are in the service business. Insurance is a commodity, but if we can differentiate ourselves by delivering superior service, the result will be customer satisfaction and substantial growth.”

MccDermitt believes that because title insurance is a highly regulated area and the products essentially standardized among companies, superior service is the primary means for setting themselves apart from their competition. Across the nation, LandAmerica has posted a strong performance, steady revenues, and entrance into the Fortune 500.

Headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, the LandAmerica Financial Group, Inc. has been completing and protecting the nation’s real estate investments for over 125 years. Providing title insurance as well as a broad range of real estate transaction services, LandAmerica companies operate through more than 800 branch offices and a network of more than 10,000 active agents in the United States, Mexico, Europe, Canada, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. LandAmerica customers include mortgage lenders, real estate developers and brokers, attorneys, and homebuyers.

Armed with all these title insurance products and such a rich history of providing those products across the country and for several decades in North Carolina as Lawyers Title, LandAmerica recognized that North Carolina and the Charlotte metrolina area were particularly attractive as a growth markets. With a commitment to grow and build upon those products and that tradition, LandAmerica implemented a growth strategy determined to expand it customer base and expand its market presence. Superior customer service has become the focus for its entire staff.

Traditionally, title insurance companies offer two fairly standardized and overlapping products – title insurance for lenders and title insurance for owners/investors. Both products involve insuring that the title transferred in a real estate deal is free of liens and other encumbrances. Lenders generally require insurance sufficient to cover only that portion of the title in which they have invested – i.e. the amount of their loan. Investors and homeowners may choose to purchase additional title insurance to insure the remainder of the value of their property.

Title insurance products are regulated by the North Carolina Department of Insurance. Title insurance must be based on a title opinion produced by a licensed North Carolina attorney. This method of doing business creates a partnership between the title company and the certifying attorney in which each are constantly refining their operations in order to deliver superior service.

But even more significantly for LandAmerica’s bottom line is the regulation of insurance rates. North Carolina has the second lowest rates in the country, which translates into lean profit margins for LandAmerica offices in the state.

 

Focused Expertise

The first leg for LandAmerica is providing customers with focused expertise. Its reorganization has substantially improved its ability to provide that focused expertise. That expertise is now targeted into four channels: commercial real estate, residential real estate, and agency and lender services. Each channel can target focused expertise on the unique needs of each and every client within those channels.

All of the principals in the Charlotte office bring their respective expertise in these areas. McDermitt has been in the title insurance business since 1976, handling examination, agency operations, and management. Meacham has industry experience since 1979 and service as southeast regional counsel and branch manager for a national title insurance underwriter. And North Carolina native McLean has a diverse background on both the legal and title insurance sides of the real estate transaction and is integral to the future success of their operation.

One other important addition to the LandAmerica team was Carolyn McKinnis, formerly operations manager overseeing commercial and residential underwriters for the Charlotte office of another national title insurance underwriter. She serves as senior sales executive and brings 20 years’ experience in the industry. This combined wealth of expertise is now effectively channeled into focused service groups.

 

Single point of contact

For the second leg, LandAmerica has been seeking new services in support of their clients’ needs. While other title insurance companies have moved into insurance and legal services not related to the real estate industry, LandAmerica has been steadfast in its focus on the real estate industry and is providing additional real estate services in order to further the single point of contact for their clients.

In addition to providing the fundamental title insurance, the company added 1031 Exchange Services several years ago. Since then, they’ve added a slew of ancillary services including escrow, engineering and environmental assessment, construction disbursement, commercial valuation, commercial and telecommunications search, UCC 9 insurance, environmental reports, flood services, zoning certification, survey coordination, tax abatement, tax services, and international services.

All of these services assist customers in real estate transactions, and eliminate the need “to call five people in the Rolodex,” explains McDermitt. “They can call John McDermitt, Hunter Meacham, John McLean or Carolyn McKinnis, along with other commercial underwriters – who can link them directly with those individual services.”

As an example, an investor wanting to sell a gas station in Myrtle Beach and purchase one in Charlotte could use LandAmerica as a one-stop provider for most of the transactional services. First, they might seek LandAmerica to assist with their 1031 exchange, a tax break that would allow this investor to defer capital gains taxes on the sale of the property in Myrtle Beach provided a qualified intermediary – LandAmerica – was used to hold and then disburse the funds upon the purchase of a property of “like kind” – the Charlotte station.

Then LandAmerica could do an engineering inspection and report on the property in Charlotte to ensure that the building, equipment and fixtures are in working condition, and then give an estimate on their useful life and the cost of expected repairs. LandAmerica could also provide an environmental assessment to ensure the property has not experienced any adverse environmental events such as a gas spill that might cause liability problems for the purchaser.

LandAmerica could provide a commercial valuation to the lender to ensure that the property is being valued appropriately, and hold money in escrow during the transaction. The list of services the company can provide such a client continues right up to and includes the title insurance for which LandAmerica is best known. Traditionally, each of these services might require a separate vendor, but LandAmerica can provide them all.

 

Technological platform

The third leg of superior customer service for LandAmerica is the technological platform that allows them to provide unparalleled customer service. In today’s fast-paced closing climate, clients need to be able to get answers and service very quickly. “We return calls right away, we return e-mails right away, we all have Blackberries,” boasts McDermitt.

Adds McLean, “If I’m not available to take a phone call, they’ll call down the street to someone else who is available. The client doesn’t care where you are or what you’re doing, they don’t care that you’ll be back in five minutes. They need an answer right then and there because they’re at the closing table and they’ve got to get it resolved.”

To meet the need for quick and effective communication, the company has invested heavily in technology to enable clients’ immediate access to the expertise and resources of LandAmerica. For instance, research services such as discovering whether a property is in a floodplain are available through an automated system to all LandAmerica clients at the click of a mouse. They utilize Blackberry technology to ensure wireless access to all points of communication.

 

The price and the perks

The new emphasis on outstanding customer service comes at a price. McLean tells the story of his recent vacation hike in the mountains at Table Rock. He reached the top of the mountain just in time to receive an urgent email, which he answered in his hiking boots and gazing across the valley from his perch. “With the Blackberry,” he says, “I can be in the middle of the wilderness and still communicate with work.”

But the office’s new thrust and management style come with perks as well. McLean is pleased at the opportunity to perform as state counsel for the company, and the opportunities for growth stretch all the way down the ladder to support staff. For instance, when the person working the reception desk expressed an interest in underwriting, management made sure she had an opportunity to learn. When a position came open, she was ready to step in. Since then she has been retrained again into a position in bookkeeping.

McDermitt’s commitment to service extends beyond clients and employees into the greater Charlotte community as well.

He is a member of the Charlotte Rotary Club and Providence United Methodist Church. LandAmerica encourages employee involvement and contributions to United Way and Habitat for Humanity, and frequently supports charity events.

“We are encouraged by corporate to get involved in community service,” explains McDermitt. “But I would do it anyway, because it’s part of my personality.”

And doing what you enjoy is a big part of his commitment to LandAmerica. He finds the work personally fulfilling, being able to help investors and contribute to the economy by providing an essential service. And he encourages those around him to do what they enjoy. Married with two grown daughters, McDermitt is thoroughly enjoying Charlotte and the opportunities with LandAmerica.

Even when you may find McDermitt with his family, you will undoubtedly also find his Blackberry nearby. Winning back market share is a tireless endeavor, but the LandAmerica crew seems up to the task.

 

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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