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April 2009
Strategic Balance
By Susanne Deitzel

     These days, few industries change as rapidly as those in the world of finance. In the current economy, it’s no secret that the rules of the finance game are continuously shifting to accommodate a new vision for the national and global economy.

     This volatility has seriously destabilized many real estate, banking and mortgage companies. Insecurity, anxiety and a sense of the-tail-wagging-the-dog are pervasive; tense coworkers, finger-pointing, resignations and terminations have become the norm.

     Considering this, it makes it all that much more surprising to walk through the doors of mortgage company Ameritrust Equity Services and watch the activity—phones are ringing, people are laughing, and somebody is getting an impromptu massage in a cubicle. One of the loan officers walks in the door exploding with a giant “Whoop!” and on an easel in the team room rests one of those giant-sized Ed McMahon checks with lots of zeros on it.

     Didn’t these people get the memo? We are supposed to be hunkering down here.

For the record, Ameritrust does not operate in a parallel universe. Its top-floor office in Ballantyne Corporate Park has several television screens that broadcast the same headlines and financial updates that you and I watch (although one of the screens is often tuned into ESPN). It is here that Ameritrust founder and CEO John Owens studiously tunes in to CNN coverage of TARP matters, and has carefully chosen an expert support team to stay abreast of breaking news in legislation, regulation and forecasts.

     He must be doing something right—Ameritrust remains one of the largest privately-owned mortgage companies in Charlotte. Revenues for his company are up 230 percent from 2007.

     And, Owens leaves at 2:00 p.m. every day to coach youth baseball and volunteer. As you can imagine, a lot of people want to know Owens’ secret.

 

The Entrepreneurial Experience

     Owens will be the first to tell you that it’s no secret—it’s hard-won experience.

See, this isn’t Owens’ first lap around a downturn. He had built a successful business selling retail mortgages to customers in the late ’90s, when he experienced his first business setback. Owens had to lay off 90 percent of his staff and go 12 months without a personal paycheck.

     During that time, Owens switched the Ameritrust business lines from retail to wholesale mortgages. The new formula launched the company into a new playing field. By 2007, Ameritrust was on the Inc. 500 list, had grown to 183 employees and was occupying two floors of prime office space in Ballantyne Corporate Park.

     Then the other shoe dropped—again. The lenders who partnered with companies like Ameritrust stopped offering the products that had been the meat and potatoes of the business. Like a bad dream, in March of 2007 Owens had to huddle his people and tell them Ameritrust was closed for business.

     “Hardest thing I have ever done,” says Owens. “I couldn’t even finish what I was trying to say.” Owens left the 4th floor in tears, and then did something important. He went home and watched his kids play.

     “I knew that what I chose to do at that point in my life was going to be an example for my kids. I asked myself what I would want for them if they were ever faced with a similar challenge. The choice became pretty easy after that,” he remembers.

     The choice was made, but the work was just beginning. Owens and his business partner and COO Tim Hilton spent months winding down the old business while constructing—again—a completely new business model.

     “By third quarter 2007, we had a plan in place,” says Hilton. “We invested money and concentrated our focus into the technology that would increase efficiency for our customers and expand our reach. We also started rebuilding our staff.”

     The chance to rebuild his team was bittersweet for Owens, as the new business model required a larger number of sales people, as opposed to the largely back-office staff of underwriters he had employed prior to the crash.

     Solemnly he says, “I still have people calling me up and saying, ‘When are we going to get the team back together?’”

 

Playbook in a Downturn

     Because of his rollercoaster ride, Owens knows a thing or two about managing change. Lots of friends and neighbors have been calling him up and asking for advice. When asked to share a few of the most common themes that arise in those conversations, he boils them down to a few basic suggestions.

 

Play 1: When faced with a crash—look at the facts. See what it is, assess it, accept it, let it go.

     Owens explains, “The letting-go part can be tricky. Each time I had to stay apart from my ego and what I wanted for the business that used to be. If I got stuck in what didn’t happen or what I should have done differently, it would become impossible to see the opportunity being created in the void. If I couldn’t let go of my ideas based in what was, then I couldn’t build something completely new.”

     People in-the-know say this vantage is one of the things that separates a young versus a seasoned entrepreneur.

     “John is the classic entrepreneur. He has a passion for ideas, a commitment to people and proven resilience,” comments Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber. “He is one of the people who has not only seen but demonstrated that new fortunes are created on the upside of seemingly negative events.”

 

•Play 2: Eliminate Distractions: FOCUS.

     Says Owens, “The hardest part about starting up again was getting outside the negative chatter: the thinking around ‘being a failure’ and ‘what other people might think.’ It seems like a small thing, but I have found that negative self-talk amounts to little more than mental drama and getting stuck. When this happens I call on my athletic mindset to get focused and push through until the next benchmark. Then I have more steam for the next step.”

     Owens’ leadership and culture development coach Mike Whitehead weighs in: “John has done the introspection that many leaders find uncomfortable and has taken a close look at himself and what drives him. He does not take no, he doesn’t quit, and he loves life. As a result he inspires and motivates everyone around him.”

 

Play 3: Innovate around your values and passion.

     Owens founded Ameritrust on a hallmark innovation: creating authentic, trusting relationships in what can be the intimidating and impersonal world of figures and paperwork. The distinguishing feature of his business was to create a company that can identify and address human needs with financial solutions. The result is a satisfying user experience that generates powerful word of mouth, glowing testimonials on the Ameritrust Web site, and high referral rates.

     “You can’t be successful with something you aren’t passionate about,” says Owens. “So all of the changes we make come back to our number one value: customer obsession.”

     When Ameritrust switched from a retail mortgage company to wholesale business model in 1998, the shift provided many new ways of looking at providing customer value. COO Tim Hilton says that Blue Ocean Strategy helped them find their sweet spot in the market. “Then and now we are moving ‘toward blue ocean’—away from the market frenzy and into a clear view of new market space.”

     When Ameritrust moved back into the retail mortgage market in 2007—this time it offered different products and new features. Ameritrust invested in Web-based technology to increase efficiency and access for customers and prospects. Owens and Hilton also leveraged the knowledge gained from their wholesale lenders to forge new practices and relationships. And they were methodical with planning and spending to create measured growth in the midst of these investments.

     In January of this year, Owens and Hilton began crafting a newly-systematized business process. Anticipating the tide of the Obama administration’s mortgage plans, these changes promise to improve Ameritrust’s hands-on service, lightning response time, and highly-efficient turnaround on closings.

     “These changes are designed to funnel the strengths of each team member to benefit the customer. Positions are more discrete and focused, which frees people up to do what they excel at and redistributes tasks they don’t do naturally,” Hilton says. “This speeds up the process, creates a more rhythmic closing cycle, consistent revenue flow, and decreases training time and expense.”

 

•Play 4When Building or Rebuilding: Culture is Number One.

     When Owens set out to create a mortgage company, he was determined to do it differently than other companies. But to build and rebuild his business required finding and developing others who shared his vision.

     Owens says an investment in culture development was core to his success, “Company culture and a set of core values drive every major decision. They are the litmus test for all of our decisions from hiring to operations.”

     The Ameritrust culture is based on a model Owens calls CHIPP—Customer Obsession, High Trust, Integrity, Passion and Personal Growth. Ameritrust institutionalizes these principles with each hire, each transaction and each process, and as a result has created an enthusiastic network of customers, real estate and lending partners.

     Owens is serious about modeling the CHIPP values in his personal life as well. He is intentional about taking time for his family, coaching youth baseball, and taking care of his employees who call him “Coach.”

     “I have played sports all my life, and am a big believer in teams. My experience, and the example of mentors like UNC Charlotte Athletic Director Judy Rose, is that the people need to know that they matter,” explains Owens. “It is important to me that each team member knows that they make a difference, that what is going on in their life is important to others, and that they are a vital part of the machinery that makes things work.”

 

Going the Distance

     As the U.S. enters uncharted economic territory, Ameritrust continues to lead with a versatile and measured gait. With new refinancing guidelines, loan modification plans, a different set of mortgage products, regulation and legislation, Owens’s team is busy staying on top of information to deliver the best and most current options for customers.

     Owens is also investing in new hires. In the past several months he has added 25 new employees including new CFO David Oshan.

     “There are big opportunities out there,” comments Oshan. “And Ameritrust’s strategic balance of competition, accountability and empathy makes us well-positioned to find them and create a strong future.”

     But the more things change, the more some things remain the same. Owens personal and corporate vision will always include people. He is talking with members of the legislature about FHA guidelines and innovations to create optimal solutions for all types of homeowners. He continues to share his knowledge and experience with entrepreneurs, executives and people who seek him out for counsel. And then, he hits the baseball field and inspires the next generation how to give it all they’ve got.

 

 

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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