Dual priorities: Care for customers, one another

Welcome to “the clown car,” said a co-host of the meeting in a conference room crammed with three-dozen colleagues, about double the fire marshal capacity.

For the next hour, the ever-expanding sales staff at Supreme Lending (Southern Region), a residential mortgage banker based in Alpharetta, received guidance on nailing down loans for borrowers whose lives have rebounded from a tumultuous “economic event” — foreclosure or bankruptcy, for example, caused by extenuating circumstances — that might otherwise disqualify them.

On one level, the session simply was intended to drum up more business. At the same time, it captured Supreme’s stated essence: aim neck-craning high for customer satisfaction. Employees get a charge out of putting people who carry financial boulders that might impede them, into homes.

Other sales gatherings at Supreme often begin with an inspirational story, such as the woman who became the first homebuyer on her extensive family tree.

A core belief of CEO Pat Flood, whose company was named the AJC Top Workplace in the small division (150 or fewer workers), is that an appreciation for customers goes hand-in-hand with job contentment. Employees who care about their clients, goes the theory, also tend to care about each other.

So Supreme conducts customer surveys after each closing and discloses the aggregated results office-wide. (Last year, the “highly satisfied” box was checked 86 percent of the time. Even with that impressive figure, Flood is not fully, well, satisfied. A project underway is examining ways to hike the rate.)

“If people who work for you are happy,” he said, “they are going to extend that happiness to their customer.”

Recent hire Wes Murphy, a senior loan officer, initially was skeptical about the firm’s rosy reputation. He had found the processing of loans at his two previous employers “robotic” and sought a change.

“The mortgage business had become so sterile,” Murphy said. “I wanted to help put some of the humanity back.”

Supreme, loath to postpone a closing date for any reason, keeps the wheels turning for loan approval, he discovered. Even when the wheels on metro Atlanta’s roadways are not turning.

When the January snowstorm paralyzed the region, three employees stayed overnight at headquarters while others were issued laptops to haul home. There were deadlines to meet for closings the next day. And neither rain nor sleet nor …

“They are totally invested here in the customer experience,” Murphy said.

To closer/funder Eric Dahle, “customers are like guests in our home.” He, like others, said the surveys do not pile extra pressure on them to perform well.

“We own up to our mistakes,” he said. “We apologize (to customers) and we do what we can to make it go smoothly from then on.”

Soliciting feedback is uncommon in the industry, according to Flood, especially among the super-sized banks that grant loans. (He should know, having once operated HomeBanc.) “In some cases,” he said, “I’m not sure that they want to know the results of those surveys.”

As employees report for duty, they pass by a framed poster in the lobby. The message on it begins, “Serving others before self… . Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

The message applies not only to customers but to teammates, as indicated by an emergency fund. Employees chip in as little as a dollar periodically, then those who have suffered their own “economic event” can tap into the kitty for aid. Flood recently sent $2,000 to a just-divorced man who supports two teens.

The boss has researched workplace dynamics dating back nearly to his graduation from college. Citing a statistic that heart attacks occur most often on Monday mornings, he attributes the timing to employees returning from the weekend to a dreaded job.

“People are desperate … to be appreciated,” he said, observing that the typical relationship with management nowadays is distant and cold. “I don’t think people want that.”

Flood, who relies on sports analogies, said he aspires to recreate the locker-room chemistry of a winning team.

Fittingly, a young loan officer who gave up baseball after reaching the high minor leagues could serve as Exhibit A to illustrate Supreme’s philosophy.

Cale Iorg injured his neck while tumbling off a roof — darn those clogged gutters! — soon before he was set to shift from salaried compensation to commissions. Iorg said Flood recognized that the transition during recovery might set up the newcomer for failure, so he was kept on salary in violation of the schedule.

Flood acknowledged that some employees might regard such arbitrary decisions by management as favoritism. No matter. “I just default back to what’s the right thing,” he said.

“I’ve always thought this way: These are all somebody’s kids. What kind of an environment would I want my kids to work in?”

At 26, Dahle is a relative child at Supreme, and he appreciates not being baby-sat upon joining the company until he amassed experience.

“I love every day coming in,” he said. “I have fun, even if something goes wrong.”

Much is going right. A year ago, when the housing market was flat, business at Supreme enjoyed a 75 percent bump. Staff turnover was under five percent, noted Flood, substantially below the industry norm.

Miguel Hawkins, a senior loan officer who came aboard late last year, already has concluded that he needn’t fret over others not pulling their weight.

At prior stops, he said, “I had to be concerned about the other players because it affected me. Here, we don’t do things halfway.”

It is no coincidence, he added, that “Unlike some places, the customer is the No. 1 priority.”

Gearing up for an anticipated bullish housing market, the company projects enlarging the payroll by 15 to 20 percent this year.

Shortly after the sales staff meeting adjourned, the conference room was converted into a buffet area for what was billed as a mid-afternoon fiesta. It was meet-and-greet time for fresh hires, who milled with old hands, all munching on Mexican fare.

Any heart attack on this day could be traced only to an overdose of cholesterol.