by Dwain Hebda
In the regulatory-heavy, Internet-laden, acquisition-happy world of mortgage lending, longevity is in short supply, particularly when it comes to small- to mid-sized institutions. A decade in business is an increasingly difficult threshold to reach and two decades often serves as little more than the fattening up for much bigger institutions’ consumption.
By this sobering law of the market, Bank of Little Rock Mortgage should have been devoured years ago. Rising from the ashes of another mortgage company in 1998 with a handful of people crammed into a West Little Rock office, the firm has successfully navigated 20 years of soaring times and market crashes, merger mania and regulation purgatory. More than that, it has emerged larger and stronger than ever with 18 offices in seven states, operating as Rock Mortgage outside of Arkansas.
As for how they did it, the company’s two top executives and original architects say it all comes back to the fundamentals.
“This may be unfair to characterize, but basically I look at the mortgage business and you have two competing philosophies,” says Scott McElmurry, president and CEO. “You have the relational philosophy which says I want to develop a relationship with my customers even though I may only do business with them once every five to seven years. And then there’s the transactional side which is basically I’m just looking at this as a transaction. I’m just trying to get as many transactions as I can.”
“Fairly or unfairly, my philosophy is from a relational standpoint. You’re doing what’s right for the customer at a fair price. I still want that relationship with a realtor developing relationships to get referrals for your business.”
Such a premise may sound old-fashioned, but it’s precisely the mooring the company needed during its early days in a then-freewheeling industry. Lee Maris, Senior Vice President and co-founder recalls the period as being wide open and rife with the kind of lending practices that ultimately shook the industry off its foundations “It was the Clinton years so the economy was pretty good,” he says. “If you could fog a mirror, you could get a loan at a lot of places.”
Bank of Little Rock Mortgage grew quickly during this time period on the reputation of being highly customer-focused and able to customize solutions to fit almost any need, balanced by sound business principles. Most of all, Maris says, the organization stuck to its roots as a Main Street institution with local accountability, something that still exists today.
“We’re a local bank. I think that has a lot to do with our longevity,” Maris says. “There was not really any Internet when we started and we didn’t really advertise, it was just kind of word of mouth. We worked hard and kept our heads to the grindstone.”
“Then as the Internet started to take off, there was Internet lending and other technology that came along. Over the years, we’ve been able to mix high-touch with high-tech to accommodate the client who wants to do everything electronically. We can certainly do that.”
“But there are still a lot of people who really don’t want to send all their tax returns to some dude in Minnesota or wherever. We’re great at serving that client, too, the ones who’d rather be able to come to my office and wring my neck if I screwed something up, you know?”
The company’s philosophy not only worked, it transferred to other communities when the time came for expansion. BOLR Mortgage opened additional Arkansas locations starting in 2004 and opened its first out-of-state branch in 2014. From the first expansion through all subsequent additions, the growth strategy was predicated less on markets as on talent.
“So how did we go from Arkansas to Missouri to Alabama to Utah to Florida? When we expand, it’s really about people,” McElmurry says. “We don’t look and say this particular market is where we want to be. We look at finding the right person that meets our cultural fit, has the same philosophies, all those kind of things that mirror each other.”
“When we do, I wouldn’t say it’s immaterial where they are, but it’s a secondary consideration, for sure. It just so happened that we were introduced to somebody in Missouri and over the course of time we found out that it was a good fit for both of us and decided to move forward. Same thing happened in Alabama. They had other contacts and those contacts led us to Utah and to Florida.”
Company leadership has no intention of slowing down as they enter their third decade in business, but say they aren’t bent on world domination, either. Moving into major metropolitan markets or switching to an all-online model doesn’t support BOLR Mortgage’s customer-first mentality, so such options aren’t viewed as viable strategies. But then, for 20 years and counting, they never have been.
“I tell you, probably the biggest thing is about 70 or 75 percent of our business is referrals from past customers,” Maris said. “We do have realtors who refer us business because they trust us, but past customers are probably our largest sources of new business. I’m most proud of that and our record of consistency.”
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