Running Back Turned Entrepreneur

Usually we talk about unique life experiences almost as if they have a merit of their own. In fact only special people make experiences count wherever life takes them.

CEO of Urban Settlement Services, Pittsburgh, Charles Sanders says he feels "really blessed to have gathered a really great executive team" around himself before he notes he has worked "really hard" to make his business succeed. "Now my job is more to check on the numbers and make sure things are flowing smoothly."

As head of a small company he faces many challenges. At the top is that of placing business proposals and competing with some of the largest lenders in the country. In the agenda client expectations mingle with day-to-day operation reviews. Urban Settlement provides title, appraisal, closing product and home retention services for lenders and servicers. In 2008, the company processed approximately 600,000 loan workouts through offices in Pittsburgh, Charlotte and Denver. Mr. Sanders says revenue grew from $10 million two years ago to $50 million in 2008.

"The challenge is in that whole day-to-day process where you need to go in with your presentation and convince clients that even though we're small, we can do a better job for them. Convincing potential clients, that's what gets my juices flowing. I'm in that place where I want us to win," says the former San Diego Charger and running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986-87. "It's game day to me!"

Urban Settlement is changing along with the industry. Trying to win new business is always an exciting challenge, Mr. Sanders says, even when doubts come in. "Like with everything else, it can be fearful. But nobody's going to say: Here's your business. You have to have it built. You have to do your own research. It turned out well for us, but it was a real walk of fate. We made a lot of commitments to a lot of people as far as employment goes, and if it didn't go through ... but it did."

First thing he does when he wakes up in the morning is take the kids out of bed. "My three boys are my outmost priority."

In this electronic day and age, he says, by 8:00 am he has started to open his business e-mails.

"One thing about the mortgage industry right now is that it's so fluid, everything is changing daily. The past two days we have been dealing with audits from the Treasury Department since the government is involved in a lot of the loan modification work that we do for many large clients."

Managing client relations and making sure loss mitigation processes are in compliance with government requirements is a daily routine. The Obama administration has been pushing for more accountability from the banks and their data reporting, he says, which is important for his clients.

Another lifelong daily routine is exercise. "I'll get my exercise in. Try to run when I'm on the phone, or attach the computer to my bike."

How does the football field experience help him be a better manager?

Business management is a lot like football, he says. "You study your playbook kit, you expect the play to work, and the same as in a game the one thing you know for sure is that something is going to happen. Someone is going to miss the ball. So you actually prepare for that." Then there are days like the one when Treasury officers were conducting an audit in the Denver office. They requested short-notice access to one of the firm's largest lender client files operated by that office.

"Today I was making sure they have all the information they need about processing information, security, our diversity status, or the small-business reporting. So I was on calls about various issues concerning the company: How we're working with these large banks, the loan volume we're processing through HAMP and Fannie Mae, the implementation of the guidelines the government is looking for."

He says the government is interested in exploring how minority and small businesses are benefiting from the current federal and state level initiatives. "Sometimes the conversation is about something as simple as the basic principles of the company, or basic employee databases and information."

Mr. Sanders sees current market developments as a new frontier in loss mitigation. "The government was never involved before. It used to be a private, private sector. Now banks are accepting stimulus money. It means now they have to answer to the government."

Government requests for data reporting and the Home Affordable Modification Program has affected smaller size shops like Urban Settlement by "quadrupling the business," he says.

To him it's about being at the right place, at the right time.

If until two years ago the 10-year old company was building up its reputation in the mortgage origination side, since the focus moved on loss mitigation, past experience and business relationships provided a valuable support for the transition.

"We are again doing business with some of the same large banks we worked with 10 years ago. ... We're like a small boat working with this big battleship that cannot maneuver as quickly. We maneuver very fast but we also have to come up with a lot of firepower."

That firepower comes from carefully selected staff and their intellectual capital. The average employee has been with the company for six to seven years and they know the mortgage business very well.

"One of our advantages is that we went through that transition earlier before the government started all these programs. Now it is happening with the industry: They're going to go from the origination side to the loss mitigation side."

To adapt to new market demands and maximize the use of resources the company started an ongoing specialization of its call centers following his belief that loan modifications and loss mitigation should be an on-shore operation.