Recruiting is the key to profitability, Highlands Residential Mortgage finds

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Amid tepid origination volume industrywide, Highlands Residential Mortgage managed to increase the dollar volume of home loans it produced in 2018.

The Dallas-based lender, which originates government loans and Fannie Mae products, originated an estimated $1.5 billion in mortgages during 2018, according to CEO Ken Hickman. That's up from $1.27 billion in 2017.

While the nonbank lender is largely focused on hiring effective production professionals, it considers its entire staff to be central to its ability to efficiently originate and close mortgages.

"We don't keep originators around that gum up the system," Hickman said. "If you do, we either coach you up, or coach you out."

Highlands' production gains stem from expanding into a new market and its experience contending with challenging economic cycles. It got started in 2010, when the industry was still in recovery from the Great Recession. Its ability to recruit and retain strong originators by providing an attractive workplace also plays into its ability to generate strong production numbers.

"If you have the culture, and you are attracting the right people, you can have a company that's efficient, and then you can be profitable," Hickman said.

The midsized retail mortgage firm considers an efficient closing key to attracting sales talent. Its goal is to return a response to borrowers about loan packages submitted to underwriting within 24 to 48 hours. That response may be a yes, no, or a "maybe" that comes with a request for more documentation, although it encourages the submission of full loan packages at the outset.

Highlands also recruits and retains originators by ensuring they have the secure technology they need to work effectively in the field, including access to digital mortgage point of sale automation and mobile devices such as tablets.

The company also stresses programs that show it cares about its employees and their lives outside the office, something 94% of workers at similarly sized employers on the Best Mortgage Companies to Work For rankings say their employers do. Among other things, the company chips in to help employees in need. Examples include a worker that needed help paying to repair a home that was damaged by a falling tree during a hurricane.

Highlands also finds providing flexibility to work outside the office helps with recruiting, but it's not a "carte blanche" policy, Hickman noted.

In addition, it lets employees use sick and vacation days interchangeably, something half of the companies its size on the Best Mortgage Companies to Work For rankings do. Highlands also encourages community service and makes donations in local and regional markets it does business in, as well as abroad.

"We wanted to be a company that gives back," Hickman said. "That helps make it a place that people want to work."

Events that make coming to work fun have also helped with recruiting and retention, he said. The company recent had an ugly Christmas sweater contest and has given its employee Apple products and tickets to local sporting events.

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