Remembering Steve Fraser

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The concept of an online auction-style platform for brokers to solicit lender bids for borrowers' mortgages may seem routine by contemporary standards. But when the Internet Mortgage Exchange was being developed nearly 20 years ago — a time well before the advent of e-signatures, and when e-commerce marketplaces like eBay and Amazon were still in their infancy — the idea was revolutionary.

Stephen Keith Fraser, the driving force behind IMX and the namesake of the Steve Fraser Visionary Mortgage Technology Award, passed away in July 1999; he was 36 years old. His death, after a brief illness, came just months before Fraser and his partners would be awarded a patent for the vision behind IMX.

Fraser's mother, Marilyn Fraser, still keeps a framed copy of that patent hanging on a wall of the Livermore, Calif., home where she and her late husband, Keith, raised three children: Julie, the oldest; Stephen, the only boy; and Jennifer, the youngest by about 15 months.

"We always marveled at his ideas," Marilyn Fraser said of her son. "I was in real estate for 20 years, but this mortgage thing that Stephen was doing was kind of beyond me at the time."

The Steve Fraser Visionary Award, which honors the accomplishments of an outstanding mortgage technology innovator, visionary or evangelizer, has been presented every year since the inaugural Mortgage Technology Awards in 2000. It's a fitting tribute to a man who enthusiastically embraced the Internet and championed the potential to infuse e-commerce in mortgage lending at a time when the industry largely eschewed such exotic concepts, said Matt Strickberger, the former editor of Mortgage Technology who was instrumental in dedicating the lifetime achievement award in Fraser's honor.

"I remember people standing up at conferences and saying, 'You don't need a loan origination system; use an Excel spreadsheet.' I don't think anyone would say that today," Strickberger said. "And as far as the Internet was concerned, lenders didn't want to commoditize the business — and they viewed the Internet as commoditizing the business and cutting their profits."

Even at an early age, Stephen Fraser was an entrepreneur, always coming up with new business ventures. One such endeavor involved Stephen and his friends reselling sodas from the nearby Livermore Beverage Co., charging children in the neighborhood a premium for the convenience of not having to walk over to the local bottling plant themselves.

"They were always trying to figure out how to make something better," said Stephen's younger sister, Jennifer Fraser. "What could they do to figure out how to make something better and how could they profit off of it?"

In another of Stephen's early start-ups, the 12-year-old that would later grow up and spend time working as a mortgage broker opened a lending business from his bedroom, hanging a sign on the door offering to loan his sisters and friends money.

"If you needed money, you could go see him. But it wasn't like he was just going to give you the money; you had to pay interest," said Jennifer. "And he even had a loan agreement all typed up."

The energy and zeal that fueled those early start-ups was influenced by Stephen's father, Keith, an attorney who served as a director on the boards of multiple banks throughout his career and nurtured and encouraged his son's business ideas.

But Stephen wasn't motivated solely by money, said his wife, Angela Carpino-Fraser. As a mortgage broker, Stephen worked tirelessly to help his clients buy homes, even when a borrower would be best served by a loan product that would pay him a lower commission.

"He had a passion for doing the right thing and being a good person," she said. "He always wanted to help people get the better deal or better price for something."

Stephen and Angela married a few years before IMX's founding in 1996. Those early years were a challenge for the newlyweds. While IMX was Stephen's vision, executing on it was a team effort. While Stephen focused on building up the company, Angela was the backbone, working as a mortgage processor to make ends meet while the couple lived in an apartment to save money.

"I was the breadwinner, trying to get pregnant, and backing up my husband so he could start his company," Angela said. "We were in the trenches."

Still, Angela believed in Stephen's vision, and more importantly, she believed in him.

"He had a mind that went further beyond what the world was doing. At the time, computers, and putting something like a bidding war on the Internet was far-fetched," she said. "But he just had a passion for it and his creative mind would go hours into the night."

"When he told people what he was doing, they told him it would never work. But look at where we are now," she added.

Stephen's enthusiasm for his work was equaled by his passion for his wife and family, which helped ease the burden of those early sacrifices.

"He always showed me that he appreciated what I did for him. I ran the house, worked full time in a pressure cooker job and he loved it," Angela said. "It was his appreciation and passion for me that always kept me going."

Unfortunately, the rewards for that hard work had only begun to materialize before Stephen's death. The couple's daughter was only 14 months old at the time of Stephen's passing, and the family had moved into a house just seven months earlier. Still, the award bearing his name seeks to honor his memory by recognizing mortgage professionals whose vision and personality reflect the qualities that made Stephen a pioneer.

Perhaps almost as important to the vision behind the IMX technology was Stephen's passion for evangelizing technology's potential in the mortgage industry.

"It was harder back then. You stood out more depending on your personality because all of the technology was new," said Strickberger. "Steve had to overcome a huge amount of resistance because people didn't know much about the Internet."

And Stephen wasn't known to shy away from controversy, especially when it came to dealing with the press.

"He would give you very direct, bottom-line answers. If he made a mistake, he wouldn't hedge it; he would admit it and explain why he did it," said Strickberger.

"The really cool thing about him was the tougher the question, the better," Strickberger added. "He never took it personally and he would then take that information and try to improve IMX with it, rather than getting mad and upset."

Likewise, it's not enough for a Steve Fraser Award winner to simply be successful. He or she must be a vocal industry advocate. "Steve was a charismatic guy with vision, he had opinions and he stated them," said Strickberger. Without that tradition, the award "would have no personality."

"Innovative people are by nature different from the rest of us, they think and act differently," he added. "I think the award does a good job of capturing that."

Over the years, the Steve Fraser Visionary Award has become the most prestigious of the MT Awards and a highly sought-after distinction.

"I always felt like it was a high honor that puts you in the company of some of the most well-known people in the industry," said Harry Gardner, an industry veteran and recipient of the Steve Fraser Award in 2012.

The recipient of the 2014 Steve Fraser Award is Jeff Knott, assistant vice president of Equifax Verification Services and vice chairman of the Electronic Signature and Records Association, who was instrumental in reforming Internal Revenue Service policy to allow the acceptance of electronic signatures on Form 4506-T, a taxpayer consent form required in virtually all mortgage lending.

That the Steve Fraser Award is one of the original award categories, and has remained throughout the history of the MT Awards, only adds to that significance, Gardner added.

"There have obviously been reasons to tweak the different categories over the years, but the fact that there is one award that recognizes an individual contributor in the industry makes it extra special," he said.

This story appeared in the latest edition of Mortgage Technology. Click here to read more.

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