From spearheading the creation of an expansive proprietary reverse mortgage product suite to prioritizing the discussion of home equity as a part of a comprehensive retirement plan, Finance of America Reverse (FAR) President Kristen Sieffert has been visibly and demonstrably dedicated to the expansion of the reverse mortgage space for a very long time. The company, which was previously known as Urban Financial, has evolved into a lender that has dictated the pace of change in the space to a pronounced degree, due in no small part to its product development efforts.
From the evolution of the HomeSafe suite which has introduced additional proprietary reverse mortgage product variations to the rollout earlier this year of the hybrid forward/reverse mortgage product EquityAvail, Sieffert has been at the forefront of the reverse mortgage industry’s evolution. That change is not easy to make, however, largely because of a stringent regulatory environment and the mission to meet the needs of a protected class.
Sieffert discusses these challenges and triumphs in her interview here, and we are honored to have her as a member of 2021’s class of Changemakers.
RMD: If FAR is known for anything right now, it seems to be change in a progressive sense. The company really does seem to be trying to move the reverse mortgage industry forward. In the whole totality of your career, would you say that you have thrived on the idea of making change? Why or why not would that be the case?
Kristen Sieffert: Absolutely, I do thrive on making change, but definitely not just change for change’s sake. I think leading a company especially, I see it as my responsibility to anticipate, innovate and really drive the kind of progress that will keep us competitive in the long-term. I think it’s a real gift that I’m able to lead a company, because obviously in this role I have a lot more ability to be that force that pushes things forward at a quicker pace than I was able to do outside of this role.
But, we have to make sure we’re delivering the types of services and solutions that have the greatest potential to improve our clients’ financial outcomes, especially when things are consistently changing in business and in retirement planning. So, when I look at our business in the future, I say if our competition is going to be a big tech company rather than another reverse mortgage company, how can we be sure that we are foundationally prepared to thrive as a company, no matter what the landscape looks like around us?
So, I think specifically at FAR, we thrive on that spirit of innovation. I think it really helps guide how we approach our borrowers, our partners, and our team. I think we’ve demonstrated that innovation, and have embraced change through a lot of the initiatives that we’ve done even recently. Our marketing vision, and our really groundbreaking approach to putting borrowers as the central focus, as our ‘celebrities.’ And then obviously, our proprietary product suite with HomeSafe and EquityAvail, specifically designed to meet these future evolving needs of our customers.
And then in addition, [we’ve made] investments in technology to simplify the process. Overall, really take a different look at how we could engage with our own employees to create a bigger focus on their health and well-being so that we can go out and provide really amazing service to all the people that we interact with.
RMD: The reverse mortgage industry itself seems to change so much largely because of the HECM program primarily. Do you find that the pace of change that can often be dictated to you in the industry by entities like HUD and FHA makes the idea of introducing change yourself easier or harder?
KS: I think as an industry, we’ve been slower to create our own change, perhaps slower than other industries. But, I think that’s due exactly to what you mentioned, which is that we’ve had so many different regulations and program updates forced upon us year after year that it’s really hard to push parallel tracks of supporting those changes that we have no control over, that we must accommodate within the business, and then also having our own track of future-looking business change.
I think also operating within the niche and industry that we’re in has some drawbacks and limitations. Just specifically, as it relates to modern tech that’s made available to traditional mortgage companies, most times those tools just aren’t built to support what we do. Those things aside, we are definitely not in the business of waiting for things to happen to us at FAR. If we and by extension our industry want to build sustainable companies, we really believe we have to chart our own path, we have to push innovation forward.
I talk to my team all the time about looking 5-10 years out from today and trying to anticipate what the customer needs are going to be then, because we really have to start building the infrastructure to support those things today. So, when I look back at FAR and the success we’ve had, I think we’ve had tremendous success especially with our HomeSafe [proprietary reverse mortgage] suite. That’s because we built and launched that product well before the market was really ready for it, or knew that it was needed.
When we look at the volume trajectory tied to HomeSafe, it took almost three years before we had any real momentum with production in HomeSafe. But the moment that there were shifts in the HECM program and in the larger market – which we anticipated might happen – at some point, we already had a couple of years under our belt of market experience with a proprietary, product. We already had the operational machinery really dialed in. And so, we were able to support what ultimately was a massive shift in the industry, for our borrowers and for our partners, by having that product ready to go already.
RMD: Speaking of FAR’s proprietary product success with HomeSafe, when the company is constructing proprietary products, do you find that it’s beneficial from a market recognition perspective to mirror components of the HECM? Or, is that more of a secondary concern when FAR is just trying to facilitate a specific solution for a customer?
KS: That’s a good question. I think it’s tough to answer in the sense that HECM really was the product that all of the different state regulations were modeled after. So, in order to be assessed as a reverse mortgage for certain state regulatory purposes, you do have to maintain some of those core components relating to how the HECM operates. And so, when we’re building products, we look first and foremost at whether or not. Do we want this product to be considered a reverse mortgage so that we can benefit from some of the regulatory items that don’t apply to HECMs?
Or, like [our proprietary hybrid forward/reverse product] EquityAvail, do we think there’s an opportunity to break outside of the definition of reverse mortgages to provide a better benefit to borrowers? I think with the HomeSafe suite, we really leveraged a lot that the HECM program had built within its core. And then the things that don’t, really are the things that aren’t conducive to a really good borrower experience as it relates to HECM. Those are the things within the HomeSafe suite that we were really able to hone in on and improve the customer experience by improving those items.
Most of those things come to the servicing side. The servicing process for HECMs is really so rigid, and there is a lot of downside for servicers if we don’t comply directly with the rules as they’re written. On the proprietary side, we have a lot more flexibility to create paths for borrowers to have really good outcomes, even if it’s not to the letter of the guideline written.
RMD: It occurs to me that I don’t think I’ve ever really asked you what your career path was like before you made it to the leadership position at FAR. So, what was that path like that ultimately led you there? And were you aware of the reverse mortgage product concept in your prior experience?
KS: Well, I’ve basically grown up in this industry. I fell into it right out of college at a fairly entry-level role at Financial Freedom. It was supposed to be a summer stopgap while I figured out what I really wanted to do. I was debating going to law school, I had these big visions of what my future would look like. And then I started working at Financial Freedom in this very small industry. I had no idea what a reverse mortgage was.
But I remember my first job was working in lender support. And we – me and [now-AAG SVP of Wholesale] Kim Smith, actually, it was just she and I handling all of the wholesale accounts west of the Mississippi, to train them on reverse mortgages. And so, I learned a lot very fast because I had to educate other people. From there, I started to climb the ladder relatively quickly. I held many positions within this industry and then in 2012, I was hired to be COO at this company, which then was called Urban Financial.
I really had no idea where that part of my journey would take me beyond Tulsa, Oklahoma. I traveled to Tulsa every Monday through Thursday, for three years, for probably 40-45 weeks a year. This was before I had kids, so it was manageable. And then I remember being in the airport, 36 weeks pregnant with my first kid and thinking, “I don’t think I can go to Tulsa as much anymore.” But I loved the COO position, I really felt comfortable. I felt like I was utilizing all the skills that I had built over the years.
So when I was offered the opportunity to be president, my first reaction was a little bit of fear. I asked myself, “am I really cut out for this?” But as a young woman, I felt like it was something I absolutely had to do. There aren’t any female leaders of lenders, especially in our specific industry. So, that really carried a big responsibility. I wanted to show that somebody like me could create success for our company, because there hadn’t been somebody like me in a president role in our industry before.
I’m so grateful that I was given the opportunity, I have been having so much more fun in this role than I ever thought could be possible. It really has allowed me to focus on the things that I’m most passionate about, which at the end of the day, are people. Really figuring out how we can show up for our employees to build the best culture ever, and asking how we can make this place the last company they ever want to work for. Or, asking how we can inspire them to want to go out and do that thing that they’ve got burning in their soul that they’ve always wanted to do.
I love that, finding ways to create happiness at work so that when our team is interacting with our clients and our borrowers, they can spread that happiness out, and really create a beautiful ripple effect of kindness. So it’s been really fun, because we have an incredibly talented, committed, resilient, innovative team, all of whom care so much about doing the right thing. Helping find ways to make customers’ lives better, and to improve retirement outcomes through our reverse mortgage options. I wake up every day feeling so very fortunate to have this opportunity.
RMD: You mentioned that you feel a sense of responsibility because of your unique position. How does that affect your day-to-day, particularly over the last few years where you’ve solidified your place as both a leader in your company and as a leader in the industry?
KS: I never rest on anything. There’s a headline that FAR has been the number one reverse mortgage wholesaler for 10 years. Well, internally, we don’t talk about that very much. We will celebrate it, but we are always looking internally to see how we can be better. At the end of the day, there is so much room for opportunity to improve so many different parts of the process. And then again, when you look at the available market out there, we’ve not done our job yet.
There’s a lot of things that we could get excited about, that we could really kind of pat ourselves on the backs for, and we do take the time to celebrate those things, but we have a much bigger mission ahead of us. We really do believe that leveraging home equity during retirement needs to become a mainstream concept, so that more people in our country can really thrive during that timeframe.
That was one of the reasons I was so excited to partner with the Stanford Center on Longevity, because they take a much more holistic approach to the retirement conversation. It really allows us to think about the problem from many different angles, and figure out how, as a company, we can generate impact, that can have a positive effect for all of the customers that we do come in contact with.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this interview erroneously listed Sieffert’s former position at Urban Financial as CEO, when the correct position was COO. RMD regrets the error.