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How the Pandemic Prepared Fairway for the Future of Reverse Mortgages

Similarly to other companies across the reverse mortgage industry, the reverse division of Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation has seen a noticeable rise in its volume since the onset of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. That’s far from the only difference noted in the business during this unique time by Harlan Accola, Fairway’s national reverse mortgage director based in Marshfield, Wis.

As the business aims to adapt to a new normal that contains both heightened interest in the reverse mortgage product category and new constraints on how loan officers can connect with borrowers, Fairway is in a unique position to adapt due to its reliance on person-to-person communication. Since it operates only on the retail level, the pandemic has created obstacles to the previous way of doing business, but those obstacles have also given way to the rise of commensurate opportunities.

2020: a reverse mortgage turning point

Prior to the onset of the pandemic’s major impact in the U.S. in March, Accola used to travel for business up to 300 days of the year to connect with both clients and referral partners, he tells RMD. While the pandemic has brought about a series of objectively awful circumstances for the country, finding a new path towards greater efficiency has been at least an ancillary benefit, he says.

Harlan Accola

“Being able to talk to clients and referral partners anywhere in the country on demand by sending a little link, and having them pop on with a beep and seeing their face [makes a big difference],” Accola tells RMD. “My assistant Linda Ewer — who has been in charge of my schedule for many years — told me that it used to be tough to try to schedule [meetings for me] across five states in a week. Now, I can get to five states [virtually] in a day thanks to her hard work.”

Those changes also extend to Fairway’s corps of loan officers, and the fact that so many industries have adapted to virtual communication so quickly and out of necessity will likely leave the state of business — including the reverse mortgage industry — irrevocably changed.

“All of our loan officers are definitely doing a lot of Zoom stuff,” Accola says, referring to the virtual meeting platform which has exploded in popularity since the onset of the pandemic. “Being able to meet virtually and quickly, I think, is going to change every industry forever. I haven’t traveled since March 8, I think it is. So, I think that being able to meet with referral partners and clients virtually is a game changer forever. Everybody’s going to look back and say that after 2020, that’s when we started to [do business] differently.”

Early on as remote work and digital meetings were starting to become more frequent in response to stay-at-home orders and social distance practices, Accola was concerned about what these things would do to the reverse mortgage business, he says. When the actual results indicated otherwise, his perspective quickly changed.

“I thought [this would be] a disaster,” he says. “I thought our sales were going to plunge. [I thought that if] I can’t go out there and help our loan officers, I can’t do training and that things would just crash. And then, I realized one day: I just had 300 people on a webinar. I haven’t met 300 people in a conference room recently. So, I’m personally amazed at how quickly that evolved and everybody adapted to that.”

The effectiveness of new communication

A transition from the norm of face-to-face meetings and in-person events is still not entirely replicable in a digital environment, Accola says, but the overall loss in effectiveness is far, far lower than he expected it to be, he shares.

“I’ve done over 1,000 loans at the kitchen table when I was an originator,” Accola says. “So, I do think something is lost [when moving away from face-to-face meetings]. But, does it lose so much that you can’t connect? I don’t think so.”

Some of the training sessions Accola leads for Fairway’s loan officer corps have recently transitioned to digital-only affairs, he says. These sessions require attendees to have their cameras on throughout the presentation so that a semblance of eye contact can be maintained, and he wants the loan officers to also be able to see the faces and body language of those making the presentation. In terms of the loss of overall effectiveness, that has been very minimal in his estimation, he explains.

“[After doing more digital presentations] I thought we’d probably lose 80% to 90% of the effectiveness of those sessions,” Accola says. “I think we’ve only really lost 10% or 20%.”

On top of the generally high level of effectiveness retained by the Fairway team, Accola continues to be impressed by the resilience and creativity of the company’s loan officers, he says.

“The loan officers are the ones that are really doing the hard work and talking through the screen door, or the picture window, and dropping off application packages at the front door of clients’ homes,” Accola says. “The loan officers and support people working at Fairway are the true heroes of keeping things rolling and changing all their day-to-day routines dramatically.”

This not only keeps loan production stable, but it helps more seniors to find the solutions they need during this unique time, Accola explains.

“It’s simply amazing, and it makes me feel very lucky to be surrounded by such great people,” he says.

Plans for the remainder of 2020 and beyond

In terms of Fairway’s plans for the remainder of 2020 as well as the future beyond it, Fairway has increased its expectations due to the renewed level of interest that the reverse mortgage product category has. In truth though, those expectations also extend beyond the company’s reverse mortgage division, Accola says.

“We’ve increased our expectations, and we’ve increased our goals because we believe that we’re going to be higher than we thought we could be in January,” Accola says. “That’s even changed on the forward side as well. The bar was raised because it’s simply more likely that we’re going to do better.”

That’s not to discount the work that still remains, he says, and Fairway is fully prepared for both the continued education that needs to take place as well as additional work with referral partners. Accola is very confident that his team is up to the task, he says.

One of the guiding principles that Accola observes in terms of adapting business to the new realities of the pandemic comes from a quote historically attributed to businessman and philanthropist W. Clement Stone.

“‘In every adversity, there’s the seed of an equal or greater benefit,’” Accola recounts. “However, Stone did not add [the qualifier] ‘if you believe that.’ If you don’t believe that, an adversity can wipe you out. [Those who have] suffered from this did not change and adapt. So, the vast majority of people at Fairway — including our leadership and executive teams — realized that this is an opportunity to do better, to be better, and to change lives. There’s a greater need than there ever was before.”

That, he says, is the biggest revelation to come from this situation as opposed to trying to “suffer” through the new circumstances, he says.

“One of our coaches, Andy Andrews, has helped teach us to use this [ordeal] as something that’s gonna make us better. That’s really what I think has happened everywhere in the company, including on our reverse side. I see it in myself and in a bunch of our people that shine more than they even thought they would.”

For some personnel who have transitioned to working entirely from home, their loan production is better and now a debate has emerged about what effect there could be in bringing them back into the office, as opposed to the other way around.

“I think we’d be better suited for any other calamity that comes along, regionally or nationally,” Accola says. “I’m thankful for the fact that this job came along, and it would only be a failure if we didn’t learn anything from it.”

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