…I think some women are afraid to be who they truly are. They try to mirror someone else, or think behaving more like a man will help them succeed. My new friend Crystal Lee encourages women to “Find your super power!” My version of that advice would be “your authenticity is your super power.” There is only one you in the world; and your traits and your instincts will help you succeed. It is great to read, seek advice from mentors, continue to learn and grow, but you have to be true to yourself. Learn to trust yourself more. I think many women leaders second-guess themselves more than they should, certainly far more than many of their male counterparts.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Brandao. A skilled mortgage industry executive, Laura launched the wholesale division of American Financial Resources, Inc. in 2007, and now proudly serves the company as its president. Laura has been named a “Women of Influence” by Housing Wire and one of “Mortgage Banking’s Most Powerful Women” by National Mortgage Professional, in addition to claiming spots on Mortgage Professional America’s “Hot 100 Mortgage Professionals” and “Elite Women of Mortgage” lists in previous years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Nobody gets into the mortgage business on purpose. It’s an inside joke in this industry, that happens to be totally true! Everyone has a story. This industry pulls you in, or, you accidentally fall in.
My story starts when I was a young mom, tired of “goo goo, ga ga” as the majority stakeholder in my daily communication. I wanted to work, but I also wanted to stay home with my young son. Since it was the early 90s, I was able to find a job doing telemarketing in the evenings, and I started out by conducting surveys. My account was Champion Mortgage (you may recall, “when your bank says no, Champion says yes”). Turns out I had a knack for explaining the benefits of refinancing, during a time when homeowners carrying interest rates as high as 15% where able to bring them down to about 6% with a simple refi. I moved up quickly to management, where I was so successful hiring and teaching about mortgages, that by the time I had my second son, I was running the entire call center — 200 people on the phone every night from 6–9pm, selling REFIs.
It was sheer craziness. I used to joke that I needed rollerblades to move quickly enough among the four rooms of telemarketers. As a very young woman in a leadership role, I was afraid no one would respect me; so, when others assumed I was older, like 27 or 28, I lacked the confidence to correct them. I will always remember celebrating my 30th birthday with my team (when I was really only 23). I learned so much during that time, and I am thankful to have that experience as the foundation of my career.
After a few years running the call center, my boys were out of diapers and I was ready to make the leap to working fulltime, during the day. Naturally, I went to work for a mortgage company. I quickly recognized that the company did not have a strong operations team, so I taught myself everything I could about how to process loans. I was COO of People’s Mortgage, a few years in advance of actually turning 30.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting story about American Financial Resources is how we started. The country was facing the worst mortgage crisis in its history; and we ran toward the fire, while everyone else was running away. While other companies were failing, we took the opportunity to build. As people were losing their jobs to downsizing, we used the opportunity to hire the best people in the business, and convinced amazing talent to join AFR and find a path forward.
In 2007, we built an entire business on one product. FHA loans were the only home financing product we sold. By 2010, we starting adding other products. We focused on one niche at a time and accumulated the right talent to service the business. Homeowners were struggling, and we opened our arms to specialize in unique financing programs — “we’re here to help you” — which still rings true at AFR today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As with a lot of companies that grow quickly in their early years, the infrastructure does not always keep up. During the ramping up of AFR Wholesale, Rich (AFR CEO Richard Dubnoff) gave me my own location in a basement of a corporate building, where I had cubicles to fill. The first summer, the air conditioning broke, and it was 90+ degrees in June. I bought baby pools and filled them with ice water for employees to keep their feet in at their desks, and provided water guns which we would take out into the parking lot to help each other cool off.
Unfortunately, broken A/C was not the only issue in our underground office. One day after torrential rain, it flooded. The water came pouring in from the parking lot above and soaked everything, even the contents of some of our filing cabinets along the outside wall. This time, I bought blow-dryers and handed them out. I will never forget the image of all of us hanging and drying documents until all hours. Needless to say, AFR quickly transitioned to electronic filing and processing and has been a paperless organization since.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think in our industry, where so many mortgage companies focus on the transaction, AFR stands out because we built our business by focusing on families. Our clients, the mortgage brokers and correspondents we work with, are keenly focused on bringing families home, and our employees are treated like family.
We have an underwriter who started with AFR in 2008, early in the growth of our business. She got married, had a baby and scheduled a meeting with me. “Laura, I can’t leave him…but I have an idea.” ‘Working remotely’ was not yet a term even used, much less practiced, but that is exactly what this employee suggested. How could I say no? Her dedication to both our business and her family is part of the reason we made the leap to go paperless, long before remote underwriting went national. Shari is now our Vice President of Underwriting. She exemplifies AFR’s commitment to families — both working with clients to bring them home and taking care of our own.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our new projects always develop out of our desire to help people. For one example, AFR is one of the first lenders to offer a VA Renovation Loan program.
Military families often move frequently as they take on new assignments, and when relocating to a new part of the country, especially on a short timeframe, it may be challenging to find a home that meets their needs. Opening the search to include properties in need of a few repairs can make it much easier to find a new home. Not only is it an ideal program for veterans or military personnel who want to purchase a fixer-upper while taking advantage of the 0% down payment option available to them as a result of their service to our country, a VA Renovation Loan can also save the deal if issues are discovered during the inspection. Sometimes after finding a home they love, in the perfect location, a veteran may learn that the roof is in need of repair, let’s say, during the inspection. The prospective buyer may not be able to afford to pay for the work out of pocket. A VA Renovation Loan could allow the buyers to borrow the additional funds needed to pay for the roofing work, and save them from having to start from scratch searching for a new home.
Outside the walls of AFR, I am very excited to be a member of the Association of Independent Mortgage Experts, a relatively new organization in our industry that just launched earlier this year. I recently hosted a panel at their inaugural national event, AIME Fuse, and was thrilled that AFR could be the executive sponsor of AIME’s newly formed Women’s Affinity Group. In what is still predominantly a male-dominated industry, it is outstanding to be a part of the founding team creating a place for women to share experiences, learn from challenges and find inspiration in each other. All the strong, resourceful women in this business deserve a forum to connect, and I look forward to the productive and empowering collective we will grow to be.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think some women are afraid to be who they truly are. They try to mirror someone else, or think behaving more like a man will help them succeed. My new friend Crystal Lee encourages women to “Find your super power!” My version of that advice would be “your authenticity is your super power.” There is only one you in the world; and your traits and your instincts will help you succeed. It is great to read, seek advice from mentors, continue to learn and grow, but you have to be true to yourself. Learn to trust yourself more. I think many women leaders second-guess themselves more than they should, certainly far more than many of their male counterparts.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
It is important to remember that every individual is different. (see advice above) How you manage one person, doesn’t necessarily work for others. We all have different motivations, and our connections with different people should be different. It takes time to learn the nuances of each person, but you have to take the time to know your employees to be successful as a manager. Encourage your management team to host one-on-one meetings with their department heads, and department heads with their staff, weekly whenever possible, to truly understand the individuals on their team and how to help them be successful. You can’t fit everyone into one box. In order to keep a team effectively working together, it helps to use the platinum rule. The golden rule suggests you treat others as you want to be treated. If you follow the platinum rule, you treat them how they want to be treated.
Also, as a manger you have to recognize if a position is a good fit for a particular employee. To maximize the contribution of an individual person, you have to put them in the best position for them. Sometimes you can see a position is just not the right fit, but the employee will add value to your organization in another role. A true leader will find the best position, the right fit, so that the person, and the organization, can be successful.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The unwavering support of my family is the reason why I have been successful.
My husband and I have been together for 30 years, and I have been a workaholic since the day I started working — to this day, no one is going to outwork me. When I was faced with the opportunity to be paid “commission only,” no salary, to start the wholesale division at AFR and discussed the potential job change with my husband, and the ramifications it could have to our family, he simply said “I know you are going to be amazing; you should do this.”
My mom has always been “all in” in supporting me, too. She used to put together goodie bags for every employee at the end of each month. She used to help me make goal boards, and help pull together awards every month. And, for every holiday she would provide treats for our office parties.
Without question, my family has always supported my success. I am abundantly blessed, and forever grateful.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Fortunately, bringing goodness to the world is inherent in what we do. At AFR we like to say that we are in the business of bringing families home. We do this through education and support. We simplify complex specialty loan programs for our originators and homeowners alike, and support them with educational resources and valuable technologies to improve interactions and processing.
Developing new niche programs, or keeping up with new government regulations and programs can be scary. Buying a home can be scary. At American Financial Resources we are constantly in pursuit of finding whatever will work to help more families achieve the American dream of home ownership.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Lead by example. — I would never expect anything from an employee I am not willing to do, or haven’t done, myself. That includes being the first one in the office in the morning. No one is going to work harder than I am.
Know your why. — Every company has a mission. On the days that are hard, or just plain frustrating, you have to know your why. At AFR, we want to bring families home.
Never give up. — Our industry works in cycles; it never stays the same. The mortgage industry was booming, then we had the subprime crash and you had to reinvent yourself; then there was a wave of compliance regulations; and now refis are going away and there is market compression forcing lenders to reinvent themselves to stay competitive again. If you don’t evolve, you’ll never make it. You can never give up and just coast. This is universally true, not just in my industry. If you are not moving forward, you are falling behind. Success will come if you simply never give up.
Together we achieve more. — Not only do ‘many hands make light work’ but in business, the total truly is greater than the sum of its parts. No company achieves its potential with just one employee. To lead a successful TEAM, leaders need to remember that “Together We Achieve More.”
Believing is the first step. — Confident people chose to believe they will rise up to meet the challenges in front of them. It’s a conscious choice, every day. Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or can’t, you are right.” I think he’s right! All it takes is one thought to change your mental makeup to affect any aspect of your life. I am very much a vision person. So, I try to share my vision of what we are going to accomplish — what it looks like — so we can all work toward the vision of believing it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The past couple years we have endured tumultuous times in many ways. We’ve seen movements like #MeToo drive issues into the forefront of our collective consciousness. I would love to see a movement perpetuating the advancement of humankind. I’m sure I am not alone in growing weary of the negativity generating a chasm between political parties, nationalities, or genders. I want to see a movement based simply on showing kindness to other humans. We are all the same species and as a species we are long overdue to promote Human Kind. Can you image? A movement we can all get behind.
I recently learned that the Red Cross is promoting #humankind for its current blood drive campaign on college campuses, there is a Humankind channel on YouTube that is 40K+ subscribers strong, and a HumanKind nonprofit doing commendable work for Virginia families. I’m thrilled to learn that I’m not alone, and similar inspiration is already growing in others and branching out.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Live life to the fullest, and focus on the positive.” We spend so much of our lives trained on what could go wrong, that we live in a state of perpetual worry and fear. Instead, we need to find ways to embody positivity, to train our minds to become faithfully attuned to the present moment and making it positive.
Admittedly, early on in my career, I downplayed who I was. I worked to “tone it down” so that I would be taken seriously. With maturity and experience, I learned to accept who I am, and that being enthusiastic and outgoing was simply my positivity bursting out of me. You cannot life your live to the fullest if you are not being authentically you.
I also think it’s awesome that my favorite quote comes from Matt Cameron, who, if you didn’t know, is a musician, probably best known as the drummer for Pearl Jam. Life lessons can be learned from anybody, and we all have something to teach.
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