Monday, July 23, 2012

Living The Big Sky Life: Transferring Title

There's a saying in the business world that goes something like this: “You’re only as good as the last deal.” What this really seems to mean is that loyalty is the exception, not the rule. How this tends to play out in the real estate realm is that any repeat business points you think you’ve scored for flawlessly closing hundreds of transactions vanish with a *poof* the instant you make a mistake at the closing table today.

It wasn’t until I began working escrow in Whitefish, Montana that I began to fully grasp the harsh reality of this locution. And boy did I learn it the hard way. Yet how was I supposed to know going in that the title insurance company I was hired to work for had a nepotistic staff of substandard title officers who were never held accountable for the quality of their work?

My experience saw the title officers of Security Title routinely and apathetically shrug off substantial errors in the title reports they prepared, and then become righteously indignant when I dared to become upset, even though everyone knew that I was totally dependent upon those preliminary title reports (called “prelims” for short) to do my job well. And how well I did my job was pretty important since it directly affected the branch’s profitability and long term relevance. Oh duh.

For the sake of an insultingly low paycheck, I endured six stressful months of defensively dancing the quick-step in an attempt to parry and subdue the screaming machine gun fire of demanding and irritated real estate agents, which was inexcusably exacerbated by the inadequacies of my own colleagues in Kalispell on a regular basis.

Call me crazy but I tend to take my livelihood pretty seriously, and the Whitefish buck I needed to earn started and stopped with my reputation. It was hard not to feel at times as if the careless crew at Security Title was going out of its way to sabotage my diligent efforts to develop a solid book of business within the real estate community under its banner as they repeatedly abandoned me to the time-wasting task of damage control for mistakes over which I had no control. 

In the end, management’s callous indifference toward my professional reputation ultimately cost Security Title its branch office. How could the management of a company who arrogantly treated the bulk of its employees as disposable know going in that I would be nigh impossible to replace? Apparently that was a lesson Chef was destined to learn as well.

They say (even in today’s insanely tough job market) it’s easier to find a new job when you already have one. So let the record show that I took that old advice to heart and didn’t waste one moment working whatever edge I might’ve had to my advantage the afternoon I had my “Maryanne” moment on the phone with Deidra.

Joan may have been convinced that it was necessary to loyally endure years of poor treatment by the likes of Security Title in exchange for the illusion of job security, but I was not so compelled. Security Title had done absolutely nothing to cultivate my loyalty, and frankly, any points it may have scored for hiring me in the first place vanished with a *poof* the second Deidra brushed off that last prelim closing crisis with impotent nonchalance because the title officer happened to be her sister.

Part of my routine during the six months I spent working for Security Title was to listen to Joan recite the weekly stats for the valley’s four title companies as published in the Flathead County market share report, and her ending commentary was always the same ... she’d wistfully acknowledge the consistent and significant hold of Citizen’s Title onto the largest piece of the market share pie, and then she’d begin to pine on about how she always wanted to work at Citizen’s Title for they clearly were the biggest and the best. Well, it seems all it took to make Joan’s career dreams come true was for me to have one “Maryanne” moment because as soon as I hung up the phone on Deidra that fateful afternoon, I proceeded to dial up Vern Burton, the owner of Citizen’s Title, and leave a message.
Burton called me back within the hour. He couldn’t believe his luck actually. He told me how Citizen’s Title had been seriously contemplating opening a Whitefish office for years but Whitefish was a very cliquey market and next to impossible to break in to without the right person. Apparently he’d been watching me progressively gather up local market share in spite of myself and Security Title’s self-inflicted roadblocks, and he was impressed enough to now expand into Whitefish with me at the helm. Of course I recruited Joan to make the transfer with me.

Citizen’s Title was underwritten by First American Title and ownership was controlled by Burton’s holding company, Kalispell Title Services, Inc. The holding company had strategically acquired ownership of Flathead County Title sometime earlier because it offered the expansion benefits that come from having another title insurance underwriter (Old Republic) and title plant at its disposal. This acquisition also made the company’s combined market share insurmountable by the competition.

Kalispell Title Services, Inc. leased an office on 3rd Street next door to the Buffalo Café and across the street from Mountain Bank, and established a new office for me under the name of Whitefish Title Services, Inc. (WTS). In a maneuver designed to ensure the loyal lending business of the biggest bank in Whitefish, Mountain Bank, Burton and his corporate cohort, Dan Black, brought in the president/owner of Mountain Bank, Buster Schreiber (aka Mr. B.S.), as a 10% WTS investor.

While Joan and I did receive a nominal pay raise for transferring title companies, our meager salaries were expected to be supplemented with a monthly commission based upon our closing volume as reflected in collected escrow fees. The total escrow fee being charged on a sales transaction at the time was only $75. Typically this escrow fee was split in half and $37.50 was charged to each side (seller/buyer) of the transaction. Aside from the obvious fact that this flat fee was obscenely low, nothing about it made sense to me so I logically decided it was time to increase the escrow fee by $25 – time to make it an even $100.

Well, the local real estate agents squealed in protest like a sty full of stuck pigs. You’d a thought I was trying to drain them of their own life’s blood for an extra $12.50 that they themselves didn’t even have to pay for. Yes, I know. Even at $100, the fee was still obscenely low, especially when compared to what I knew was being charged for the same services in The OC. I could only push the envelope so far however, and given the heated reaction, it was clear anything over $100 would’ve just pushed too far.    

I suppose raising the escrow fee proved to be one of my undistinguished claims to fame. When the local swine finally stopped squealing, it was ironic to watch the four title companies in Kalispell (Citizen’s Title and Flathead County Title included) safely slip through the door of opportunity that I alone had the chutzpah to kick open as they all fell in line behind me and increased their escrow fees to $100 as well. And I'm talking quick, quick and with tacit enthusiasm.

The good news is that the fast dancing I was forced to learn at the onset to the stressful tune of screaming machine gun fire eventually turned into what later came to be called the “funding dance.” At least that’s what everyone who ever worked with me called it. Probably because I’d make them all dance around my office to the tune of the big funding bell I was known to grab from the corner of my desk and ring with the swing of Quasimodo every time a transaction funded. We have a funder! Whoop! Whoop!

Believe you me, everybody wanted to hear my funding bell ring for that meant all parties concerned would soon be dancing their way straight to the bank or into a new home.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Living The Big Sky Life: Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Montana proved to be a grueling taskmaster. Of course all of the signs were there at the beginning had I only been able to read them with a clarity that is undeniably dispensed through the lens of hindsight.

Frankly, I find it hard to thrive in a place that labors to brainwash me into believing that I should consider myself blessed and thereby be appreciative of the fact that I can work like a slave for a slave’s wage yet somehow be expected to feel incomparable contentment because financial slavery is the price one must pay for the prospect of “quality of life.”  

I tried to believe the hype. I tried to capitulate. Yes, I tried to “live the life.” I really did. But I’m not the type who can thrive when living a lie. Yet unlike some of those well-heeled bulldogs who brought their riches with them, I didn’t have the luxury of not generating an income while living the big sky life and found myself promptly tasked with finding suitable employment upon arrival in June 1992. Standards be damned.

Prior to moving to Whitefish, my career had solidly transitioned years earlier from banking to commercial real estate lending, and the last position I held before the big move was vice president and California corporate broker for a Denver-based lender that specialized in originating commercial mortgage loans throughout the western United States. How was I supposed to convert my specialized, yet somehow unbelievably inapplicable, education and career experience into a paycheck I could live with in a cow town like Whitefish, or anywhere else within the Flathead Valley for that matter, decades before the age of cloud computing?

I began my job search by dropping off resumes anywhere that seemed semi-suitable (given my basic skill set) within the Whitefish community. This basically meant the four banks in town. Talk about lowering my standards. Just the thought of seeking employment at any bank was a claustrophobic compromise for me since I’d purposely left banking for a reason. Glass ceilings that enclose glass cubicles have an asthmatic way of suffocating me with boundless limitation.

It didn’t take long to recognize (admittedly with a huge sigh of relief) that I was mutually classified an over-qualified female and none of the local banks wanted what I had to offer as a consequence, so I took my job hunt down to Kalispell. I left resumes with any business I could find with a tie to the lending industry I knew so well, and this included the four major title companies: Citizen’s Title, Flathead County Title, County Guaranty Title, and Security Title.

I returned home from Kalispell that afternoon to find a phone message on the machine from one of the title companies I’d left a resume with barely an hour earlier. Diedra, the county manager of Security Title, wanted me to meet her at their Whitefish escrow office that Saturday, which came as a huge surprise to me for several reasons. Aside from the fact that there was no evidence (not even a street sign) that any of the major title companies had a branch office in Whitefish, nothing I had submitted for employment consideration even remotely insinuated that I’d ever had any hands-on title or escrow management experience.

Frank Lloyd Wright Building
341 Central Avenue, Whitefish. MT 59937
Security Title’s escrow office was located in the landmark Frank Lloyd Wright building on Central Avenue just north of 4th Street. It was sandwiched between Central Avenue and a paralleling alleyway that offered egress for the cars pulling out of Mountain Bank’s drive-through teller stalls.  

Experience or no, Deidra hired me on the spot and was eager for me to start my new escrow officer/manager job on Monday morning. Apparently Security Title’s local two-person branch office had abruptly downsized to one assistant when the previous managing escrow officer, Maryanne, had stormed out several weeks earlier. Well, it didn’t take me long to understand why.  

No one has ever been happier to see me for the first time than my new assistant, Joan. Joan was a bubbly 55-year old Whitefish native who’d been working for Security Title at least twenty years. Most of those years were spent in Security’s Kalispell office and when the company decided to be the sole title insurer to establish an escrow office in the town of Whitefish, Joan jumped on the chance to work closer to home.

Security Title eventually sent me to its Boise, Idaho headquarters for a week’s worth of corporate training a month or two into my tenure, but it seemed hardly worth the bother for the second that office door slammed shut behind me on my first day of work, my high-stress on-the-job training dance began … and it was to the tune of machine gun fire. The rapid fire commands of those demanding real estate agents forced me to dance as fast as I could while their screaming bullets aimed mercilessly at my feet hoping I'd stumble and they’d have someone to blame for something, anything.

Joan proved to be invaluable to me. She showed me the way with authentic exuberance, and she actively promoted and legitimized me to the locals in a way that only a true native can. My learning curve fortunately proved to be short and it didn’t take me long to make a prominent name for myself in the Whitefish real estate community – something no one else had heretofore been able to do.

This sure came in handy when I had my “Maryanne” moment with Deidra down in the Kalispell office. My dismissed and ignored frustrations had been mounting for months, and when the tipping point finally arrived, I let Deidra have it over the phone one fateful afternoon. Joan and I were alone in the office at the time, and I’ll never forget the look on Joan’s face when I hung up. Seems I said everything she’d ever dreamed of saying after enduring twenty years of mistreatment by Security Title's management.

It proved to be the moment that changed everything for both of us …

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King