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

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