SUZY LINDBLOM LOVES A CHALLENGE

 

Suzy Lindblom has built an amazing career. But she’s not the type to brag about it. Self-promotion is not in her DNA. Chest thumping is just not a part of who she is.

NEXT alum, Suzy Lindblom of Planet Home Lending

Lindblom is a detail person, an efficiency expert. One of those people who likes to let results speak for themselves. And in her case, boy, do they ever.

She is chief operating officer for Planet Home Lending, Meriden, Connecticut. And if she was put in charge of all mortgage lending on the planet, she could probably get that done. (Just kidding, but, maybe not?)

Lindblom’s resume reads like the yearbook of someone who has run operations for some of the biggest, most marquee names in the business. And she’s been at it for more than three decades. Her specialty is building and operating the precision instrument that is a mortgage operations platform. This is difficult stuff. Like building a fine Swiss-watch movement. But it’s all behind the scenes. No glory in front of the board, or on calls with Wall Street analysts.

But here’s the deal—much (if not all) of the profit made by huge mortgage companies depends on the operations team being really, really sharp.

Someone with a fine eye for process efficiencies, credit quality andcost cutting, spells the difference between a profitable year and a string of losses. And that is the role that Lindblom has perfected.

Small surprise then, that during her career, several mentors and mortgage industry senior executives advanced her career as they were building their own.  (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

But let’s fast forward to the present where Lindblom is actively deploying her specialized and very valuable talents.  Lindblom joined Planet Home Lending in  October 2017.  Here’s a sampling of the results she’s already helped bring about.

At Planet Home Lending, Lindblom’s team has cut the cost of closing a loan in half.

At both Planet and at Stearns Lending, LLC, Dallas, (an earlier stop on her resume), Lindblom’s team chopped the total time from when a loan officer submits an application to the operations group, and then it goes on through underwriting and closing/funding, from 40 days to 21 days.

Lindblom, whose responsibilities at Planet cover retail and loan retention production channels (not correspondent), saw distributed retail production more than quadruple between December 2017 to  December 2018.

Planet has been actively building its retail branch network. As of March 21, 2019, the company had about 47 distributed retail branches—dramatically up from the five it had when Lindblom came on board.

But back to the point about her not being one to self promote. Lindblom told me that very early in her career she almost missed being considered for a promotion because she was reticent to put herself out there as qualified—even though she was. And she didn’t take credit for as much as she might have because she believed if she just worked hard, people would recognize it..

But in the last five years, her attitude has changed.  “I want to make more of an impact,” she says. And it’s not just about her career.  It’s about sharing what she’s learned along the way with others, so they, too, can get those promotions, whether they are chest thumpers or not.

This perfectly coincides with a new role she’s taken on as a member of the Advisory Board at NEXT Mortgage Events, LLC NEXT is a unique organization focused on women in the mortgage industry. The group holds two annual technology-focused conferences plus other networking events designed to help women in the mortgage industry collaborate and aspire to the next big thing. (NEXT is the brainchild of co-founders Jeri Yoshida and Molly Dowdy.)

So, while it’s clear Lindblom doesn’t need (or want) the personal validation for what she’s accomplished, that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t get it. Because c’mon, really, it’s a huge big deal what she’s done. Starting in the early 80s, she ran up the ladder of mortgage jobs, doing almost every back-office function there was. Until, finally, she was running whole divisions of these folks—and the numbers got pretty big.

Lindblom managed more than 2,000 retail, wholesale, correspondent and reverse mortgage fulfillment employees when she worked at MetLife Bank. She was a senior executive at Bank of America’s mortgage operation, in charge of all underwriters. She ran the national retail platform from the fulfillment side for CitiMortgage. She also ran operations support, reporting and policy and procedures at Countrywide Home Loans. More recently, she led the national fulfillment operation for Stearns Lending, LLC.

Lindblom’s current job with Planet is something of a variation on past assignments where she guided huge established platforms for national players.

For Planet, she says, “This one is the-build-from-the-ground-up on the retail side.”

Currently, Lindblom has management responsibility for a staff of about 150 people.  National fulfillment at Planet includes processors/underwriters/closers. She also manages the teams in post closing, operations support, policy and procedures and branch onboarding.

Lindblom says, “It’s a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun.”

Starting out

We asked Lindblom when she first knew the mortgage business was for her. “Once I became an underwriter, I was hooked,” she says.

One can easily see why she’s been so successful. She specializes in the onearea where the rubber meets the road in mortgage lending. A good fulfillment operation is the one thing standing in between the homebuyer and the keys to the kingdom. If itmesses up, the closing blows up. And that gets around. (Realtors® are a chatty bunch.)

Perhaps one reason she is so comfortable running these operations is that back in the day, she personally did the work the people she now oversees do every day.

Oh, and one more thing that might explain her being really good at running things like clockwork—her father was a master drill sergeant. A self-described “Army brat,” born in Wruzburg, Germany, Lindblom grew up with four brothers and two sisters. She says, “you learn fast” in such an environment.

So what was her early career path?  Lindblom, now approaching 60, tells the story of how she got her first mortgage job—as a receptionist. (What male mortgage executive can say they’ve done that job, EVER? But we digress …)

Lindblom says her first job with an actual mortgage company (Empire Financial, in Santa Ana, California) came in 1979. But the circumstances behind that first gig are interesting and 40 years later they feel like ancient history.

Her boyfriend at the time told her about something called the California School of Mortgage Banking. The day Lindblom visited the school to apply, the owners were there and hired her as a receptionist. After working for a year and graduating from the school, Empire hired her as a receptionist. After three months workingthe front desk, she was promoted to processor. Finally, she was in the real mortgage business.

Within six months of becoming a processor, she set a new goal—becoming an underwriter. “I really liked the business,” she says,and worked hard to nail that first underwriting job.

In 1983, she was promoted to underwriterandone month later she found out she was pregnant with her son. At the time she was promoted to underwriter, she remembers wanting to learn “anything and everything” about mortgages.

After Empire, in 1985 she went on to work at GMAC Mortgage Corp.’s builder division where she underwrote Federal Housing Administration (FHA) home mortgages for whole subdivisions.

The jobs kept getting bigger as managers discovered her talent for fixing the hardest problems. She was at Countrywide running operationswhen the meltdown hit.  She recalls that they “tended to give me problems to fix.”  And she just kept proving herself, fixing problems, company after company.

Mentors

Lindblom’s earliest mentor, Ameristar Financial President Wayne Perry gave her the first management job she ever had, as corporate underwriting manager. “He had faith in me and helped me learn the ropes of management,” she says.

Brian Hale was another key mentor who was “very instrumental” in advancing her career. Lindblom says Hale “gave me opportunities to expand my knowledge into compliance, project management, post closing and other areas outside of fulfillment.” Hale also assisted in developing her leadership and mentoring skills, she says.

Hale served as Chief Executive Officer at Stearns Lending for five years starting in 2012. He also was Senior Retail Originations Executive at Bank of America and was President and Senior Managing Director of the Consumer Markets Division at Countrywide Home Loans.

Lindblom also singles out Randy Hess, an executive coach, for teaching her the “fine art of leadership,”

That kind of backing helped propel her to senior management jobs at major companies. But she clearly had the goods to succeed on her own.  Part of what’s special about her is this unique focus: “I like challenges. I like fixing things. I like process efficiencies.” And that’s so perfect for the mortgage business.

Could she name some individuals whose careers she’s personally admired?  She came up with two: Donna DeMaio and Katherine Le. DeMaio was President of MetLife Bank. Lindblom recalls her as a great leader and someone who had a way of connecting with her staff,while managing a mortgage company/bank that was a small part of a large organization (MetLife Insurance).

Le was president of Stearns Lending, and Lindblom says to know Le’s background and how she overcame obstacles to achieve success in the mortgage industry is “inspiring.”

Witnessing change

We asked Lindblom from a compliance perspective, how much more difficult the mortgage business is today than when she first started in the business. Her response: “I think 200 percent, seriously.”

Buyers today are typically getting 60 pages of disclosures, she says. Lindblom has seen packages with up to 65 to 95 pages of disclosures.

Lindblom’s sister, a certified public accountant—and no stranger to complex financial documents—told her, “Oh my God, what is all this paperwork?”

Lindblom believes “it’s made it harder for the consumer.” Rather than fostering transparency, it’s made things more confusing, she says.

What has changed the most since she began in the business?  She starts off with the processing side of the business. In the early days, typed forms were sent to borrowers by “snail mail.”  Then borrowers would sign the paper documents and snail-mail them back. Then a little progress came with the adoption of alternative documentation. More progress came with tools such as Desktop Underwriter andnow the data is captured digitally.

Another major change she’s witnessed is the massive volume of new regulations.

To combat the heavy compliance burden, Lindblom is out there learning anything and everything that might bring new efficiencies—especially technology. She mentioned some of the tools she’s adopted at Planet that she learned about at NEXT technology conferences over the past two years.

She singles out four, specifically. Two are Fannie Mae solutions: Ask Poli and Collateral Underwriter. Then there’s DocuTech’s new technology for eClosings and a front-end point of sale (POS) solution created by a San Francisco company started in 2012 called Blend.

Lindblom moderated a panel of technology vendors at a recent NEXT conference before 200 attendees. Based on what she learned from the panel, she ended up adopting Blend’s POS system. That company’s solution now sits on top of Encompass, Planet’s loan origination system.

Lindblom picked up more intel at NEXT from a panel organized as a Fireside Chat with Fannie Mae. That’s where she learned about Ask Poli, which Planet is now beta testing for Fannie Mae.  It’s an online app using artificial intelligence  to answer questions about Fannie Mae’s selling and servicing guidelines, similar to the way Siri answers questions.Lindblom says Planet’s loan originators and processors “love” the new app, which Planet loaded on the company’s intranet. Lindblom also endorses Fannie Mae’s Collateral Underwriter as a “good tool.”

But back to the big picture for Lindblom. Given her storied career, are there any big goals she still has left?

If your talent lies in streamlining processes and squeezing out costs, that makes you good at helping deliver consistent profits. That’s really valuable in the unpredictable and hard-to-manage mortgage business, where profit margins are tiny. It’s also a trait that makes you popular in the boardroom.

So, has she ever thought about being a CEO? “I wouldn’t mind it,” she says.

As she celebrates her fourth decade in the business, Lindblom “wants to make more of an impact. I’ve been vocal about that in the last five years.”

The industry would be smart to listen carefully to what she has to say.

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