Shelley Leonard was 21 when she spent an eye-opening summer in Budapest, Hungary. It was 1992 and she was a business major, having just finished her junior year at the University of Tulsa. She’d been hand-picked for a summer internship program and she was headed across the pond.

Hungary’s oil and gas company had applied for help from her university’s Venture Capital Exchange internship program. The gas company desperately needed a marketing plan to compete in a free-market economy.

Shelley’s profile in the #NEXTFALL22 Partner Book, where she talks about her favorite musical group (The Dave Matthews Band), her pet Schnauzers, her favorite sports teams (Arkansas Razorbacks & Jacksonville Jaguars) and her favorite movie (Dirty Dancing)

But beyond simply needing advice on capitalism, the country was really in the dark when it came to women in business. In Hungary, the suits who wrote the rules believed that business was just for the guys.

But no one even hinted at that before Shelley got on the plane.

Back then, Shelley Leonard was still a kid. She had no fancy title to bolster her confidence when the boardroom drama began. Yet this is a feisty person, you don’t get the resume she has today without having some fight inside.

Leonard was eager, ambitious, super smart and very American, born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. Competing for business was as normal to her as fast food.  One of her earliest part-time jobs had been hawking photo portrait packages in the mall to proud parents of graduates and newborns.  She could do in-your-face marketing, or any other kind you needed.

And make no mistake about it, today’s resume is loaded with fancy titles. She spent more than 28 years with mortgage technology powerhouse Black Knight Inc., Jacksonville, and its predecessor companies. And since December 7, 2021, she has been president of Xactus, a dynamic player in the verifications space.

But as she headed for Budapest, she was just a young business undergrad, handpicked by Dr. Robert Hisrich, head of the Venture Capital Exchange (VCE) internship program. Leonard had taken Dr. Hisrich’s Entrepreneurship class and the bug had definitely bitten.

So, here was the gist of the Hungarian business case that needed to be solved:

The national oil and gas company had been operating without competitors in an old Communist-run economy. But Western competitors, like Esso, had started opening gas stations, offering drivers the chance to drive right up to the pump and maybe even buy gum while paying at the cashier. Under the old Communist-run petrol company, customers had to fill up a can of petrol and then take it back to their cars. There was no competition, no need for advertising, no convenience stores, no public restrooms, no Snickers bars. Nada.

The Hungarians knew they had a lot to learn from Western business experts.  They just weren’t sure they wanted to learn it from a super confident, outspoken, brainy, young, female American college student. Actually, they were sure. They didn’t want to hear a thing she had to say. They actually weren’t comfortable with women in the boardroom at all, except to bring them coffee (but we’ll get to that).

Leonard had a work study job with the Entrepreneurship Office at the university. The office ran the VCE program in partnership with the city of Tulsa, which connected angel investors with business ventures. And there was also a sister-city partnership between the city of Tulsa and Budapest.

Dr. Hisrich paired her with “Mark,” the other undergrad selected for the program. 

“Mark became almost my interpreter,” Leonard says.

He was the only one the Hungarian officials would talk to in meetings. “I would tell [Mark] something and he would repeat it to the group. If I presented something they said ‘no’ and Mark presented the same thing and they said ‘yes.’”

The Hungarian executives would ask her to bring them coffee and, at first, she thought nothing of it. But then she would sit down to join in the meeting and they would ask her: Why are you staying, this is a business meeting.

In Hungary, in 1992, women could be secretaries, not business strategists. But in the mind of 21-year-old Shelley Leonard that glass ceiling needed to be demolished. “I’m kind of outspoken. They did not like that at all,” she says.

But after a while it got to her. Leonard hated the way she was being treated, so she finally called her mom, in tears, asking to come home.

But her dad grabbed the phone, basically telling her to suck it up and just get the job done (in the most supportive dad-like terms, of course.). And so, that’s what she did.

In retrospect, she says, “I learned a lot.” It became a “foundational thing.” “I’m going to make sure I’m never treated that way again,” she decided. 

Early influences

“Both of my parents definitely served as my role models and made me interested in business at an early age,” she says. They also taught her to work hard and aim high.

She grew up in a home where they didn’t have cable or air conditioning. And it was a big deal if they had pizza on a Friday night.

Shelley with her family at her childhood home in Little Rock, Arkansas (from left, son Gage, Shelley, dad Richard, mom Jan and daugther Jesse)

Her dad told her if she wanted a car, she needed to pay for it. So, she bought one for $1850 and paid for gas, insurance and repairs.

Her father served in Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s administration and ran the Department of Finance and Administration. She remembers if she didn’t have something planned for any given day in summer, her dad would drag her to work with him. She would sit behind him in budget hearings when he presented updates on the state’s finances. She got to be a page during state legislative sessions. The whole experience got her interested in government, but “turned her off from politics.”

She recalls visiting the White House during the Clinton presidency and meeting Buddy the dog. Her dad was offered an ambassadorship but turned it down because his kids were still in school in the US.

She says her mom “was one of the hardest working women I know.” She was always “leading by example” and her “influence was immense.”

“She’s the reason I got into the mortgage business,” Leonard says.

Her mother worked directly for the CEO of Systematics, a leading provider of all types of banking technology.   

So fresh out of the University of Tulsa, Leonard joined her mom’s company, and was assigned to the management training program. Her first assignment was to work at the data center run by Systematics for First Michigan Bank.

She proceeded to learn the nitty gritty of just about every kind of financial services technology, starting deep in the weeds at Systematics.

After many early career assignments with Systematics including in sales, customer support and consulting, she landed her first management role in development. And then, ultimately, she moved into product management for the Advanced Loan System (ALS).

Eventually, she expanded her responsibilities to cover all lending solutions within the banking division of Alltel Information Services (formerly Systematics). Her responsibilities included a commercial loan servicing system, an auto loan and lease servicing system, a collections system and a mortgage servicing system called RE (for real estate).

“This was my first introduction to the mortgage industry,” Leonard says today. And then her career took off from there.  

Four mentors and a move

In looking back over her career, Leonard credits four mentors with playing key roles in her formative years.

They were Charlene Ort, her first female boss and a manager she admired when she started in Customer Support; Scarlett Smith, a coworker she encountered during her new-hire training at Systematics who did a product presentation that greatly impressed her and made her want a job like that; Jody Vasquez, a manager who taught her how to give constructive criticism as well as how to take it, and how to manage client expectations; and finally, Mary Ellen Adam, who taught her “to listen more than talk (which is hard for me!).”

Winter 2022: Shelley keeping warm in with her pet Schnauzers, Sheeba and Cleo, at home in Philly

Leonard singles out Adam, who she says “consistently challenged me to grow in my career. She gave me opportunities that I didn’t think I was ready for but she knew I could step up to the challenge and grow in the process.”

Adam was the manager who convinced her to move to Jacksonville.

Leonard says, “She moved me to Jacksonville and fundamentally changed the course of my career and my life.”

At the time of the move, Leonard was running Product Strategy for all Servicing and Default products, including consumer, commercial and mortgage for Alltel Information Services. Alltel had purchased both Systematics and CPI. The Alltel executives Leonard worked with were based in Jacksonville, so she was traveling there every other week.

Back then, she had 2 young kids, and her husband Dana was considering taking a new job that would have required the family to remain in Little Rock. But ultimately, in 2001, they decided to move to Jacksonville, instead.

Throughout the year before the move, Leonard had been working simultaneously on the two mortgage servicing systems that Alltel had acquired– the RE system developed by Systematics, and MSP built by CPI.

Leonard now was faced with evaluating the two systems and making a call on which one to keep.

“I made the recommendation to shut down RE and move all clients to MSP. It was reviewed and approved by my manager, Mary Ellen Adam, and the executive team.”

In today’s servicing world, MSP maintains dominant market share and it continues to grow, says Leonard, which pretty much validates that she made the right call way back when.

A pivotal project

She says, “MSP was definitely the superior servicing system. Systematics had stopped meaningful investment in RE years before. MSP had more loans, more clients, more functionality, plus a suite of workflow tools that complemented MSP in place.”

As for having to sell her recommendation to higher ups, “There really wasn’t dissent just planning and a lot of effort that was needed to convert clients from RE (which was run in the bank’s data centers) to MSP (which was managed in our data center as a Software as a Service application).

As for the fact it took 5 years to migrate all the customers over, she says “Product conversions rarely go as quickly as planned but I honestly can’t remember what the intended timeframe was versus the actual time it took.”  Chase was the last customer to migrate over from RE.

Shelley and her husband, Dana, at a Dave Matthews concert

Successfully managing a huge project like that only led to more and more challenging assignments. A look at her resume shows there isn’t a corner of the banking world, or an obscure financial product that she hasn’t managed technology around for the succession of companies that became Black Knight.

From March 2001 to December 2008, she worked for Fidelity National Information Services as Vice President, Lending Strategy, then on to Vice President and Director of Business Architecture, and finally Senior Vice President, Office of the Enterprise.

Then from January 2009 to December 2014, with Lender Processing Services (LPS), Leonard’s titles went from Senior Vice President, Home Equity and Consumer Lending Operations to Executive Vice President, Servicing Technologies Business Strategy.

Finally, in January 2015, she was named EVP, Chief Product Officer with Black Knight, Inc. and kept that title for 7 years during some moments of significant achievement for the company.

Leonard was a major contributor to the efforts that resulted in an expedited IPO in June 2015 for Black Knight, Inc., with its market cap of $7 billion. Going public was a milestone achievement for the company.

Meanwhile, as Chief Product Officer she determined strategic fit and was part of the early evaluation team for all acquisitions across all disciplines. To date, Leonard estimates she’s been involved with roughly 15 product or whole company acquisitions in multiple roles, ranging from identification, selection, due diligence and integration, including operational and financial synergies.

That’s uniquely impressive management experience. And it’s pure clickbait for recruiters. So sure enough, after almost three decades inside a huge, deep-pocketed, mortgage tech conglomerate, Shelley Leonard gets this call from a recruiter.

Out of the blue

Leonard says she “wasn’t looking” when she got the call. The voice on the other end of the line pitched her about “this guy who wants to transform the verification business.”

She says “transform is one of my big words,” so she agreed to talk to him.

One imagines her inner entrepreneur felt the spark.

And–spoiler alert–in December 2021, she was named president of Xactus, Broomall, Pennsylvania, a leading player in the credit verifications space that recently ranked No. 288 on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing private companies

She had always told herself if people tried to reach out to her to talk about a job, that she’d always take the call. She felt it kept her fresh and it was a good way to gather intel on what was happening in the business.

The caller’s name was Perry Steiner and today he is chairman and CEO of Xactus.

Steiner was a private equity investor with no prior direct experience in the mortgage industry. So how did he discover the relatively obscure mortgage verifications space?

“It is fair to say he stumbled upon it as an investment opportunity, and the more he learned the more opportunity he saw,” Leonard says.

“He was so excited it was contagious.” And he was eager to pick her brain. “There’s been no innovation or change in the last 20 years in the verification space. Why is that?” he said.

 “I told him about technologies we could apply and how to build scale,” she says. And by then they were off and running,

“His passion was very contagious,” she says. 

Shelley and her family at home in Philly – from left: Gage, Shelley, Jesse & Dana

Xactus was an entrepreneurial and nimble company, but was not yet that tech-enabled. “Her tech skills were a great fit,” she realized.

Xactus had achieved the needed scale to drive innovation by virtue of significant acquisitions Steiner had made before Leonard came on board.  And the acquisitions continue. It now owns: Avantus, Universal Credit, CIS Credit, Data Facts Lending, Sharper Lending, Credit Plus, Alliance 2020 and Massive Cert.

The company has roughly 6500 customers and it’s a mix of nonbanks, bank, independent mortgage banks and brokers.  

We pictured a detailed business plan already laid out in Leonard’s head. So, we asked is it a 5-year plan, a 10-year plan?  We think we got a tiny bit of a smackdown along with her answer. (But we could be imagining it.)

“We don’t think the industry can wait 5-10 years for this innovation so we have ramped up our investment and associated technology spend and will be delivering against our roadmap in the next 18 months,” she says.

And if you want more details, she’s got plenty. “We are developing and delivering a proprietary workflow platform to deliver all of our verifications products. In addition, we are focused on delivering additional value-add data and click through capabilities on our existing products such as the tri-merge credit report. We are delivering a waterfall for verification of employment and income as well.”

So, I guess the competition should get ready. Shelley Leonard is at home now in a new boardroom. And this time she’s bringing her adult resume.

Moving to Philly

After decades of living at the beach in Jacksonville, FL, she moved to center city Philadelphia in January with her husband and two dogs.  Really, in January? I mean, it’s cold then. Did anyone consult the dogs? (I’m thinking two, 12-year-old miniature Schnauzers might have something to say about that.)

So how is everyone doing? Do the dogs miss their fenced-in yard and chasing birds on the beach? Is the pizza good? How about the cheesesteaks? (Do you learn to like cheesesteaks, or is that something you’re born with?)

Shelley and Dana at a football game (at TIAA Bank Field, home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, of course) in Fall 2021

Leonard says the dogs don’t like the sound of city buses on their walks and she had to get new cold weather gear for them. But they acclimated to “city life pretty quickly.”

Shelley and Dana are foodies, so they are very happy in their new adopted city and have tried many a cheesesteak and a few hoagies too.

But Leonard says Jacksonville will always be home to her adult kids: Gage, 24, and Jesse, 21.

Leonard somehow found a way to get an MBA at Jacksonville University while raising two young children and being a full-time executive.

Would her family call her a workaholic? “Probably,” she concedes. But she never missed birthdays. She wants that on the record.

Her husband is a huge live music fan so they are enjoying the concert scene in and around Philly and the mid-Atlantic. She and Dana saw the Dave Matthews Band two nights in a row when they played in Philly.

But let there be no doubt about one thing. She remains a serious Jacksonville Jaguars football fan. And that actually could get dicey in her new adopted city.

“I will be wearing my Jaguar t-shirt when the Jags play the Eagles in October, but the Eagles fans are vicious, so I am not stupid enough to wear it to the game!” she says. “I’m not sure I would survive that!”

And, actually, she probably shouldn’t even say that within earshot of the neighbors. Let’s just hope the whole city-of-brotherly-love thing still applies—even to the two new transplants from Jacksonville, in spite of the fact they are seriously misguided football fans.

NEXT, connecting women in the mortgage industry to grow and advance their leadership and careers.

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