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Strong Values, Translated Into Strong Execution

Mary Ann McGarry’s career in mortgage—and specifically with Guild Mortgage—spans the course of nearly four decades, across peaks and valleys, booms and busts, crashes and recoveries. She began with Guild in 1984 as an internal audit supervisor, having previously worked as an accountant with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. From those humble beginnings, McGarry rose rapidly through the ranks at Guild. She was elected a Director in 1988 and served as CFO and COO before being promoted to President and CEO in 2007. She named Terry Schmidt, CFO, to succeed her as President in 2020 while continuing as CEO.

Given her comprehensive and multifaceted perspective from having spent almost 40 years in the same industry and within the same organization, McGarry recently spoke with MReport about her career path. She shared how Guild has managed the extraordinary challenges of the past few years in our industry and continued growing, and why Guild recently ranked highest in Customer Satisfaction according to the J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Primary Mortgage Origination Satisfaction Study.

You have a bachelor’s in business administration and accounting with a minor in computer science from the University of San Diego. Did you specifically pursue a career in mortgage or was it an unexpected turn?
McGarry: I started my career in public accounting at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell. At the time, my goal was to own my own business. Being a CPA and having exposure to many different kinds of businesses, I felt that would give me the foundation needed to be successful in business, but I didn’t know which business sector. They were a client of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell, and they were growing; I was recruited and thought Guild had a great reputation. I enjoyed the business and the people.

I took the leap, and I joined Guild in 1984. I’m not sure anyone plans to go into mortgage banking, but once you do, it’s such a great industry, so people stay. It’s constantly changing, and you have to keep learning, which is something I really enjoy.

Since joining Guild, you’ve gone on to serve numerous different executive roles over the years, as well as serving on the board of directors. What appealed to you about the company, and what has kept you there ever since?
McGarry: The people and the industry are exciting. I started in Internal Audit. Within a few years, I was promoted to SVP of Loan Servicing. I went from managing seven people to 90. My accounting and computer science background helped me reimagine and reengineer the servicing platform. It was rewarding; it was fun. I was able to lead a lot of talented people, which I really enjoyed. I loved the people at Guild as well as the constant challenge as I led various divisions within the company.

I went from servicing to CFO to COO and then to President. Then in 2007, we led a management buyout and acquired the company with our partners, the McCarthy Group, which is a private equity firm. We’ve had profitable growth every year since then. Together, we weathered the financial crisis of 2007. Then, during the pandemic, we took the company public. So, it’s been a challenging and rewarding career.

You mentioned going from managing seven people to 90. Is that something you took to naturally? What was that change like?
McGarry: I took to it naturally. There were a lot of issues in the Servicing Division that I identified while I was in Auditing, so when I took over, I focused on those challenges. I’m very competitive, and I knew what needed to be fixed. I just dove right in, found great people in the company, hired some new people, and started fixing all the issues that existed. My goal was just to make it the best scalable servicing platform in the industry.

What were some of the core challenges you were attempting to tackle at that time?
McGarry: I’m not sure there was a vision at the time of helping our clients through every cycle of the loan and serving each client in the portfolio. But the major thing was, we needed to scale, and we needed more controls. The company needed to improve its internal controls, and the mortgage industry was changing. It was evolving, and a lot of products that we were servicing weren’t implemented correctly, like foreclosures and Ginnie Mae securities. I managed to implement new controls and systems to make for a more efficient, scalable process.

Could you talk about some of the most significant ways you’ve seen the industry change over the decades? How different is the landscape in 2021, heading into 2022, than it was when you started in the mid ‘80s?
McGarry: It’s interesting because the fundamentals are the same. People want to own their home; it’s the American Dream. We provide access to homeownership. We help strengthen financial positions, communities, and neighborhoods. What has changed is the ongoing evolution around technology platforms. Today, we have a digital mortgage. We have artificial intelligence and robotics. There are a lot of enhancements and knowledge that you can get instantaneously with the push of a button.

What hasn’t changed is that buying a home is still an emotional experience. It’s one of the largest transactions people will have in their life. They want to do business with someone they trust and someone that has the expertise to guide them into the best product and do what’s right for them. I think that’s where Guild stands out. We haven’t lost focus on what’s important: knowing, understanding our clients and their expectations, and helping them get the right product for their needs.

Finding the right balance and blend between technology and people and personalized experience is the key. And it’s different for everyone. Some people never want to talk to you. They just want to go on the computer and figure it all out. But the bulk of people really want personalized, hands-on service to help them understand what they’re doing in this huge financial transaction. They want to be able to trust the company they’re working with.

How do you navigate that? What are the keys to keeping pace with innovation and changing customer needs while also ensuring the human touch isn’t lost?
McGarry: It’s the culture you build within the company and ensuring that you have strong core values. Our core value, first and foremost, is customer service. “People first” is how we always look at building relationships, getting to know the people first. There are relationships at all levels of mortgage banking. It’s a people business. We have referral partners, investors, banks, Fannie, Freddie, Ginnie Mae. We need these different relationships to build a successful business.

Technology is ever-changing, and you must stay on top of it. It’s table stakes. I think the J.D. Power survey identified that all people, and especially young people, want to do business with someone they trust. They want a personalized experience, and they expect great technology. Ongoing innovation is critical, but you can’t forget it’s an emotional experience. There are people behind every transaction.

We’ve always had a strong relationship with our investors, and we originate and service our loans, which is unusual for independent mortgage bankers. We have a proprietary platform for origination and servicing. Most of our competitors outsource the servicing. Our clients are all our people: it’s all one system, one database, and we’ve been doing it this way for decades. We are successful in all kinds of markets because we’re here to serve.

We’ve been instrumental with our investors in creating pilot programs to help people get into homes. We believe access to homeownership is critical, especially for first-time homebuyers. They need a lot of education, and you want to keep them safe, so it’s not too much for them to handle, financially.

We have good, solid programs all the time to provide access to homeownership in new ways.

Could you speak more about the benefits of keeping that servicing in-house as opposed to outsourcing it?
McGarry: You can maintain and nurture your client relationships. We believe you should not just put people in homes but also work hard to keep them in those homes. Beyond servicing being an asset and a stream of cash flow, with our platform, it becomes an extension of our loan officer team. So when a new client comes into servicing, we’re nurturing the relationship. That’s the essence of our business model.

We’re helping them every step of the way until that loan pays off and, hopefully, they’ll turn to us for their next transaction. We get a lot of referrals from our current clients, whether it’s a refinance, a second home, or a move-up buyer. That’s where the difference is, I think—we view people we work with as “customers for life,” a philosophy and mission we’ve pursued for decades.

Having served in multiple leadership roles over the years, what are the most important leadership qualities that have defined your career or been demonstrated by your mentors?
McGarry: Building a culture where people are heard, where they trust each other and respect each other, is one of the key components to successful leadership. When you have a strong culture where people collaborate well, then you can do anything. If you have a competitive nature, an entrepreneurial spirit, and you work together to meet your goals, the possibilities are endless. It’s fun to watch people grow in their jobs and learn and become good leaders themselves. It’s very rewarding.

From the position of someone who’s in leadership, how do you foster, nurture, and sustain that sort of culture?
McGarry: One of my biggest challenges as a leader is ensuring that, as we grow, we don’t become too bureaucratic, too structured. We want to keep the soul of a small company but have the resources of a large organization. Since I’ve led every division and area of the organization, I’ve selected and helped to mentor, guide, and educate great leaders. I think I’m best at finding talent and then letting them develop and grow themselves, which multiplies throughout the organization.

I’m very proud of all our leaders. We have a solution-oriented attitude, so when there is an issue, we don’t focus on what went wrong. We look at what happened, analyze it, and move forward. We ask, how do we fix it? How do we make sure it doesn’t happen again? We do that collaboratively, and we come up with great solutions together.

What does maintaining the “soul of a small company” mean to you?
McGarry: That you respect each other. You listen. You stay as a team. For example, during the pandemic or any other crisis, that’s when great companies rise to the challenge. If you band together, you come up with solutions. There’s nothing you can’t do together. I think we’ve experienced that over and over again during different market ups and downs. You surround yourself with competitive, confident people who are innovative and have that entrepreneurial spirit, and you can figure anything out. It’s important to always believe in the people you work with, to trust and respect each other, and to have integrity. Then it all works out.

How do you manage the balance between building and expanding access to homeownership in a responsible way but also ensuring you can support your business’ bottom line?
McGarry: We’re in communities and neighborhoods throughout the country, and we work to serve each well. Our loan officers are experts in the field, and we have training programs and coaching so we can provide the tools necessary to increase homeownership in our communities. We have Guild University to keep improving what we do. We have extensive training programs and many controls embedded within our system to make sure we don’t miss things when we’re processing and underwriting a loan.

It’s about looking at our client’s goals, their financial position, and the underwriting. There are a lot of different factors that go into helping them have a better future and build wealth. But there will always be a certain number of people who run into hardship. They lose their job or an industry shuts down or moves, and that was their livelihood.

We help them navigate through the loss mitigation, guiding them to the many programs that the government has rolled out. If you do what’s right, that builds a strong company and portfolio.

What are some of the most important takeaways Guild has learned from navigating the pandemic?
McGarry: I’m proud of the way we managed and navigated through the pandemic. We focused on the safety of our employees and clients first. There was a lot of fear. Borrowers didn’t know if they were going to have a job. The investors, government agencies, economists, and others were trying to figure it out. The key lesson we all learned was the importance of communication. All of our teams were in constant communication with everyone internally and our clients, whether via the internet or messages on the phone, or videos, or through our loan officers. Communication was critical.

A lot of our clients would call their loan officer. We were prepared to help, share what we knew, and told them not to be scared, that people weren’t going to have their credit compromised. We said, “Don’t worry. We’re working with our investors and government agencies to explore all options for keeping you in your home. We don’t know what’s going on, it’s the pandemic. It’s no one’s fault.” We kept communicating ongoing changes and what to expect. Together, we got the word out to our clients, and we helped calm everyone down. We had the technology and systems, so we went to a remote work environment immediately, before the federal and states agencies started to shut down most of the country. We delivered on our promise of service, making sure everyone had the information they needed.

How much of that remote work model is Guild carrying forward? What are the benefits of that versus maintaining an in-person office culture?
McGarry: We’ve had many discussions about that, because some types of jobs are conducive to being in a remote work environment, such as finance, accounting, and legal. But what’s so great about Guild is our culture. We’ve talked about different versions of the hybrid model where you come in three days and are remote a couple of days, or you might have team meetings and require everyone to come in for those. Or you continue to have special events or dinners or community activities so that you can make sure everyone is still working in a collaborative environment that doesn’t go away over time because we’re at home.

I like people to feel connected and not think they’re just a free agent and can go anywhere because it’s just a job. It should be more than a job. You should feel part of something bigger. The workplace is going to evolve, and as long as you’re aware of the environment and you make sure you keep people engaged and connected, and don’t lose contact with your employees, then you don’t have to be in the office. We will have to constantly reengineer the way we lead in a hybrid or remote situation. And every manager is going to have it a little different, depending on the type of work they manage.

Guild recently received the highest rating for Customer Satisfaction as part of the J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Primary Mortgage Origination Satisfaction Study. What did that mean to you, and what factors do you think contributed to Guild securing that recognition?
McGarry: I think it speaks to our culture and how well our company did during the pandemic. Our core values came through with customer service and respect and trust among all of us. As mentioned, it reflects the commitment to communication, to helping our clients through a scary time. We were able to get information to them quickly and calm their fears and work with each other. I am extremely proud of our people.

We’ve always had that culture, and we’ve been ranked very high in the past and even tied one year for number one. We analyze the data from these surveys and work on where we can improve. We’ve made some updates to the system and training processes that really helped us improve in many areas of the business. Plus, all our salespeople, they’re so competitive and want to succeed. They always do what’s right by our clients. They’re great.

Could you expand on some of those changes you implemented based on the feedback from past J.D. Power surveys?
McGarry: There was closing, going over the fees and all the documents at closing and making sure the client understood everything. We did some tightening up, making sure we don’t ask for the same document twice, and automated more processes. We live our values at all times and take care of people. Our clients can feel that, and it’s reflected in those surveys.

The mortgage industry, in particular the servicing side, sometimes has a reputation for being slow to innovate and evolve. Do you find that to be true, and regardless, where should the industry be focused when it comes to innovation?
McGarry: I have a little different take on that. The industry is filled with creative people who are committed to helping families gain access to financing and build their future. But it’s always changing. It doesn’t fit into a box. You need innovation and to create a balance between technology and people. The industry is embracing robotics and artificial intelligence, especially in servicing and the digital mortgage. There’s a focus on speed, but speed isn’t always what the client wants when they’re buying a house.

Speed is important when there are multiple buyers and no inventory, so you need to close quickly. Other times the client may want more time. Every situation is different. I think we’ve done a good job using technology to enhance client service. There’s a lot more we can do to keep improving and providing a more memorable experience for our clients, but technology is never going to replace the human touch, in my opinion.

Guild has been working in the mortgage sector since 1960; what are the qualities that enable that level of industry longevity?
McGarry: Strong values translated into strong execution in origination and servicing. To run a good business, you have to have good internal controls and systems. Focus on each client to be sure you’re building long-term relationships and doing the right thing, every time. Never forget, we’re creating clients for life.

If you could travel back and have a conversation with your younger self, what is the one piece of advice that you would pass on?
McGarry: I would tell my younger self, as well as other young women today, don’t feel so guilty about work-life balance. You can be a successful mother and successful in your career. When I started my career in the 1980s, most of my friends left their career to raise their children. I have four sons who are all adults now and I was really hard on myself. I felt guilty all the time that I wasn’t at home. And many of my friends made comments. I’d get promoted and they’d say, “Well, you’re not going to take that. Are you? Because that’s not good for your children.” I said, “Well, I have to work anyway. Why not?” It wasn’t logical to me, but I did beat myself up about it. And I have to say, I have four wonderful sons. They’re amazing young men. They’re hard-working, smart, and most of all, great people. I’m proud of that.

I look back, and I say, “Well, I did do it. I was a successful mom and had a career.” So, you can do it. Just don’t be so hard on yourself. Give yourself a break and just remember you can have work-life balance.

About Author: David Wharton

David Wharton, Editor-in-Chief at the Five Star Institute, is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, where he received his B.A. in English and minored in Journalism. Wharton has nearly 20 years' experience in journalism and previously worked at Thomson Reuters, a multinational mass media and information firm, as Associate Content Editor, focusing on producing media content related to tax and accounting principles and government rules and regulations for accounting professionals. Wharton has an extensive and diversified portfolio of freelance material, with published contributions in both online and print media publications. He can be reached at [email protected]

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