Keith Guenther: Reflecting on 30 Years in the Mortgage Industry

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PERSON OF THE WEEK: Keith Guenther, founder and CEO for Lake Forest, Calif.-based USRES and its wholly owned subsidiary, RES.NET, has been working in the mortgage and real estate industries for more than 30 years.

MortgageOrb recently interviewed Guenther to get a retrospective of his long career and the changes he has seen in the industry during the past three decades.

Q: What was your journey like to get where you are? Was there someone or something that influenced you along the way?

Guenther: I have been very fortunate to work with some exceptional individuals who demonstrated the value of hard work and ultimately influenced the drive and initiative I have. It has been a basic formula for not only a successful career, but also a very fulfilling life.

I started my early career as a real estate broker and active agent in California. I was involved in the industry long before I thought about building my own company. The lessons I learned during that time served as the foundation for my career, and greatly influenced not only my leadership style but the guiding principles of our organization as well. The insights I gained from individuals with whom I worked day in and day out helped me understand how real estate transactions could be handled differently, resulting in better outcomes for all parties involved in the transaction. 

When I founded USRES almost 30 years ago, the company was originally named Professional Asset Services, Inc. and was later rebranded to illustrate its nationwide reach. I sought out the industry’s best and brightest professionals who were deeply rooted in mortgage banking and real estate to join our team. It was important to have strong leaders who knew and truly understood the market and default space, as well as how to handle the needs of a growing client base, along with the ebb and flow of this industry. Success does not happen overnight, but comes with hard work, dedication and passion for what you do.

Q: At this point in your career, what has been your greatest professional achievement?

Guenther: The biggest thrill for me is to see one of our ideas, such as the SaaS platform, go from concept to development, and then to implementation – and then find that it works and solves an industry need today, just as it did when it was first created. And that, I think, takes more than patience. It was exercising that patience to continually re-evaluate our next step, strategy and results and recognizing that perhaps the smartest thing we could do was to stay the course. Openness with our clients, our employees – in a constant feedback loop – is a key element in how I approach business, and it has worked out well. 

A lot of companies in today’s market develop products and solutions they believe are needed, but at the end of the day, they don’t actually address the real challenges facing the market. I’ve always taken a client-first approach, meaning that anytime we develop a new feature or solution, it is based on a real issue facing our clients in their day-to-day operations, to provide immediate relief or enable the client to more effectively manage their portfolio or compete in the marketplace. Products should be developed based on collective feedback in a collaborative environment to ensure the maximum results. Listening to customer concerns is paramount to success.

Q: How have you approached change in the market over time – and the change in the talent that serves the market today?

Guenther: We are in an era where flexibility, adaptability and nimbleness are essential qualities. Identifying individuals with self-awareness – and whether they are still learning and growing – indicates their potential to contribute to the business today and in the future. I value traditions, and it has helped shape who we are. I believe it is vital to bring wisdom of the past to the present, and at the same time have the wherewithal not to be stuck in this mindset that all things must remain the same.   

Q: In a 2014 interview with MortgageOrb, you were asked, “What are your customers’ most significant challenges today?” How has that changed from then to now?

Guenther: In 2014, the lending environment presented many business challenges for our customers. Whether large banking institutions or local correspondent lenders, servicers or sub-servicers, the challenges did not discriminate. Regulatory oversight and new process requirements imposed by multiple agencies had proven to be difficult for both by internal and external, third party processes. Initiatives from Dodd-Frank and Fannie Mae lender letters, as well as CFPB requirements, continued to be released and in-turn, the industry had to quickly adapt to new guidelines and rules for business practices.

Staying ahead of the curve and anticipating additional regulations was and continues to be the bigger issue at hand, while also still effectively managing business operations and fiscal responsibilities. This has been difficult when much about the future regulatory environment is still unknown. Additionally, providing tools to our customers that help them manage vendor relationships presented significant obstacles, with each segment of the clientele maintaining its own subset of rules outside the standard regulations. Outside of their own requirements to ensure proper staffing, certifications and due diligence procedures were in place, effective tracking and reporting tools took precedence over what once was able to be completed on a monthly or quarterly call. 

When it came to working with vendors, our customers had to do a lot of homework before engaging a third party, and today are required to maintain transparency and strong communication throughout the relationship. Providing the tracking, reporting and scorecard tools to effectively manage the vendors and illustrate compliance has been our focus and will continue to be [our focus] to support our clients and users.  

Q: What are some of the most surprising technology changes that you have witnessed in the mortgage industry during your career?

Guenther: In a world where goods can be ordered and delivered by car or drone within hours, all from a mobile app, I am really not surprised by most advances. However, within our industry, what surprises me most is that we are not further along than we could be. There is no doubt that mortgage origination and servicing has always lagged behind in the adoption of technology. Regulation, over-regulation and fear of the unknown by and large keep the industry “stuck.” Security concerns, rapid changing regulations and the adaptation of borrowers to embrace the technology resources available all attribute to the speed in which the industry is able to adapt. As with any product or service, adjusting to it can only move as fast as the slowest moving denominator.

Q: Based on the knowledge you have gained over your 30-year career, what advice would you give your younger self or wish someone had given you?

Guenther: Earlier in my career, having a better understanding that the gaining and retention of business is often related to who you know, plus outside influences can affect the outcome of an entire industry – it cannot always be controlled. It took years of experience and wisdom to learn that. If my younger self had a crystal ball, I would have continued to rely on past trending, market analysis and the points of references our industry has traditionally relied on. There was a level of predictability that had some level of comfort to predict the future. I did not understand the reach the government and regulators could have on a market, nor could I have fathomed the sweeping changes that followed that would virtually cripple sectors of our industry and affect the economy the way it has.  

Between 2009 and 2012, the methods of dealing with hardships could never have been predicted – and had anyone suggested to me 20 years ago that debt forgiveness was a viable option, or a solution or a means to an end, I would have thought they were pulling my leg. My days of predicting what will occur are long over but I look forward to seeing what the future holds for an industry that is vital to the continuing growth of our economy.

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