Top originator: building a business that lasts for generations

by David Kitai20 Jan 2021

Mark Johnson (pictured) is building for the next generation. The loan originator with Homebridge in Calabasas, California, has spent the past decade turning his one-man operation into a team. Now he leads eight mortgage professionals, including two of his sons, in an operation designed to last well beyond Johnson’s own retirement.

Johnson came to California and the mortgage industry after starting his career at Barclays bank in his native UK. Trading a daily commute past Stonehenge for 70-degree winters and Pacific Ocean views, he gravitated to the mortgage business as a place where a people-person like him could succeed. In the 25 years he’s been originating loans, Johnson has enjoyed consistent growth and, more importantly, a sense of rootedness in his business and his community. Now he’s securing loans for his clients’ kids while teaching his own kids the keys to success in the mortgage business.

“Most of the reason I’m doing this right now is because of an argument I had a long time ago with one of my clients,” Johnson said. “I wanted to give her a 10-year fixed, I thought it was more stable and more prudent, and she kept saying, ‘no, I want a five-year fixed because I’m not sure you’re still going to be here in 10 years still doing what you’re doing. I want you to handle the next one.’ I’m doing this because I want those clients taken care of when I’m not in a place where I’m willing to.”

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While Johnson can’t see any time soon when he won’t want to at least jump on a call with a client, he emphasized how much he’s prioritized building a younger team around him to deliver a multigenerational service. He’s teaching that team the tools and philosophies that served him well through his career, with the expectation that they can deliver the same standard of client service he has maintained for 25 years.

Johnson teaches his team that they have to listen, ask questions, and provoke thought in their client conversations. He emphasizes, too, that the job of a loan officer (LO) is to do the right thing. Some clients, he explained, shouldn’t necessarily be refinancing or buying even if they want to. It takes prudence and self-control for an LO to turn down the deal because it’s not in the client’s best interest. Building a practice to stand the test of time, however, takes ethics.

All signs point to Johnson’s business passing the generational test. Half of his business already comes from repeat clients, with a larger and larger share actually coming from past clients’ children. He’s now tasking his younger team members with capturing more of that second-generation business.

He’s also got the volume to prove some shorter-term success. In 2020, Johnson and his team closed around 400 loans amounting to over $200 million in value. He attributes that success, and managing that much volume, to his team.

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2020 was a good test, too. The huge volume of transactions exposed some of the cracks Johnson needs to shore up before he can confidently hand over the reins. It also showed where the team is strongest. Overall, Johnson is proud of how well all of his people coped in the face of record volumes, high stress, and a global pandemic.

Even if sometimes Johnson feels he could be making the same money with less headaches if he ran a smaller team or a one-man shop, he knows that this investment in his people and his business is the key to leaving a lasting, meaningful legacy. He believes that any originator who wants to build a lasting business needs to look first and foremost at the team.

“You have to believe that everybody will be successful and try to help them succeed,” Johnson said. “Not everybody’s like me, and the reason I did this on my own for so many years was because I thought nobody would do it my way. You’re just going to have to get over that. If you want to build a team, you’re going to have to bring in people that work differently, answer questions differently, have different perspectives and get along with different people. You’re going to have to accept these challenges and find a way to make these people successful for your client base.

“If you teach your staff to listen and help them succeed, you can believe in them.”