Placing people and culture at the heart of business growth
Unless you find yourself working for a software company, or a pure-play technology company, the CTO is an oftentimes undervalued commodity. They are seen as chief doers, heads of getting-things-done. They are told what’s needed from them, and expected to go away and accomplish it.
So it speaks volumes about United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM) that its Chief Technology Officer, Jason Bressler, is smiling from ear to ear when he talks about his role. “I actually have a seat at the business table and I help run the strategy of UWM,” Bressler enthuses. “It’s great. My leadership is so invested in our technology and our technology team that it’s been the most rewarding thing of my career, for sure.”
For over 30 years, United Wholesale Mortgage has been connecting mortgage brokers and homebuyers with the right credit to meet their requirements. The company focuses exclusively on the B2B channel, something which it is passionate about. “We want to show consumers that brokers are better, and the choice is better,” Bressler says. It’s an approach that is definitely yielding results: UWM is the largest wholesale lender in the US, according to data from Inside Mortgage Finance, and when Bressler talks to us from his office in Michigan the firm has just officially become the largest mortgage company in the world.
In January 2021, UWM made its Wall Street debut when it went public in an IPO. For Bressler, a financial services stalwart who has been with the company since 2016, it was an extremely validating moment. “It's incredibly rewarding,” he says. “It's allowed us to really invest in our technology team and really start to build out products, not just for the mortgage space but the entire fintech space, that can be utilised for consumers, for brokers, and then obviously for us as well.”
A seasoned tech executive with vast experience
Bressler has more than 25 years’ experience in the financial services industry. Before joining UWM, he was CIO at a retail lender, Guaranteed Rate, and CTO at The Federal Savings Bank in Chicago. But he is a Michigander at heart, growing up here before attending Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, near Detroit.
Like many in business, he’s inspired by the late Apple boss Steve Jobs. And though mortgages may seem far removed from the gloss and glamour of the world’s most idolised company, Bressler claims there are still parallels. When a homebuyer is looking around houses and neighbourhoods, they know what they want. It might be a large yard or a master bedroom. But when it comes to mortgages, they very rarely understand the choice available to them. They know they want a mortgage, but that’s about as far as it goes. This is one of the defining characteristics of the broker market that help explain why UWM is so squarely and unwaveringly behind it – brokers can provide a personal service and guide applicants through the process.
When Steve Jobs delivered that now-iconic presentation from Apple’s Cupertino headquarters back in 2007, most consumers – like mortgage applicants today – didn’t truly understand what they wanted. They knew they needed an upgrade on the early iPod, a better mobile phone, a new way of accessing the internet. But when Jobs announced, in the iPhone, that Apple had incorporated all three into a single device, thus overhauling the smartphone market forever, there were whoops and hollers from the assembled masses. Consumers didn’t know what they wanted, they didn’t know what options were available to them – but like the visionary he was, Jobs still managed to give them what they needed. For an applicant, that is also the key ingredient in a broker-lender relationship.
Recognising the importance of personal development
Bressler says he subscribes very heavily to a build-over-buy approach – perhaps a divergent mentality in an industry that is sometimes obsessed with bolt-on acquisitions. They build everything themselves in house, deploying as often as seven or eight times a day. Bressler prefers both to recruit skilled talent and bring in external trainers or instructors, but also wants UWM team members to act as coaches and mentors around a particular skill or area of expertise. This means sharing the knowledge that is already present within UWM to the rest of the organisation. This whole approach contributes to a culture of continuous improvement.
Bressler heads up a team of around 1,200 employees and takes it upon himself to know each one by name. He reveals: “I actually study flashcards at night with their pictures and facts about them, so when I pass them in the hallway, they know that I know who they are.”
Given this personal approach, it’s no surprise that UWM invests significant resources in its staff – or its “greatest asset”, as the business refers to them. For most companies, this means giving each employee a paltry budget and telling them to go away and find some training course to do. But for UWM, it goes so much deeper. Of course, they still pay for their employees to be curious and to learn new skills. But one thing that the firm does differently is investing in entry-level staff, who might be earning $15 an hour, and equipping them with the skills they need to embark on an entirely new career course. They might only have a high school diploma but UWM trains them from the ground up to become developers, business analysts and DevOps professionals. “I tell everybody if we were a hospital, we'd be a teaching hospital,” Bressler quips.
Some businesses, without the courage of conviction that UWM has, would be scared of investing in staff only for them to take those new skills to pastures new. Sometimes that happens, and when it does it’s inevitably unavoidable. But UWM finds that, when they invest in their staff, their staff invests in them. This is evident in the levels of staff retention. Bressler recalls the oft-quoted adage of a CFO in conversation with a CEO. “What happens if we invest in our staff and they leave,” the CFO asks. “What happens if we don’t and they stay,” the CEO replies.
Bucking the trend for remote and hybrid working
One aspect of UWM’s culture that sets it apart is its attitude towards remote working. An increasing number of lenders and financial institutions are offering their staff the chance to work from anywhere. UWM is staunchly not among them. Instead, it insists on staff being present in the office during working hours, and it believes the benefits outweigh the cost.
“We are all on one campus and we do not have hybrid work,” Jason Bressler explains. “All of our team members that work at this company are in the office every single day. From a technical standpoint, that has allowed our level of collaboration to be so high. It really is our secret sauce, having everybody in the office every day and not dispersed around the country or around the world.”
Bressler laments the social interactions we lost during lockdown – a hangover that many hybrid or remote companies are still dealing with. Instead of sending a message over Teams or Slack, employees at UWM have the security of knowing that they can just turn around and ask the question instead. There are signals that staff pick up on in the office that just aren’t available when everybody’s working from home.
Of course, this policy has its toll. “At times it hurts,” Bressler says. “But it was too important to our culture of what we had already built over those first 31 years before the pandemic hit that when we felt it was safe to have everybody come back in, we did it.”
Emergence of high-tech reflects a city in transition
It makes it harder for UWM to recruit. After all, the company only has access to the local jobs market in southeast Michigan, while other lenders have an unlimited pool of talent open to them internationally. It’s even enough to put some local jobseekers off. But Bressler is unrepentantly committed to continuing with this approach, saying that it helps to ensure new hires are a good cultural fit for the organisation among other benefits. Besides, there are plenty enough graduate prospects nearby: as well as Bressler’s alma mater, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University are both within a 60-minute radius, offering courses in both technical and engineering disciplines.
The Detroit metro area used to be known as ‘Motor City’, owing to its legacy as the centre of America’s automotive industry. Indeed, the suburb where UWM is located lends its name to one of the most iconic auto brands the US has produced, eventually being subsumed by General Motors in 2010. Slowly, as auto jobs have packed up and left, a burgeoning technology sector has taken root. Today, the area is sometimes dubbed ‘Automation Alley’. As well as car makers, there are 17 Fortune 500 companies in Michigan and the state’s economy is worth almost US$500bn a year.
“There has been a cultural shift that's happened in Michigan,” Bressler explains. “I grew up here. Everybody in Michigan was very blue collar, because it's all about automotive. You put your head down, you go to work, and that's it. We've really started to shift. We're still very blue collar, but we've really started to shift into this white-collar, heady, highly technical and highly educated mix. That's been fantastic to watch.”
The challenge posed by fraud increases as you scale
At the heart of UWM’s rise to the top is an obsessive focus on understanding and meeting customers’ needs. Sometimes, that is even separate from revenue or sales. “We started building large scale fintech products for the broker community and their customers, obviously specific to the mortgage industry,” Bressler says. “We gave them away for free to all of the brokers and we said you didn't even have to use us.”
The reason, he explains, is all about providing brokers and borrowers with the tools they need to find the right product. When you’re operating in the wholesale space, brokers can shop up to 20 or 30 different lenders at a time – so there’s no guarantee that brokers will use UWM in spite of making these convenient tools available, but nine times out of 10 they do.
“It has built up a ridiculous amount of loyalty from our clients,” he continues. “They truly feel like we have their best interest at heart, so that loyalty carries over when rates are high and when rates are low.”
As UWM has scaled, the risk posed by fraud has increased. Lenders are in the business of risk, so mitigating that risk is an important factor in improving your bottom line.
Bressler says: “We've invested very highly in data science and business analytics. We use a lot of our modelling and our data to predict behaviours. The biggest risk to a mortgage company typically is fraud from a consumer or from a loan officer. We have so many technology guardrails around everything that we do here, and then using that on top of our data scientists, we've been able to model and predict where we would see fraud and how we would detect it ahead of time. From the front end all the way down to the back end, we're constantly analysing the data and serving that up to our teams to make sure that we're protected.”
To give an indication of UWM’s capabilities in fraud detection and prevention, the company’s information security team is over 70 team members strong. The security function is deeply embedded within UWM’s application development, so even the code that gets written has security in mind from the outset.
Bressler acknowledges that, as a lender scales, the target on its back becomes much bigger for fraudsters and bad actors. However, he explains, the nature of risk within mortgages remains somewhat linear. For UWM, it’s about making sure they manage everything that’s thrown at them and stay ahead of the risk as much as possible.
Looking ahead to the next couple of years, Bressler says that they are full steam ahead on growth. “In this high interest rate environment, we are still continuing to take more and more market share because we're doing such a great job of educating consumers that choice is better and brokers are better. Most of the brokers in the wholesale space use UWM. We really want to capitalise on what we've just accomplished by continuing that growth.”