Still life: Pulte Financial Services CEO Debra Still, CMB, brings a lot to the job of chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Author:Hewitt, Janet Reilley

Touring Pulte Mortgage's three-story headquarters in Englewood, Colorado, what jumps out at you first is there is virtually no paper. The company has such little regard for paper that it actually owns no copiers. Yet this is a mortgage company that does roughly 10,000 mortgage closings per year. * So where is all that paper? * Well, it's been imaged and stored electronically, courtesy of a finely executed master plan that has left this company on the cutting edge. The end result is a paperless, process-engineered, workflow environment that hums like a well-engineered machine. A veritable high-performance-vehicle of a mortgage company has been created at Pulte. And it's largely the brainchild of the company's chief executive. * Debra W. Still, CMB, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Pulte Financial Services and Pulte Mortgage, is a bit of a fanatic in her devotion to automation, workflow and process management. It's kind of a wonky discipline but it's absolutely crucial to the operating efficiency of a regulation-heavy and document-driven business like mortgage banking. And Still is a master at it. She gets kudos across the board from her executive team for the innovations she has brought about, well ahead of industry competitors and sometimes in the face of internal skeptics and naysayers. * This is a company so dedicated to transformational process change and continuous improvement that about seven years ago it created a permanent Office of Strategy Management (OSM). It was Still's idea.

The OSM group reports to Gary Ives, Pulte Mortgage's chief information officer. He also manages 50 staff on his regular information technology (IT) team, which he says is small. He's says Pulte Mortgage has "embraced technology as a strategic differentiator." But he adds, "Change is hard. Change management takes focused work."

And that is the essential message that Still has internalized and built her company around.

As we stroll the neat and orderly hallways of the mortgage company, she volunteers that her "favorite thing is process engineering." She says it like one would say their favorite color is green.

The sheer orderliness of the office environment reflects a carefully planned space. There is an overarching logic to all of it. The conference rooms are named after Colorado mountain peaks. The artwork on the walls is either actual photos of Pulte-built homes or photographs of natural landmarks from the geographic markets in which the company operates.

The whole place is a carefully blueprinted division of labor that is the mark of an operation that lives by a master plan.

The first floor is for the mailroom and for post-closing. On this floor, the functional areas also include space where servicing sales are managed, where things like trailing documents are handled and where interim servicing is done. The loan repurchase team is also on this floor.

We are on the lookout for a piece of paper that's out of place, and are not having much luck. Still says that the company images everything and is totally paperless. She adds that approximately 98 percent of loan applications begin over the Web. Missed phone calls automatically translate to an email dropped into the inbox of the recipient of the call.

With roughly 450 employees housed in the headquarters building (out of 600 total employees of Pulte Mortgage), we expect to see a little bit more disorderly conduct when it comes to office paraphernalia. But aside from a few balloons, some homemade signs and a life-size cutout of John Wayne holding a "Del Webb" surfboard stashed in a far corner of the Southern California territory, we don't see much.

PulteGroup incorporates three home-building brands: Centex (for entry-level homes); Pulte (for trade-up buyers) and Del Webb (for active adult living). The mortgage company originates and processes the loans for all three brands from the centralized operations center in Englewood. In the parlance of the industry, it's a builder-affiliated mortgage company. It captures roughly 82 percent of the mortgage business from the sale of homes sold by PulteGroup.

On the second floor is where the heart of the operations (or originations) group resides. In most mortgage companies, this could be a raucous and expressive bunch of 20- and 30-somethings. Here, there are mostly tidy cubicles of cross-functionally trained teams that handle loan applications, processing and underwriting for the captive mortgage business that comes in from buyers of PulteGroup homes. This company handles 99 percent purchase business, all from buyers of brand-new homes.

The groups are divided into the primary geographic markets where Pulte sells homes. So there is, for example, a Gulf Coast team that handles Florida and Texas homebuyers. On our tour we spy a sign that celebrates the fact the Gulf Coast team hit 93 percent customer satisfaction from a recent survey of buyers.

On the third floor are the support departments of Finance, Legal, Human Resources, Information Systems, the Office of Strategy Management and the executive team, with Still in the corner office where everything is neat as a pin.

Measuring as a way of life

Still and her company are committed to measuring everything. They measure number of days from contract to the first borrower interview, number of days to loan approval and number of days to final closing. They even measure the current state of the corporate culture. Every year they use the Gallup firm to survey what employees think of the company's internal culture. Caring about employees is a real tenet of Pulte culture--from the parent builder on down to the mortgage company.

So it's not surprising that these employees are treated well--all you have to do is look at their game room, with its foosball and ping-pong tables, dart board, and what looks like a brand-new pinball machine. Yet the place is spotless, with nothing on the walls to suggest a let-your-hair-down kind of place. This is a disciplined work force.

The brown leather chairs in the library adjoining the lunchroom are nicer than ones in most people's homes, along with a long shelf of magazines for communal browsing. Their lunchroom, with its large flat-screen TV, is also nicely appointed. It opens onto a big patio with...

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