Cara Detring had absolutely no intention of following in her parents’ footsteps at their title insurance agency in the small town of Farmington, MO, where she grew up. In fact, when Detring left Farmington to study pre-med at the University of Missouri, she vowed she was "never, never coming back." But she fell in love with the title insurance business, joined the family firm and took over the reins of St. Francois County Abstract Co., now Preferred Land Title Co., when her parents retired. Now she has become the first woman to serve as president of the nearly century-old American Land Title Association®. It all started when Detring took a typing job at an abstract company in Columbia, MO, while her husband, high school sweetheart Terry Detring, finished his accounting degree. She had graduated earlier while he took a military detour in Viet Nam.
The office manager who hired Detring became seriously ill, so Detring and a co-worker just stepped in and did whatever was needed to keep things business as usual. First, Detring went home to see her father. "I said, ‘Dad, you need to teach me everything there is to know about title insurance in two days,’" Detring recalled. "I had no idea how naive I was being." But she absorbed everything she could and discovered that the analytical, problem-solving aspects of title insurance captivated her. "I got totally hooked on the business," she said. After she earned a law degree, Detring and her husband decided to move back to Farmington—she to join her parents’ company and he to start an accounting firm. They had Jeremy, now 23, and Christine, 15, and settled into a life of combining two demanding careers, volunteering in the community and raising cattle on their 320-acre farm.
From the beginning, Detring was involved in the Missouri Land Title Association, becoming president in 1987. She followed in both parent’s footsteps. Her father, Milton Schnebelen was president in 1963 and her mother, Phyllis Schnebelen, had been the state group’s first female president in 1972.
Detring also became active in ALTA®, chairing the Education, Closing and Young Title People committees and serving—like her father, Milton Schnebelen—on the Board of Governors. She served as president of the Land Title Institute, wrote the LTI workbook on Land Descriptions and for two years has participated as an industry commentator at LTI’s Management Development Program. Along the way, she impressed industry colleagues with her deep knowledge of and dedication to the title insurance industry, as well as with her leadership, organization, and communication skills.
"She’s bright, dedicated, good-humore—every association should have a Cara Detring," said Mike Currier, president of Guaranty Title Co. in Carlsbad, NM, and former ALTA® president. "Cara has a history of hard work and service to ALTA®," said Dan Wentzel, chairman and chief executive officer of North American Title Co. in Walnut Creek, CA, and former ALTA® president. "She’s very intelligent, she speaks what’s on her mind, and she communicates really well." "She’s a real leader. She always presents herself as organized and knowledgeable about the subject she is talking about," said Cathy Weise, former owner of Cherryland Title Inc. in Sturgeon Bay, WI, and past president of the Wisconsin Land Title Association.
"She has a true love of this business," said Carolyn Hoyer, secretary-treasurer of Wisconsin Title Service Co. Inc. in Waukesha, WI, and ALTA® Land Title Systems Committee member. "She really comes through for the industry."
Detring’s rise to the office of president, while a milestone for the association, comes as little surprise to her colleagues. "Everybody has always talked about her as someone who should become president," said Jack Rattikin Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Rattikin Title Co. in Fort Worth, TX, and former ALTA® president. The fact that she is the association’s first woman at the helm is "a step in the right direction. We’ve needed a woman for a long time, " he added.
"She came up through the ranks of an all-male organization. That says a tremendous amount about her ability," said Ellen Albrecht, vice president of Security Land Title & Escrow Co. in Omaha, NE, and president of the Nebraska Land Title Association. "But I’m not glad she’s president just because she’s a female. She’s intelligent, she has given a tremendous amount to the industry and the association, and she deserves to be president."
"Cara’s voice will be very important for the industry, not only as a representative of the agents in the heartland, but as a representative of women in the industry," said Jan Alpert, president of LandAmerica Financial Group in Richmond, VA, and ALTA® Government Affairs Committee member. "She’s passionate about things. If it’s important to her, she will not hesitate to stand up and speak about it."
Critical Time for the Industry
Although Detring set the ALTA® presidency as a goal years ago, she does not consider herself a trailblazer. "I just hung in there and worked hard," she said. "My motivation has always been service to the industry." She maintains that being the first woman president should not be a big deal. "I am very pleased to be that person, but I guess in my heart I know that it does not make me any more special than every other woman I know who makes a career in the title business," she said. "The level of dedication and the talent of title people everywhere is phenomenal, and those attributes are not tied to gender."
Detring takes over as president at a critical time for the industry, as consolidation and technology change the way title companies do business and industry customers looking for new revenue sources seek to become business partners.
"There is no question that the industry is changing. The change is affecting the way every single title office does business today," she said. "I think the title industry and ALTA® have to take the approach that the changes occurring in the title marketplace are opportunities. This is not a time to sit back and do nothing. This is a time to be proactive and try to help shape marketplace demands."
Continuing the progress of ALTA®’s ongoing strategic planning process is a priority for Detring during the coming year. That process, which is designed to provide a framework for encouraging change in the association and industry, includes expanding ALTA®’s boundaries to accommodate new industry players. "We need to broaden ALTA®’s base to include others in the real estate settlement industry," she said. "If we broaden our base, we broaden our power."
Detring cautions that change may not be popular with all ALTA® members. "Change is not comfortable," she said. "That is why I try to keep in mind that ALTA® has a proud tradition of service to the title industry and that history is important, but ALTA®’s leadership has to keep an eye to the future. And I think we are."
Grassroots a Priority
Another priority is encouraging grassroots involvement among industry professionals, a message Detring will carry to state groups throughout the year. "It’s hard and it takes time, but I always tell people, ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it,’" she said. "We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for someone else to take the initiative. We all have to take the initiative."
Grassroots support was integral to ALTA®’s lobbying success during the 1999 debate on the Financial Services Modernization Act, helping to preserve state regulation of title insurance and prohibit banks or their subsidiaries from underwriting title insurance. Although the industry’s concerns represented a small fraction of the massive legislation, Detring said, ALTA® was able to have an impact.
"ALTA® will continue to build grassroots support so that our voice in Washington and in every state capital is strong and demands attention from our lawmakers and regulators," she said.
"This process is ongoing and has to start at the state level. We have great representation in our lobbying effort in Washington. Now we need to give that effort even more clout."
Detring plans to speak at as many state conventions as she can squeeze in during the year, increasing her current tally of 25 states to at least 44. While attending industry gatherings is essential to spreading the ALTA® message, it also provides networking opportunities. "I really enjoy going to industry events," she said. "I get to be with people who do what I do and love what they do. It is just the best."
Detring’s colleagues, in turn, appreciate her willingness to share the expertise she has gained in her 25-year career. "Cara spent the whole week with us at the Management Development Program in Houston to help us learn," recalled Albrecht. "Her willingness to share her knowledge is a tremendous asset to the industry."
Balancing Work and Family
Reaction from her normally supportive family was not quite as positive. While Detring’s typical business trip is three days or so—just long enough for everyone to get tired of Dad’s meatloaf, she often tells audiences—her week in Houston put a temporary strain on the father-daughter relationship.
"One night, I got an e-mail from Christine saying, ‘Mom, don’t you EVER leave me with him this long again,’" she said, laughing. "The next morning, I got an e-mail from Terry saying, ‘Cara Lenore, don’t you EVER leave me with her this long again.’"
Managing the family, career, and community facets of her full life is a "juggling act," Detring admitted. "But you just do it. Sometimes you steal time from work for your family and other times from family for work, but it all seems to work out better for it."
Detring credits her husband with taking on a lot of home and business responsibilities. "Terry is very supportive," she said. "He has always been willing to share family obligations. If he didn’t, I couldn’t do a lot of the things that I do.
Outside the Industry
In addition to running her title insurance company, Detring maintains a law practice focusing on real estate and estate planning. She also has been active on numerous community boards and committees, including those of a nonprofit hospital, hospice organization, college foundation, and church.
She spent eight years as a part-time municipal judge, ruling on everything from speeding tickets to ordinance violations to the occasional barroom brawl. "It was kind of like ‘Night Court,’" she said. "I liked it because of the people aspects of it. I enjoyed helping people work through the system."
Despite her demanding schedule, Detring treasures the times she can relax with her family at their farm outside of Farmington, just 15 minutes from her office. They have 80 registered Brangus cattle, 4 horses, 3 dogs, 2 cats, and Detring’s beloved Belled Galloway cow —otherwise known as the "Oreo cows."
"They look just like Double Stuf Oreo cookies—white in the middle and black in the front and back," she said. She first spotted the Scottish cows on a trip through South Dakota, and then looked around for some to add to the farm’s stock. She finally located two in Vermont, and her herd has now grown to seven.
Returning to Farmington to raise a family and forge a career turned out to be the right decision for the Detrings. "It was a hard decision for us to make at the time, but we haven’t regretted it," she said. "It has been a good life."
It is a life in which Detring remains completely fascinated by the title insurance business she at first resisted. Not long ago, while studying a file her mother had worked on 20 years earlier, she finally figured out why the plat of a tract of land encroached on the adjoining properties.
Someone in the lot’s distant past had written the description while looking at a plat upside down, so north in the description really meant south.
"If you turned the drawing upside down, it made sense. It was the neatest thing in the world to figure that out," Detring said. "I called my mom and said, ‘You won’t believe this—and mom remembered!!’"
Ellen Schweppe, APR, is president of Ellen Schweppe Company, LLC, a public relations firm serving the financial services and other industries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703) 435-5621.