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Mentoring Tomorrow’s Title Leaders

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March/April 2002 - Volume 81, Number 2

by Ellen Schweppe

Catherine Anderson firmly believes that if it weren’t for mentors who took an interest in her early in her career, she would not be where she is today.

Anderson, president of Fidelity National Title Insurance Co.’s Tampa, FL., district, started at age 17 as a part-time receptionist at a title agency in St. Petersburg. Agency President Irene Hawley recognized a strong work ethic in Anderson and took her under her wing.

"She quasiadopted me and taught me about things like money management, production, and customer service," Anderson said. "I was there only about two years, but I got such a wonderful foundation for the rest of my career."

After two years in the escrow area of another agency, Anderson went into business with colleague Dean Tomlinson. "He recognized my customer-service skills and how hard I worked," she said. "When he left to open his own company, he invited me to join him and gave me an interest in the company."

From Tomlinson, Anderson learned the title side of the business and eventually bought him out. She ran the company herself for 14 years, sold it to First American Title Insurance Co., and stayed on to manage the operations for eight years. She then joined Fidelity National, where she oversees operations in nine Florida counties.

"Without the mentoring experiences I’ve had, I’d still be trying to figure out what to do with my life," Anderson said. "I’m so lucky I had the opportunity to work with people who were interested in my future and in sharing information."

Mentoring for Success

Anderson’s story is not unique among those who have succeeded in the title insurance industry. Many of today’s industry leaders credit mentoring with helping them acquire skills and experience that have enabled them to grow in their careers. And those who have been on both the giving and receiving end of the mentoring process recognize its importance in maintaining a succession of strong industry leaders.

"Mentoring is key to getting ahead in this industry," Anderson said. "It’s so important that people in our industry take the time to mentor others so that we’ll have people with the skills and knowledge to carry on after us."

The need for mentoring becomes even more critical as baby boom-era leaders begin to think about retirement, leaving the less populous younger generation to fill management positions across the industry. Title agency owners, in particular, find that mentoring and transition planning are important when the time comes to retire from running their business, whether they pass it on to family members or sell it.

The potential for a leadership gap is not limited to the title insurance industry. One in five top management positions and nearly one in four middle-management positions could be vacant by 2005, according to a recent Development Dimensions International study of succession management practices. At the same time, 40 percent of organizations surveyed rated their approach to leadership development as low or very low, according to another study by the same firm.

During the 1990s, mergers and acquisitions reduced the number of middle-management positions in corporations throughout the United States, according to the publication Trend Letter. In addition, a trend toward divestiture of all but core businesses often eliminated opportunities for managers to learn all aspects of an industry. As a result, fewer candidates have had opportunities to acquire the qualifications they need to fill future leadership positions.

While the title insurance industry is not immune to trends affecting corporate America as a whole, many companies are taking steps to avoid a leadership gap and ensure that their organizations will be well run in the future. They are doing it by combining mentoring with a variety of training programs to prepare today’s up-and-comers for tomorrow’s leadership positions. Companies are offering learning opportunities to help employees be more effective in their jobs in the near term and, for the most capable, outstanding leaders over the long term.

Planning for the Future

When brothers John and Roger Bell, owners of Security Title Co. in Wichita, KS, decided to sell the company their father founded in the 1940s, they had a succession plan in mind. They had spent more than 15 years mentoring Craig Burns, an employee who had started as a messenger and had worked his way up in the company by learning as many facets of the title business as possible.

"When we sold the company to First American in 1999, they asked if we had someone to take over the operation," John Bell said. "We thought Craig was very capable of doing that. My brother and I had a management contract to stay and catch Craig up on what he had not yet been involved in, such as finance. It has worked out very well."

The Bells noticed early on that Burns related well to both office colleagues and customers and that he was eager to learn. "When you have a good customer say to you, ‘I hope you appreciate what a good job that young man does for you,’ it gets your attention," Bell said. "He was doing an outstanding job, he loved every minute of it, and he had the ability to build deep loyalties. All of the ingredients were there for him to move up the ladder. In fact, before we made the decision to sell, my brother and I had been talking about how long it would be before we would have to get out of his way."

Burns recalls his beginnings at the company as less than auspicious. "The first week that I was there making deliveries, I wrecked the car," he said. "I went to Roger and John and said I wanted to make things right." He spent weekends working in the storage room until the car-repair bill was paid off.

Burns made deliveries for three years, learning every customer from secretary to bank president, before asking the Bells for more responsibility. He started making marketing calls, doing title filings, and learning the closing process. He expanded his base of business contacts by attending civic and industry events with the Bells. "I met with the Bells at least once a week, which gave me an oppor-tunity to bounce ideas off them and learn even more," Burns said.

Now that Security Title is a wholly owned subsidiary of First American with Burns at the helm, the Bells are still available for advice. "I can call and talk with them any time," said Burns. "It’s a great safety net for me."


Mentoring and Training

Fidelity National’s Title Administration Department tackles training and mentoring from the ground up, according to Vice President Robin Smith. She and her staff visit title offices across the country to analyze floor plans and work flow, recommending changes designed to meet the priority of improving each office’s report service time while maintaining quality.

"It may not sound like training or mentoring, but it is," Smith said. "The floor plan, right up to where people sit, affects how people work and learn. If the work environment is right, mentoring and passing on knowledge occurs in a much more fluid and natural way."

Mentoring in Fidelity National’s title area is "an informal but formally encouraged process," Smith said. Senior people are asked to identify and mentor their most promising employees, giving them increasingly challenging assignments and working with them on problems they encounter in their day-to-day work.

"It’s difficult to establish a curriculum for mentoring," Smith said. "Basically, you have to mentor as the file comes up. Whenever an employee has a problem with a file, it’s the mentor’s job to explain it to him. Even though it’s an informal process, the extra wrinkle is that we’re encouraging mentoring from a corporate level and having senior people in each office make sure it happens."

In addition to encouraging informal mentoring, Smith’s department offers more formal training opportunities for employees to help them acquire job skills and develop networks with colleagues. Once a year, for example, the department conducts a two-day title seminar on each coast for local offices.

Seminar participants discuss improving work flow and quality, as well as hear presentations from company leaders and colleagues from offices with success stories. "The seminars encourage people to network so that they have people in other geographic areas to go to when they want to discuss problems and ideas," Smith said.

One point Smith emphasizes when talking to employee groups is the need to take initiative in seeking out mentors. "I tell people not to sit on their hands and wait for someone to give them all their knowledge. You have to go out and ask for it."

At the same time, Smith said, managers are supportive of the company’s informal mentoring directive. "I get enthusiastic feedback from senior people about mentoring," she said. "They like having the opportunity to share their knowledge."

Avoiding a Leadership Gap

Mike Holden, president of Guaranty Land Title Insurance Co. in Columbia, Missouri, credits ongoing mentoring and training programs with helping the company his grandfather started in 1937 avoid a leadership gap. "We’ve really been selective in the people we have invested our time and resources in. I think that has done us a world of good," said Holden, whose parents mentored him before he took over the company.

When identifying employees with management potential, Holden looks for people who are good at what they do, love their job, and always want to do more. While some have come to the company with prior management, real estate, or mortgage experience, others have started at the bottom and worked their way up.

Each month Holden calls managers of the company’s 10 offices together for an all-day meeting. "The amount of idea sharing and brainstorming the collective group is able to do is far more than one person could do on his own," he said. "As a group, we can come up with more marketing solutions and think of more approaches to real estate title searches and closings than we each could on our own. I think it’s one of our biggest competitive advantages."

To build the next generation of company leaders, Holden aggressively encourages and pays for key employees to attend ALTA® training programs and conferences, as well as training opportunities offered by underwriters with whom the company works. He also conducts development classes for field personnel and introductory sessions for new employees, using materials he has created himself or obtained from sources such as ALTA®.

"My father instilled in me very early on that in the title industry your people are your business," Holden said. "Everybody is selling the same thing, so if your people aren’t above par you won’t have an impact on the marketplace. That’s what drives our staffing and training."

It is also what Holden believes will keep his company from developing a leadership gap. "We have such a vast wealth of experienced people; things don’t get held up because only one person can make a decision," he said.

Advice on Mentoring

For companies developing mentoring and training programs, Holden offers three-part advice. "The first thing I’d recommend is talking to the underwriters you work with to find out what kind of programs they offer that would benefit your employees. Second, talk to ALTA® and state associations and see what training programs are available from them. Third, look for networking opportunities for employees at both state and national levels."

Holden acknowledges that sending employees to national conferences can be expensive, but adds that most state events are within driving distance. "The people I see at state conferences tend to be company owners. I’d like to see more frontline people get involved. I think one of the failings of our industry is failure to train the new breed," he said.

Anderson agrees that mentoring tomorrow’s leaders is essential to the industry’s success. "It’s very important for people to be mentored in our industry. There’s no place else you can go to learn this. The best way is by starting at the front desk and then learning the next job and the next job and the next job. But you need help from those who have gone before you."

Anderson’s advice for industry professionals considering mentoring is simple: "Try to find those people who have the right skills, a good work ethic, and a sense of loyalty toward their employer, and then work with them to enhance their skills."

As someone who has enjoyed the benefits of being mentored, Anderson takes her own advice. "I’ve identified a couple of people who work with me who I know could replace me," she said. "I try to educate them with every task. I tell them the reason they’re doing something so they’ll understand the ultimate purpose, not just the part they’re working on."

Identifying promising employees to mentor is not always easy, according to Burns. "Some come to you and seek your advice, but others you have to watch for. It’s almost like being a pro scout checking out high school players. You have to figure out which ones to take a shot with."

Once you have spotted employees with potential, Burns said, the key to making mentoring pay off is patience. "To really develop someone takes time. You can’t do it overnight. You need to send them to training in areas where they need it, test them with tough assignments, and see how well they do," he said. "But it makes all the difference."

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 or (703) 435-5621.

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