Mark Bilbrey was installed as ALTA® president during the Annual Convention last month. Learn a bit about him and his vision for ALTA® this next year.
by Ellen Schweppe
Mark Bilbrey brings an unusual point of view to his role as the new president of the American Land Title Association®. He has spent much of his career running Warranty Title & Abstract, Inc., a small agency in El Reno, OK, population 16,212. Today he’s a vice president at First American Title Insurance Company, one of the nation’s largest underwriters.
“If I have anything to bring to the table, it’s that I see both sides,” he said. “My underwriter side is the new one, but I understand the pressures they are under to meet shareholders expectations. And I know the agent is essential to making that happen.”
Bilbrey believes this dual perspective will help him as he tackles one of his goals for the coming year: bringing the various players in the title insurance industry closer together. “We’re fragmenting as an industry,” he said. “To unify our industry under the marquee of the American Land Title Association® is a priority for me.”
Financial, technological, and regulatory pressures are triggering all aspects of the industry to evolve, he said, and it is important for agents and underwriters to work together to achieve common goals.
“I want to make sure the underwriters and agents are standing shoulder to shoulder as we go forward because we face a lot of challenges,” Bilbrey said. “Other industries are looking at us as an income source and wanting part of our financial pie.” Bilbrey believes better communication between the agent and underwriter camps is a good place to start in the effort to unify the industry. After sitting at the table with both agents and underwriters, he realizes that they don’t always have the information they need to understand each other’s point of view.
“A lot of it is strictly communication, and being conscious of each other’s needs and what the fallout might be from a move on either side,” he said. “We both have common goals, so it really shouldn’t be that hard.”
Another priority for Bilbrey is assuring that ALTA® continues to be the vital, go-to organization that meets the needs of diverse industry players. He cites the formation of a new association for independent abstracters as an example of a group that should not need to form. “There’s a home for them at ALTA®,” he said. “We need to make sure they understand they have a place with us. Not lure them in, but give them what they need and meet their goals.”
Growing a Business
What launched Bilbrey on his 34-year title industry career was a weekend job he took at an abstract company in Altus, OK, to help pay for junior college. “I started out not having a clue what an abstract was,” he said.
After college, he spent another year at Southwest Title—later acquired by First American—before moving on to a management role at Oklahoma City Abstract & Title Company. In 1980, looking for a slower pace, Bilbrey moved to Warranty Title & Abstract as vice president. “I was thinking I could have my life back—be the Little League coach and do all the things with the kids I wanted to—if I moved out here to the western Oklahoma City area,” he said. His plan worked for a while, until Oklahoma City’s growth started enveloping the western suburbs. Business surged, and he and his wife, Cathy Bilbrey—who ran the company’s escrow department—worked long hours to meet the growing demand for the agency’s services.
About three years after joining Warranty Title, Bilbrey acquired an ownership interest in the company, owned by two sisters who had inherited it from their father. In 1990 he was named president, and in 1997 he teamed up with investors to buy the company. In October 2003 they sold it to First American.
“It was a ten year courtship,” Bilbrey said. “We’ve had a few other underwriters knock at our door over the years, but First American was the most consistent and a perfect fit for our company and employees.
Several factors contributed to the Warranty Title sale: A booming mortgage refinance market had boosted the agency’s bottom line, Bilbrey’s fellow investors—none of whom were in the title business—were motivated to sell at the market’s peak, and First American was in an acquisition mode. “I was the last independent agent in the market, and we were a natural fit for First American,” he said. “It was also kind of exciting—a new challenge that would keep me motivated and rejuvenated.” Bilbrey remains president of Warranty Title, which is a separate entity within First American, and the 28-person company still represents other underwriters. But he has added the title of First American vice president to his business card.
“It’s gotten busier here; that’s what’s changed!” Bilbrey said. “First American has been great and the transition almost painless.”
He looks at the financial side of the business differently now, because First American’s review of financials and budget processes are more detailed than Warranty Title’s were as a stand-alone company. “I’ve learned a lot from First American’s processes and procedures,” he said.
What hasn’t changed is Bilbrey’s commitment to customer service. “Success to me is satisfied customers,” he said. “I know that sounds like a cliché, but the customer is always number one. Our job is to make the customer feel special.” One advantage of doing business in a small town—even one near a big city—is that he can get to know his customers through school, church, and community involvement. That small-town environment—coupled with being part of a hungry company located in a fast-growing market—contributed to Bilbrey’s success with Warranty Title.
He also credits his wife, whom he calls his unsung hero, who worked alongside him in building the company and serves as his sounding board. She is now planning to retire to pursue other interests, including spending time with their first grandson.
“Cathy has been such a huge part of my career,” he said. “We’ve lived this together, day in and day out, nights and weekends. It has been a family operation. Our kids have grown up in it. We started bringing them here before they could even walk.”
In fact, family life is an important element of Bilbrey’s definition of success. The Bilbreys have worked at balancing career and family over the years, sometimes splitting up to cover the numerous school and sports events of four active children. Many family vacations have centered on title conventions and seminars.
“ALTA® has given us good friends all over the country. Lots of our trips are to visit friends who are in this business,” Bilbrey said. “There have been times when business has pulled me away from the family, but normally the group went with us. We’d have all the kids in tow, regardless of where we went.”
Although all the Bilbrey children have worked in the Warranty Title office at one time or another, none has chosen title insurance as a career path.
The youngest, 18-year-old Kaci, is now a freshman at Oklahoma Christian University, where she plans to study business and run on the track team. Justin, 28, is in sales for a medical distribution company; Brad, 25, works for a national security solutions company; and Jeff, 23, is pursuing a doctorate in physics at the University of Oklahoma. However his two daughter-in-laws, Mindy and Sarah, work in the title industry.
Bilbrey also counts participation in industry organizations such as ALTA® and the Oklahoma Land Title Association as part of his definition of success.
“Industry involvement has never been just an option for me,” he said. “It’s part of life. If something is important, you give it all you’ve got.”
He worked with industry colleagues on the passage of Oklahoma’s abstracting law in 1983 and its insurance law in 1993. As Oklahoma Land Title Association president, he formed a Title Insurance Advisory Committee to counsel the Oklahoma Insurance Department on industry issues. “Oklahoma had always been an abstract state. It has been a little slower to adapt to changes in the title insurance industry than other parts of the country,” he said. “Being part of the state association as we’ve evolved to catch up with the rest of the industry is something that’s high on my list of things I’m proud of.”
Getting Involved in ALTA®
Bilbrey’s early exposure to ALTA® was limited to a few seminars until, as president-elect of the Oklahoma association, he attended an ALTA® annual convention. When he learned he could apply for ALTA® committee service, he did.
He was a little surprised when ALTA® Research Director Richard McCarthy called him to talk him into joining the Abstracter/Agent Research Committee.
“I said, ‘Rich, you don’t have to sell me on this committee. I would love to be involved,’ ” he said. “It’s our livelihood, so it’s important to do it.”
He spent about five years as a committee member and another five years as chairman. During his tenure, the committee revitalized the annual abstracter/agent survey, an assessment of members’ general operating information that serves as an industry benchmark.
Since then, Bilbrey has served on several ALTA® committees, including Government Affairs, Finance, Planning, Association Nominating, and Abstracter/Agent Nominating. He has been on the ALTA® Board of Governors since 1999, and he chaired the Abstracter/Agent Section in 2001 and 2002. He has also been a board member of TIAC (a member-owned, ALTA®-endorsed E&O insurance provider) for the last six years. When Bilbrey was approached about the possibility of becoming ALTA® president, he welcomed the opportunity, despite the time and travel commitments involved.
“I felt in a way that it was an obligation—not something I had earned but that I was obligated to pursue,” he said. “Going through the ALTA® committees and board has been one of the best periods of my life. And I would argue with anybody that the best people in the world are in our industry.” As Bilbrey pursues his goals to strengthen the unity and increase the diversity of ALTA®, he will be working with a board made up of what he calls “diverse, independent thinkers.”
“The board is an extremely talented group of people,” he said. “Underwriters and agents may be competitive, but when they get to the board level, they are all looking at what’s good for the industry, not what’s good for separate companies.”
What he hopes ALTA® members will do to help during the coming year is keep an open mind. “Try to think a little bit outside the box,” he said. “At least be open to new ideas. Some concessions need to be made on both sides for the good of the whole, for the industry to move forward.”
And if the association is not meeting members’ needs, Bilbrey hopes they will say something about it. “Don’t be bashful,” he said. “Speak up and say, ‘This is what we need to address.’ ”
Pursuing a Passion
Bilbrey has taken a job that he stumbled on in college and turned it into a successful career that has involved his family and enabled him to work with colleagues across Oklahoma and around the country on issues important to the industry. “This has been a passion more than a job,” he said. “We love this industry. I mean that collectively. I know I mention Cathy a lot, but she has been a huge part of this.” Despite his demanding schedule and busy family life, he makes time to participate in community efforts, most recently helping the Canadian County Youth and Family Services Center obtain a grant to build a new $4 million shelter for homeless youths in Oklahoma. “I feel everyone should give back to the community, and youth and family services are what I’m most passionate about right now,” he said. “With a background in the title industry and the contacts I’ve made, there’s a lot I can bring to economic development.” He also saves some time for other passions, such as playing golf, following University of Oklahoma sports teams, driving his 1971 Triumph TR6, and taking his wife out for a spin on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
But he lives and breathes the title industry, which is why he considers serving as ALTA® president both an obligation and a blessing.
“I’m Joe Average Title Person,” he said. “I never felt like there was anything that set me apart to be ALTA® president. I just felt I was fortunate enough and passionate about the job and about the industry. Anyone with passion can do this job. If you love what you do, then the rest of it’s easy.”Ellen Schweppe is president of Ellen Schweppe Company, LLC, an editorial services firm serving the financial services and other industries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703) 435-5621.