by Ellen Schweppe
Gregory M. Kosin, president of Greater Illinois Title Company in Chicago, was installed as ALTA® president this past October during ALTA®’s Annual Convention. Get a sneak peek at Greg’s career and life in the title industry and his hopes for this next year.
In his first job Greg Kosin honed his customer service skills by taking on the most unpleasant clients and figuring out how to make them happy. "I liked the challenge of trying to turn things around," he said.
Now president of Greater Illinois Title Co. in Chicago, Kosin credits the customer service expertise he gained early in his career with helping him and partner Chuck Papp grow a start-up into the largest title agency in Illinois and one of the largest in the country. As the new president of the American Land Title Association®, he wants to bring that customer service mind-set to the association’s membership development efforts.
To Kosin that means thinking of ALTA® members as customers, too.
"What can we do for members to provide them with exceptional customer service? We need to give them a compelling reason to join or maintain their membership in ALTA®," he said.
Just as he learned to do in his first job and does with his company’s customers today, Kosin wants to help ALTA® figure out what makes members happy. "We need to make ALTA® an organization that truly serves its members with the things that they want," he said.
Growing a Business
Although it wasn’t his original plan, Kosin has spent his entire 30-year career in title insurance, going straight from the University of Illinois to his cousin’s Chicago firm. "I graduated on Saturday and started in the title business on Monday morning," he said.
Kosin’s dream was to become an attorney, so he found the job of examining title documents and learning about the real estate transfer process interesting. While working full time during the day and attending law school classes at night, he was offered a management position. He decided to put aside his plans for a legal career and commit to the title insurance business.
When the company was sold in 1984, Kosin and some of his colleagues found the new owners’ more formal management style uncomfortable. They missed the collegial atmosphere of the old company. They decided it was time to strike out on their own.
"We were 30 years old and figured if we fell flat on our face; we still had time to recover our careers," Kosin said.
On April 1, 1985, Kosin, Papp, and three other partners launched Greater Illinois Title Co. with two offices and nine employees. They figured on about 50 orders a month, but the first month they got almost 350. By the end of the first year they had six offices.
"We were blessed with determination, and we were blessed with a strong market in 1985 and 1986," said Kosin.
Today, Greater Illinois Title has 16 offices and more than 150 employees in the Chicago metropolitan area. It provides title insurance, construction and commercial escrow services, sale and refinance closing services, 1031 tax-deferred exchanges, land surveys, and real estate information. It is Chicago Title Insurance Co.’s largest title agent in Illinois and one of the largest in the country. Kosin also has an ownership interest in H.B. Wilkinson Title Co., which operates ten offices serving northwestern Illinois and parts of Wisconsin and Iowa. He and partner Dan Mennenoh bought the company from Mennenoh’s parents in 1996.
Customer Focus, Family Atmosphere
While Kosin is involved in the day-to-day management of Greater Illinois Title, his contribution at H.B. Wilkinson Title is in developing strategies for marketing and growing the company. For both companies, he believes, the key to success is the emphasis on meeting customers’ needs, which he learned in his first job.
"We focus very strongly on customer service," he said. "We’ve developed a reputation of being able to come through for customers in a pinch."
Kosin’s business strategy for Greater Illinois Title has been to develop a one-stop shopping model for customers by offering a range of real estate-related services, from title insurance to surveys to closings. "We want to be in the front of our customers’ minds when it comes to any real estate transaction or information," he said.
He also has worked to create the family atmosphere that he valued in the early years at his cousin’s company. He means that not only in the literal sense—his wife, Darlene, has been part of the company since the beginning and several other employees are related to each other. He also strives to foster an atmosphere of camaraderie and closeness in which people can stop by his office any time to talk about business or personal issues.
"It all comes down to treating people well and treating them as people first, not necessarily as employees," he said. "When times get tough or when it gets really busy, these people go to war for you. And that’s important. They come through for us, and I think that our closeness is part of the reason why."
Many employees who joined the company the first year are still there today. At the firm’s 20th anniversary party in 2005, Kosin was surprised when several employees made a point of telling him that they appreciated the positive impact the company has had on their lives by providing them not only with a good job but also with the ability to buy a nice home and send their kids to good schools. "I had never really thought about it before, but to me that is the greatest accomplishment, having a positive impact on people," Kosin said. "And not only on employees but also on customers, whether it’s getting that tough deal closed or helping a young couple buy their first home and seeing the joy in their faces."
Getting Involved in Issues
The title insurance industry’s positive impact is not well understood by many outside the industry, Kosin believes, which has contributed to the regulatory and legislative scrutiny the industry is now undergoing.
"We have not always done a good job of communicating to the public and our customers the value of the products and services we provide," he said.
Some in the industry are reluctant to talk about claims, for example, because they may not want to reveal how title insurance fraud occurs for fear that others will try the same tactics. As a result, Kosin said, "there’s a perception that we pay little in claims. But when I make presentations to customers, I talk about claim situations and use them as an educational tool to demonstrate the value of our product."
Early on, Kosin, a political science major in college, determined that keeping abreast of industry issues meant getting involved in industry organizations, including ALTA®. "It became clear to me very quickly that laws and regulations can change and have a tremendous impact on your business, so I felt it necessary to become involved to keep in tune with changes, legislative and regulatory, at both the state and national level," he said.
His involvement in industry organizations also benefits his customers, Kosin believes. "It keeps us on our toes and provides a forum for new and fresh ideas. It helps us to become more efficient and responsive to customers and to provide them with the level of service and products they need."
A two-time president of the Illinois Land Title Association, Kosin has also served as a director of the Illinois Association of Mortgage Brokers, the Illinois Mortgage Bankers Association, the Society of Mortgage Professionals, and the Chicago Association of Realtors.
As a member of the Title Insurance Advisory Task Force of the Illinois Department of Financial Institutions, Kosin helped draft the Illinois Title Insurance Act of 1990. As chairman of the ALTA® Government Affairs Committee, he testified at a 2003 hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Small Business on the impact of changes in the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act on the title insurance industry.
Moving ALTA® Forward
Most recently, Kosin was chair of the ALTA® Abstracters and Title Insurance Agents Section. He was asked to take over as the association’s president after president-elect Mike Wille died in a plane crash shortly before he was scheduled to take office.
"I came to the conclusion that this is something I need to do. It’s a great challenge under tragic circumstances, but it’s just the right thing to do," Kosin said. "Mike was always someone you could count on. He would never say no. He had a passion for the industry, as many of us do. His involvement in ALTA® was part of his life."
Unlike most ALTA® presidents, Kosin has not had a year as president-elect to plan for his presidency, but he knows what he wants to focus on.
"First and foremost, I want to assist in the healing process and help move the organization forward,” he said. “I think that’s what Mike would want."
Among the industry issues Kosin anticipates spending time on during the year is reform of RESPA, which regulates how consumers buy and refinance homes. Last year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development held a series of roundtable discussions on what reform should entail, and HUD was expected to release proposed regulations for comment after the November elections.
At the HUD roundtables, including one in Chicago that Kosin participated in, ALTA® representatives outlined the principles the association believes should guide RESPA reform. They include giving market-based approaches an opportunity to work before imposing regulatory directives, allowing consumers the freedom to choose settlement service providers, and recognizing the important role small businesses play in the real estate industry.
Another ongoing issue for ALTA® is the focus of federal authorities and state regulators on the title insurance industry. At the request of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services, the U.S. Government Accountability Office is conducting a study of the regulation and competitive nature of the industry.
In congressional testimony, ALTA® has affirmed the industry’s desire to work more closely with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, state insurance regulators, and federal authorities to achieve greater clarity on the rules governing the title industry and to ensure that those rules are enforced.
When he’s not focusing on business responsibilities, Kosin likes watching the Cubs play baseball, enjoying Chicago (which he calls "the greatest city in the world"), and being with his family. It’s evident that he’s proud of his wife and three sons and values the time he gets to spend with them. Darlene Kosin recently cut back to part-time hours at Greater Illinois Title, but before that she was the company’s sales leader for 20 straight years. "She has a streak almost as good as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak," Kosin said.
"My wife and I like to travel and to take long walks. Whether we’re walking along the lake here or along the beach in Florida, we just enjoy being together and being physically active."
Son Mark, a senior at Loyola University, is planning a career in the film industry, while Steve, a freshman at the University of Missouri, is considering hotel and restaurant management. As for Joe, a high school sophomore, "all he’s concerned with is getting his driver’s license," Kosin chuckled.
When his sons were younger, Kosin coached their baseball and basketball teams. Now he enjoys attending sports events or playing a round of golf with them, often including his 84-year-old father in a three-generation match. "We have a very close-knit family," he said. "It has always been important to us."
As Kosin looks ahead to his year as ALTA® president, he acknowledges that the industry faces a number of challenges, from enhancing its role in the real estate process to adapting to new technologies to addressing public misperceptions, "but I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge." He hopes ALTA® members will support him and the association by speaking up about the issues and concerns that are important to them.
"I run my business on an open-door policy. My employees can walk in pretty much any time to talk," he said. "I want to extend that open-door policy to every member of ALTA®. There are a lot of talented people in our industry and many good ideas. And we need to hear them."
His open-door policy is part of his initiative to bring a customer-service focus to the association. "Tell us what you need. Tell us what you’re looking for. Give us your thoughts and ideas. I’m willing to sit down with anyone and talk about how we can make this a great industry."
|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.|