Build Your Bench: Staffing the Future Title Company

October 26, 2017

In 2008, Zappos garnered significant attention for its hiring practices. The online shoe and clothing shop—famously obsessed with customer service—makes what it calls “The Offer” to new hires telling them “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you have worked, plus a $2,000 bonus.” When Amazon acquired Zappos in 2009, it also bought into “The Offer” policy and took it to another level. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos explained in his 2014 annual letter to shareholders that the company added a program modeled after the one started by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. After some adjustments, Bezos titled the program “Pay to Quit.”

Instead of receiving an offer to quit during training, Amazon employees get the offer every year. In the first year the offer is for $2,000 and increases $1,000 each year to a maximum of $5,000.

“The goal is to encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want,” Bezos wrote in his letter. “In the long run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.”

In making the offer, Amazon achieves greater productivity. They rarely have to pay the $5,000. Recent research by Gallup found that publicly traded companies with 9.3 or more engaged employees for every disengaged employee had 147 percent higher earnings per share than their competitors. Meanwhile, companies with little engagement—2.6 engaged employees for every disengaged employee— had 2 percent less earnings per share than competitors.

Finding and retaining productive employees is just as vital for the title industry, especially with the changing demands and needs of today’s customers. In addition, key employees may be starting to retire. Maintaining a blend of experience with the skill set needed for the next generation of business is a needed balancing act to continue delivering quality service. To be successful, title and settlement companies must learn how to find and hire staff who can drive customer loyalty and ultimately grow market share.

“Today’s customers have greater expectations from what they want from their title company because they do know the process a little bit more,” said Cynthia McGovern, chief executive officer of Orange Leaf Consulting. “Because the customer is changing, we must change in the way we run our businesses and how we staff our companies.”

Building Your Bench

As president of H.B. Wilkinson Title Company, Dan Mennenoh ITP, NTP understands what it takes to keep his company positioned for success. Having operated for nearly 135 years, H.B. Wilkinson Title has had its share of employees over the years. In order to build for the future, Mennenoh has retooled his company’s hiring procedures, ditched the old-school employee review process and developed individual assessment plans.

Managers at H.B. Wilkinson Title used to be responsible for finding people and conducting interviews.

“We’d get lucky and find some good people, but we also had a lot of failures,” Mennenoh said.

That’s when it made a change. In 2014, H.B. Wilkinson Title’s COO Devon Irby (Dan and Merry Mennenoh’s daughter) assumed additional responsibilities to become the company’s “chief people officer.” She conducted interviews with all the staff to learn what the company did well and what needed improved.

“We’ve taken a different approach in how we look for people, how we bring them on and how we deal with our folks on staff,” Mennenoh said. “We found that a few people didn’t fit our culture and we decided to part ways. We look at it as building our farm system. We need to attract young people to our industry and give them an opportunity to build a career. It’s about finding the right people and finding them the right job functions.”

Irby said that when the company revamped its hiring process, it focused on finding people with three things: basic office skills, buy-in to the company culture and a positive attitude. She outlined seven actions companies should follow to improve hiring and retention.

You need to determine attributes and skills that fit into your company’s culture.

People are your biggest asset. They know your culture and values. Irby said H.B. Wilkinson Title’s best hires were recommended by current team members.

Take advice from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and don’t panic. Rushing to fill a seat costs money. Having the wrong person is more disruptive than having an empty desk. “Now we take our time,” Irby said.

The interview process is the first opportunity to talk about company culture. The orientation process is second. Reinforce culture during both processes.

Onboarding must be done with clarity and deliberation. Reinforce the company culture. Set the new hire up with a mentor.

Follow-through is essential. Invest in each team member through their professional development. This doesn’t always mean dollars. Employee development helps develop accountability for the team member and the company

The company culture must have buy-in from the entire team. “We struggled with our offices being individual because they are rural and people don’t see each other regularly,” Irby said. It’s also important to call people team members.

In addition, H.B. Wilkinson Title created an individual development plan (IDP) to assist employees in career and personal development. The IDP helps employees reach short- and long-term career goals, as well as improve current job performance.

“We meet with every employee and find out what they are interested in and how they want to grow professionally,” Irby added. “And then we check in during the middle of the year to see how things are going.”

Allowing employees to talk to someone who is not their boss and share what they want to learn is a powerful recruiting technique. A great way to retain staff is to build a team that others want to be a part of.

“You become the flower instead of the bee,” said Cynthia McGovern, CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting.

Finding Talented Employees

According to an unscientific poll of about 350 title professionals, 65 percent of their employees are over 40 years old (17 percent are older than 50). Since building a bench is important for longevity, title and settlement companies must start thinking about where to find new employees. This will involve tapping into the Millennial cohort—those typically born between 1980 and 2000 (give or take a few years).

Trying to attract people from this generation requires understanding their wants and needs, and that their prerequisite for work-life balance is different than past generations. According to a 2016 survey from Gallup, 87 percent of Millennials rate “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as important to them in a job, and three out of four worry about balancing personal and work lives.

“The next generation is not going to come to work and push the same button for the next 20 years,” McGovern said. “Think about how you can help them achieve their goals. Maybe it’s through professional development seminars, leadership training or through a master’s program.”

The key is to know what you’re dealing with when trying to attract this group. Additionally, it helps to understand the market. Millennials in a metro area may have different concerns than those from the same age group in rural areas, according to McGovern.

David Townsend, chief executive officer of Agents National Title Insurance Co., said he finds many of his company’s employees from referrals. His staff understands the culture and what it takes to succeed. They also know who they want to work with.

“We focus on getting the right people on the bus. Then we’ll find the right seat,” Townsend said.

Townsend offers internships to let potential hires—such as Millennials—learn about the company.

“You can create a bench even though you don’t have a position that’s open,” Townsend said. “You need to be prepared if someone wins the lottery or a competitor may snag an employee.”

Companies may want to consider using meetup.com to start conversations with professionals. The online social networking portal facilitates offline group meetings and can be used to identify potential candidates.

“Social media is a great tool for recruiting Millennials,” Townsend said. “Social media platforms are essentially free job boards with a large audience. You can also ask friends and staff to post job openings to reach a much larger pool of people.”

Stewart also utilizes its younger staff to help find potential new hires. Tara Smith, Stewart’s agency financial director, capitalizes on the Millennials who have been successful and has created a Millennial Council to develop ideas on how to find candidates.

Jill Marshall, president of Columbia Title, says her company never sought out entry-level people until they recently held a “dating session.” Invites were posted on Facebook and Craigslist, while staff also invited friends in their network to attend a two-hour date session. More than 20 people showed up for the interviews, which were conducted by five employees from Columbia Title.

“We found a person who came from the courthouse and handled entry of child support payments,” Marshall said. “She was a great candidate for the position we had open.”

Frank Pellegrini, chief executive officer of Prairie Title, said his company became stuck in a process constantly hiring for skill. The company needed to hire people who could immediately handle the work because it was growing so fast and taking in more business.

“That didn’t always work out,” he said. “Now we take a deliberate approach. We want the right cultural mix with people that are enthusiastic about coming to work.”

With several universities in close proximity to his office, Pellegrini has connected with counselors that help students find employment during college and after graduation.

Students who major in history and communications tend to be good targets. It’s important to keep an open mind when searching. While law school graduates may provide certain skills, people working in restaurants or mixing up your cocktails may provide needed customer service and communication skills.

“The pool is shallow and this is an aging industry,” McGovern said. “We need to start pulling from people who don’t know about title.”

The Hiring Process

A step that could prove beneficial during the hiring process is to develop detailed job descriptions. This includes getting very specific, such as explaining that an entry-level position may involve answering the phone.

Once candidates have been identified, it’s important to develop a list of questions to learn about skill sets and personality. In addition to questions, it’s also helpful to see how people react in certain situations. Conduct a phone interview if someone is interviewing for a position that requires them to use the phone. A face-to-face interview is good for those who are making in-person sales calls.

“Behavioral interview techniques are very powerful,” McGovern said. “Asking behavioral questions forces them to reveal how they’d perform for you.” 

Current staff members performing functions you plan to hire for are good sources to help develop a list of questions.

After the decision is made and the onboarding is complete, the first week on the job comes down to caring. Managers should meet one-on-one with new hires to build trust. It’s more important to get to know the people more than the position. Employees will trust that you are invested in their future. Showing appreciation for employees can also help the training process and instill a strong culture. Showing appreciation for employees by giving them hand-written notes and celebrating anniversaries and birthdays are small things that make a big impact.

“It makes a difference when you go out of your way to acknowledge employees and their successes,” said Bernadette Cuevas, managing director at First Nationwide Title Agency. “You need to help employees grow their career.”

The first 90 days is critical in retaining talent. Other things to consider when trying to attract a younger workforce from other industries include:

  • Flex schedule (could employ a couple of part timers with one working 7 a.m.-2 p.m. and another noon to 6 p.m.)
  • Day-one healthcare
  • Education reimbursement
  • Recognition and mentor programs
  • Ramp-up plan so new hires feel successful early on

“We need to get good at recruiting because we will have turnover, not just because people will retire, but because 50 percent of our workforce will move on,” McGovern said. “There will be a revolving door just because of the statistics. Having a strong bench will prevent you from having to hire quickly. This allows you to assess needs, evaluate strengths and weaknesses, and find motivated and hungry people, before making critical staffing decisions.”

Mennenoh said that at H.B. Wilkinson they do a lot of simple things to develop camaraderie such as providing a bouquet of balloons when someone has a birthday.

“During the holidays, we hold an ugly sweater contest. It’s become very competitive,” Mennenoh said. “We determine winners by taking photographs. The photos are posted online and everyone votes. We have a travelling trophy and put the winner’s name and year on it.”

Mennenoh said that on several occasions they brought in people with industry experience, but the success rate was low. By following this new path, the success rate of new hires has improved significantly.

Mennenoh said that building a strong culture and rapport is highly valued at H.B. Wilkinson. While sticking to their diligent process and purposely building upon its culture, the company once went a year before filling one position because it wanted to find the right fit rather than just filling a seat.

“We’ve hired about eight or nine Millennials the past few years and we have some rising stars,” Mennenoh said. “One of the things we’ve done is that we’ve eliminated the word ‘staff’ and ‘employee’ from our vocabulary. We refer to a ‘team’ and ‘team members.’ Millennials want to be part of something bigger and doing something doing positive for others. Obviously, we do that. We protect property rights and help people buy homes.”


Contact ALTA at 202-296-3671 or communications@alta.org.

SoftPro, based in Raleigh, NC, offers a mature suite of products, designed specifically for the closing and title industry. Our mission is to serve our client base, with best-in-class products and services. Our products are modular so we don't force you to buy anything you don't need. You can always add on as your business grows. Unlike other software companies, we view the sale as the beginning of the relationship rather than the end. North American Title Insurance Company (NATIC) is a seasoned title insurance underwriter, helping title agents to achieve their individual business goals for more than 50 years. Today, the company conducts real estate settlement services in 39 states and the District of Columbia through a network of experienced, independent agents.