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One-on-One With the Leader of Service Mac

Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in the February issue of DS News

One of the first things President and CEO Robert “Bob” Caruso said to me during my visit to the offices of his mortgage subservicing company, ServiceMac, was to offer to let me remove my tie. It was a small gesture, but one that echoed many of the themes Caruso and the ServiceMac team would discuss passionately over the course of the afternoon to come— themes such as a commitment to a family-focused culture, an attention to detail, and a willingness to reexamine entrenched processes and mindsets, even if that’s “how things have always been done.”

Founded in 2017, ServiceMac now occupies a full floor of its building in Fort Mill, South Carolina, sharing an office park with the headquarters of Movement Mortgage. Caruso tells me that the company is already planning a move into a larger facility, and the evidence of those preparations aren’t hard to see—one whole section of the floor is occupied by spare chairs, tables, and other furniture. According to Caruso, they bought it by the lot after a local legal college shuttered, and they simply don’t have anyplace else to store it until their larger offices are ready for them.

Nevermind the clutter, the message is clear—ServiceMac has plans to grow. It’s the sort of casual confidence that isn’t unexpected from Caruso, a 30-year mortgage veteran who has put in time at companies such as JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and ServiceLink. But in spite of all those years of experience, Caruso’s ServiceMac venture is very much an attempt to push limits—both his own and those of his team.

ServiceMac’s website reads like that of many other similar companies, running down a list of services offered and avowing a commitment to providing “personalized solutions that span the mortgage continuum and enhance security, customer satisfaction, and profitability.” But once you dig deeper, you find a company firmly tied to a few core ideas and a very specific way of thinking—all of which relate directly back to the company’s founder, and the worldview he brings to the table.

Caruso graduated and began his first steps into building a career in the late ‘70s, amidst a nation still recovering from recession. He spent some time working at American Express, which he described as quite literally a family-focused environment—his co-workers included his wife, two of his brothers, and his father.

While he enjoyed his time at American Express, he found himself thinking ahead and trying to be proactive and strategic with his career plans.

“With all the volatility at that time, a lot of jobs were being eliminated and industries were getting hurt,” Caruso recalled. “I was trying to figure out what industry I wanted to work in that would have job stability.” He settled on banking, and then more specifically on mortgage, figuring, “People always need mortgages.”

He began on the servicing side of the industry, then gradually learned the originations aspects, slowly learning all the ins and outs and intricacies that define mortgage. He said that the complexity of it all appealed to him.

“People think, ‘Mortgage lending is similar to auto lending or credit cards.’ But it’s much more intricate than that because of the secondary market, how homes are securitized, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Veterans Administration … The consumer groups are much more engaged with what happens in the mortgage business than with any other loan product because it’s the typical person’s largest single asset.”

It’s also, as he pointed out, a heavily regulated sector. And the necessities of staying on top of compliance proved to be one of the key ideas that went into ServiceMac’s “origin story.”

“The way compliance works in our industry today, you do your work, and then at the end of a month, you have a group compliance audit and they sample your loans to see how you performed,” Caruso said. “Based on those errors, they’ll extrapolate it out and say, ‘You have a 5% error ratio.’ That’s fine, but it’s not the best way to manage compliance and quality in our environment.”

When it came time to design ServiceMac’s underlying approach to compliance and customer service, Caruso and his team didn’t start with one particular rule—they started with 1,000.

A Thousand Rules to Live By

ServiceMac’s processes are designed from the ground up to try to get ahead of compliance from the start, rather than circling back periodically to audit how things have gone. Caruso and his team sat down and identified one thousand regulations and quality rules, running the gamut from the GSEs, FHA, the CFPB, and more.

They began at the federal level, then worked down to the state level. Once they had a robust list, they began working down it to remove duplicates, eventually arriving at the list of one thousand.

“Let’s say a letter has to be sent to all loans in a certain state by the 15th of the month,” Caruso explained “We run those thousand rules against every one of our loans, every single day. Approximately five days before the 15th, we start identifying loans that did not have the required activity, such as that letter being sent.”

The system then automatically alerts the ServiceMac team, puts those items into a work queue, and the team works the loans to ensure that letter deadline is not missed.

“Then we look at it again, running the same rules again every day. What about four days out? Three days out? Two days? In theory, we should have identified and addressed every loan prior to the rule being violated. At the end of the month, if we’ve done it right, we should be as close to zero errors as possible.” Of course, implementing that check of a thousand rules is no quick or easy task.

When I spoke to Caruso, his team had programmed in the first 200, with a target of having the full list completed by the end of Q1 2020. It’s a daunting task, but one Caruso told DS News he believed was critical to what he was trying to accomplish with ServiceMac.

“Everyone at ServiceMac actively manages risk from all levels,” said Melissa Perdue, ServiceMac’s CFO. “Bob has surrounded himself with people that know how not managing your risks impacts you as a company.”

Perdue lamented that, all too often in mortgage, investment in technology is not as proactive as it should be. “You’re not going to spend a lot of money on mortgage technology, and when you do, the money is spent to fix things that weren’t working the first time,” Perdue said. “We came at it with the approach of, you have a blank sheet of paper, and you can be smarter.”

“I believe in transparency,” said Eric Sadow, ServiceMac’s Chief Compliance Officer. “I believe in connecting with regulators—not being afraid of regulators, but actually working with them to make sure that we have what they need and that we’re meeting their expectations. It goes back to the golden rule: treat people as you would like to be treated.”

Working Outside the Comfort Zone

Caruso founded ServiceMac alongside fellow investors JC Faulkner and Bill Griffin, the former of whom previously served as President of HSBC Mortgage Services. New York-based private equity funds manager Black Rock also came aboard as an “anchor partner,” taking 15% of the company on behalf of its clients. “They’re great people to work with,” said Caruso of Black Rock.

“They know the business, and they’re supporting our mission to grow the company.” With the necessary funding in place, Caruso set about assembling an A-team of past associates to fill out ServiceMac’s C-suite.

Roderick Hatfield, whom Caruso has known for two decades and who previously worked at ServiceLink Field Services and Lender Processing Services (LPS), came aboard as Chief Information Officer. For CFO, Caruso chose Melissa Perdue, a veteran of both Wells Fargo and Bank of America, among other roles. And with a focus on compliance and regulatory issues, having the right General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer would be critical.

Caruso tapped Sadow, formerly the Chief Compliance and Fair Lending Officer for PHH Mortgage, for the role. Although Caruso had worked in just about every corner of the mortgage industry over the past three decades, his ServiceMac venture challenged him to step outside his comfort zone: it’s the first time he’s served as a company’s CEO.

Likewise, Caruso told DS News that he intentionally placed his core team in roles that demanded they stretch beyond the familiar.

“We’re all being pushed a little bit beyond our comfort zones,” Hatfield said. “Building a company, you do whatever it takes to get it up and running.” “It’s been an exciting challenge for everybody involved,” Caruso admitted. “Me included.” Hatfield recalls meeting Caruso at LPS, amidst the heat of the financial crisis. Needless to say, the two made an impression on each other, forming a bond that continues to this day. “We were struggling,” Hatfield recalled.

“The company was trying to determine ‘What does normal look like in the future?’ Because who knew? I was asked to come over and work with Bob on the default side, an area where I didn’t have a lot of experience. I was a technologist, but I knew the company inside and out.” Hatfield smiled and added, “I got a PhD in default servicing from Bob, in a hurry.”

Hatfield then followed Caruso to ServiceLink after LPS sold to Fidelity and eventually became Black Knight. When Caruso initially approached him about joining what would become ServiceMac, Hatfield was doing consulting work outside the mortgage business. When Caruso enticed him with an invitation to join him in starting a new mortgage subservicing company, the temptation was too strong to resist.

“The opportunity to build something from the ground up and work with Bob checked all the boxes,” Hatfield said. “It’s not often that you get a chance to start with a blank piece of paper.” Hatfield was intrigued by Caruso’s stated desire to make ServiceMac a deeply datadriven company from the start, a focus that proved foundational as Hatfield began to staff up.

“The first people that I hired were data architects and engineers,” he said. “We started building the company on data governance, and what data we would need to capture, well beyond just core servicing, in order to meet the demands of what we were going to try to do differently with the customer experience and the customer journey.”

Melissa Perdue met Caruso at Wells Fargo in 2008. The two worked together for four years and stayed in touch thereafter. Eventually, the call came where he told her, “I’m looking at maybe doing something on my own.” She told DS News that she was signed on before she even really knew what Caruso wanted her to do. “I knew with Bob it would definitely be an adventure,” she said. “He looks at you from an adaptability standpoint.”

For Perdue’s part, this involved initially overseeing HR for the company—not an area she felt overly comfortable with. “He would give you things that you’ve not done before, but knowing that you’ll figure it out and you would look for the right people to get the answers from,” Perdue said. “I couldn’t go spend $200,000 on a finance system. I had to find something that would help get me there.”

Perdue recalled that, although the challenges of unfamiliar roles were sometimes daunting, she and her fellow colleagues were spurred onward by Caruso’s quiet confidence that they would nevertheless succeed and excel.

“You don’t know what you are capable of until you’re put in the middle of it,” she said. “I’ve always been enticed by building something new.”

Sadow had also worked with Caruso in a previous life—in his case, during the ServiceMac CEO’s time at Bank of America.

“I have been in the servicing business and origination business for years, but this was the chance to really do it right,” Sadow said. “We want to make sure the customers are treated the way they should be treated, and we also want to make sure that clients get the transparency and the focus that they deserve.”

As became a familiar theme during my ServiceMac conversations, Sadow said his ServiceMac role challenged him to swim in unfamiliar waters. “I’ve managed legal departments before,” he said. “I’ve managed compliance departments before. I’ve managed operational risk. The challenges here are more around looking at factors beyond just the day-today operations. My biggest challenge was thinking holistically about the personnel risk, the information security risks, and the cash-management reporting risks, and then figuring out how to build out a structure that covers those areas. That was a bit of a stretch for me.”

Nevertheless, he told DS News he felt inspired by Caruso’s leadership to rise to the occasion, a sentiment echoed by everyone I spoke with at ServiceMac.

“Bob is transparent and candid,” Sadow said. “I want a leader who’s going to tell me what he’s thinking, what he’s expecting, and who doesn’t mince words. He entrusts that you’re going to get things done, and then he expects it to be done. He doesn’t micromanage at all.” “He’s very generous with his knowledge,” Hatfield said. He holds you accountable, but he doesn’t tell you how to do it. He has high expectations, but he gives you a lot of latitude in getting it done.”

"Solve It and Move On"

Caruso united his team around a central vision focused on two tenets: data and customer service. “Our industry has often been accused
of poor quality, poor customer service, and not taking care of customers,” Caruso said. “We’re determined to implement solutions designed to change that paradigm.”

“From day one, we started capturing all the data and information about the customer and their interactions with us,” Hatfield said. “Now that we understand where the customer’s coming to us, we understand the types of issues we’re trying to deal with. Next, we start architecting a platform that’s capable of both being the customer-facing site with self-service capabilities and the internal, customer service system. The platform is one piece, and so it’s being designed with that end state in mind.”

ServiceMac’s integration of tech and focus on innovation and “working smarter” even extends to the devices the employees all use to complete their daily tasks.

The entire ServiceMac office runs off virtual desktops, with everything cloud based and nary a PC tower in sight. “You can sign on from anywhere in the world,” Hatfield said. “This allows us to be infinitely scalable from an infrastructure perspective. All our telephony systems are all cloud based. All our desktop systems are all cloud based. It makes disaster recovery much easier, because it’s all there, it’s all recoverable. Our employees can work from literally anywhere in the country from a secure platform.”

Perdue said that Caruso wanted to do things right the first time, “because many of us spent a lot of time going back and fixing things that were broken over the years, and much of that involved data and technology.”

The ServiceMac team, Perdue explained, approached innovation as a cost-management tool. “When you do something right the first time, it will actually lower your costs,” she added. “You only get one chance, usually, to build something from scratch,” Sadow said. Of course, a clean slate sometimes sounds a lot more exciting before you’re actually staring that white void down yourself. “You’ve got the clean whiteboard,” said Sadow. “Now what are you going to do with it?”

One defining innovation Caruso was eager to spotlight is the fact that ServiceMac’s customer service call center significantly streamlines the convoluted phone trees that have become punchline fodder for a generation of stand-up comics.

“We only have two buttons,” Caruso said. “If you want to go through the automated machine, hit one. If you want to talk to a customer service person, hit two.” Caruso concedes that the system might not be as cost-effective as a more automated system, but he believes the benefits outweigh the extra expense, in the form of customer goodwill. “If our customers need to talk to us, why not make it easy for them to do so?” That’s a guiding philosophy that ServiceMac also implemented with a strong focus on “first-call resolution.”

“Don’t let a customer off the call, until we solve their problem,” Caruso explains. “If our customer service representative doesn’t know an answer to some technical question, they are empowered to conference in with another representative that can help resolve the matter. Solve it and move on.”

Caruso said that this tenet also extends into notions such as providing customers with insights that they might need, even if they don’t know how to ask for them. He cites the example of lending parameters related to the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). While it’s designed to help financially burdened homeowners avoid foreclosure—already a stressful and trying time even under the best of circumstances— the loan-modification program often finds applicants denied without really understanding why. Speaking of HAMP’s “narrow” parameters, Caruso summed up the process as “either you’re in or you’re out.”

“The letters are somewhat prescriptive in that they say, ‘Sorry, Mr. Jones, you don’t qualify for this mortgage because your income is insufficient,’” Caruso explained. “If I was a customer, what did that just tell me? Nothing. All it does is annoy me that I didn’t qualify, and I still don’t really understand why. So, we run the numbers and show that their income’s too low or their expenses are too high … and then we tell the customer. ‘Mr. Jones, you don’t qualify because your income is $500 lower than expected to qualify. If you’ll either raise your income or lower your expenses, you may be able to qualify for that modification.’”

ServiceMac’s processes also incorporate extensive monitoring, with each manager having a list of metrics they are assigned to review daily, weekly, and monthly. “We have a QA system running over the top of the system, looking at every loan, every day, trying to identify problems,” Caruso said. “We have a whole grouping of what we call ‘key indicators,’ which is in many ways like a report card.” The team also runs frequent mock audits.

Caruso explained that the company then posts the results of those audits on their website. “Our regulators and clients can pull them up and see how we’re doing,” Caruso explained. “That transparency, provides confidence regarding how effective we are in terms of remaining compliant."

Building a Legacy

When I asked Bob Caruso what motivated him the most, he was blunt: “Fear of failure. I simply don’t want to fail.” While ServiceMac’s ultimate legacy remains to be seen—or, more accurately, to be built—it’s clear from speaking to the team he has assembled that Caruso’s motivations ultimately result in a drive to take risks and a willingness to challenge both himself and others. Or, as Caruso succinctly puts it,

“Getting good people and giving them the authority to get things done is incredibly important."

About Author: David Wharton

David Wharton, Editor-in-Chief at the Five Star Institute, is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, where he received his B.A. in English and minored in Journalism. Wharton has nearly 20 years' experience in journalism and previously worked at Thomson Reuters, a multinational mass media and information firm, as Associate Content Editor, focusing on producing media content related to tax and accounting principles and government rules and regulations for accounting professionals. Wharton has an extensive and diversified portfolio of freelance material, with published contributions in both online and print media publications. He can be reached at [email protected].

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