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Columbia's Veterans United Home Loans finds success with niche market, company culture

Monday, February 3, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:10 a.m. CST, Monday, February 3, 2014
Founded in 2002 and headquartered in Columbia, Veterans United Home Loans has exploded in size. The company now employs 1,500 people out of 23 offices in 20 states, with 1,100 of its employees based in Columbia. Regional Economic Development Inc. data from 2013 named the company as one of the top-10 employers in Boone County.

COLUMBIA — After 15 years in the banking industry and four years in finance, Craig Brumfield was searching for a challenge and a change.

He decided to look for both at Veterans United Home Loans.

By the numbers

Year founded: 2002

Total employees: 1,500

Employees in Columbia: 1,100

Locations nationwide: 23 offices in 20 states

Loans financed in 2013: $4.1 billion

Average employee age: 40

Total money pledged and donated to the Veterans United Foundation: $9.5 million

VA loans originated in federal fiscal year 2013: 18,679

Amount in VA loans originated in federal fiscal year 2013: $3.86 billion

Sources: Veterans United Home Loans, Department of Veterans Affairs


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The buzz about the company had piqued his interest. More and more of his acquaintances were joining the Veterans United team, and the recommendations were glowing — great management, great leadership, great culture.

He reached out to a friend in the human-resources department and started the application process. The next thing he knew, he had taken a job as a loan officer.

"I just really got to the point where I couldn't ignore it anymore," Brumfield said about Veterans United, where he has worked for two years.

Founded in 2002 and headquartered in Columbia, Veterans United Home Loans has exploded in size during the 10-plus years since its beginning.

The company now employs 1,500 people out of 23 offices in 20 states. Last year, Veterans United financed more than $4.1 billion in mortgage loans.

With 1,100 of its employees based in Columbia, the company makes a significant imprint on the local economy. Regional Economic Development Inc. data from 2013 listed Veterans United as one of the top-10 employers in Boone County.

The fast-growing company has also drawn national attention. Fortune magazine has listed it as one of "the 25 best medium-size companies to work for."

Launched by two brothers in Columbia, Veterans United capitalizes on a federal program aimed at helping servicemen and servicewomen become homeowners. It combines the service to veterans with a business model that stresses building a strong work environment and connecting with its customer base.

In these ways, Veterans United has worked to define its place in the market.

A niche

Veterans United Home Loans specializes in originating mortgage loans that are guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs through the VA home loan program.

In the VA's 2013 fiscal year, the company was listed as the eighth-largest VA lender in the program, originating 18,679 loans and accounting for about 3 percent of the VA's total guaranteed loan volume. That amounts to about $3.86 billion in loans.

The top three lenders for the same time period were Wells Fargo bank, the United Services Automobile Association and Quicken Loans. Veterans United came in just ahead of Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. The VA guaranteed 629,304 loans in the last fiscal year.

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, which provides information on financial products such as mortgages, said recent growth in the number of people who have served in the armed forces is one factor that makes VA loans appealing. Low- to no-money-down payments, which can be harder to find in the current financial market, offer an additional incentive.

Even if the financial market shifts, VA loans will remain a stable niche, McBride said.

"It's always going to be a part of the discussion for those that are eligible," he said.

Making veterans homeowners

In 1944, the federal government created a home loan guarantee program aimed at lessening postwar adjustment issues for those who served in the military. Since the beginning, the program's mission was to help veterans become homeowners by allowing them to compete for credit and low-interest home loans.

Part of the original thinking was that veterans had missed opportunities to establish credit while serving their country, and the program was a means of readjustment assistance. Over time, however, VA home loans were expanded by subsequent legislation into a long-range housing benefit for those who had served.

The program has "made mortgage credit available to many veterans whose loans otherwise would not have been made," according to a VA document detailing the history of the program.

Through the VA program, approved lenders can finance loans that are partially guaranteed. If the borrower defaults on the loan, the VA will pay back the lender up to a certain amount. That means the veteran can take out a home loan with more favorable terms than a conventional loan.

Those who serve in wartime, in peacetime or in military reserve forces must meet different length-of-service requirements to be eligible for the program. Spouses of those whose deaths are related to military service are also eligible.

The VA guarantee means qualifying veterans in most parts of the nation can buy a home worth up to $417,000 without putting any money down. VA loans offer the only major no-down-payment option in today's market, and 89 percent of approved loans take advantage of this feature, according to a statement from the VA.

The no-down-payment option is useful for veterans when they return from service and are potentially making the transition into home ownership, said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.

Veterans can also take out a loan at a more competitive interest rate than conventional loans, and the guarantee makes it easier for them to qualify, according to Veterans United.

Molony said a consumer study by the National Association of Realtors found that 10 percent of all homes financed in 2013 tapped into the VA loan program.

At the end of June, there were 1.87 million active VA home loan participants, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. In September, the projected veteran population was close to 22 million, but that number is projected to drop to less than 15 million by 2040.

According to a statement from the VA, 99 percent of VA loans are underwritten by private lenders — more than 1,500 banks, mortgage companies and other loan originators.

Licensed to do business in all 50 states, Veterans United originates loans for veterans across the country out of its 23 offices. The company also offers conventional, Department of Agriculture and Federal Housing Administration loans; realty services; and credit improvement services.

"It's not like we've reinvented the wheel by any stretch of the imagination," Brumfield said. "The company decided a number of years back to focus on helping active-duty men and women and veterans, and it was an area that there was a real need."

Growing in size and impact

In 2002, brothers and entrepreneurs Brock and Brant Bukowsky founded Mortgage Research Center LLC in Columbia with just four employees.

A year later, the company had narrowed its focus specifically to VA home loans. It financed $100 million in home loans in one year in 2005 and opened its first branch office in 2006.

By 2008, it had financed $1 billion in loans. The company reached 200 employees in 2009 and adopted the name Veterans United Home Loans in 2011.

In August 2012, it counted 1,000 employees. According to a Veterans United news release at the time, the company employed 719 of them in Columbia. — a number that has continued to grow.

"An extremely small number of companies ever achieve that level of growth," said Diana Kander, a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City organization that supports education and entrepreneurship.

At the moment, Veterans United isn't hiring in Columbia, but it does have openings at other branches.

"We add people when it makes us stronger, and we have no target for size," according to a statement from the company.

When talent acquisition manager Erik Morse joined Veterans United, potential employees would ask why the company was growing so quickly. He approached the Bukowskys, looking for ways to field those questions.

The Bukowskys told him — along with the rest of the company — that growth was consistent with smart hires, strategic placement and strong values.

"The people we bring ... are added in very mindful ways to enhance our ability to keep every part of our process consistently above the industry standard," Morse said, recounting the discussion.

"We're not ever growing just to grow or hiring more people because our focus is to be a large company. But as we find more ways to capitalize on using talent very well, it makes sense to bring people in to perpetuate the values and our mission."

Crafting a culture

On a morning in early November, the Veterans United headquarters off Forum Boulevard was humming with activity. Loan officers worked in an open room lined with gray cubicles, and the company's core values were stamped on the walls: "Deliver results with integrity," "Be passionate and have fun," "Enhance lives every day."

An introduction to the company's values is a recurring theme for employees joining Veterans United. As they go through orientation, employees learn that they will be expected to live by them.

"If they don't personally commit to that, then this is probably not a very good place for them to work," said Greg Steinhoff, president of strategic operations. "So I think a big part of why we see that attitude in everybody is that it's an expectation from the very beginning."

At times, Veterans United has fielded more than 1,000 applications a month from prospective employees, Morse said.

"I think a lot of that is because the word about our culture is out there," he said. "People know that this is a place where they can come and work hard and be surrounded by other people who are not only working hard, but not losing sight of the values while they do it."

When it makes a hire, the company mails the new employee a card stuffed with a $10 bill, an explanation of the company values, and instructions to enhance someone's life before the first day on the job.

Working at Veterans United comes with catered lunches, fridges stocked with snack foods, a casual dress code, slides built into the framework of its headquarters — but embracing company values seems to cement the culture.

"This is literally the first company I've worked for where it is out there, every day on everything we do, with every decision that is made from top to bottom, where it's actually ingrained, and we're held to that standard every day," Brumfield said.

Megan Sievers, director of the Veterans United Foundation, agreed: "I mean, we live them every single day, and that is how our culture defines itself.

"We've got our really quirky little benefits — the fresh fruit in the fridge and the massages and the lunches — and those things really do help with the morale, but they don't make us who we are."

Leadership plays another role in establishing a culture that Brumfield finds refreshing. He sees a level of trust in the management to allow him to do his job without excessive oversight.

"There's a strong level of commitment here," he said. "It's just not a matter of booking real estate loans; we're enhancing lives, and we take that literally and figuratively and try to do whatever we can."

Connecting with customers, community

Community leaders point to a series of factors that have contributed to Veterans United's growth.

The company's niche market, quality of product and positive work environment put it in a great position for success and growth, said Matt McCormick, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

Regional Economic Development Inc. President Mike Brooks also cited Veterans United's workforce and its niche.

"What I can tell you from the outside is they have identified a market opportunity, and they've built a team that's become very, very good at meeting the needs of that market opportunity," he said.

Brumfield said he finds it gratifying to walk a veteran on the path toward home ownership.

Purchasing a home takes an average of 30 to 40 days from start to finish. Despite the occasional hurdle, Brumfield said, the chance to call customers and tell them they're clear to close on a house is particularly exciting.

"We're helping a veteran realize a dream of becoming a homeowner and being able to provide a safe place for their family to live," he said. "I mean, that's powerful stuff."

Sarah Hill, Veterans United's chief storyteller, has used Google Plus to interact with potential customers and build relationships.

"We're interacting with these individuals face-to-face via webcam, and we find that it is translating into positive remarks about Veterans United Home Loans on our social platforms," she said.

As a company founded and still primarily operating online, connecting with potential borrowers via the Internet has always been an emphasis. Veterans United counts more than 4 million social media fans, and the Veterans United Home Loans Facebook page has more than 1 million "likes."

Since the Veterans United Foundation was launched in November 2011, it has received about $9.5 million in pledges and donations to support veterans, military families and local families across the country.

"We never want to be that one-time impression on anybody," Sievers said. "We want to really dig deep and cultivate these relationships we have with these organizations and families."

Though Steinhoff often hears comments about the growth of Veterans United or its imprint on the community, he said he doesn't hear the company talking about that internally. Instead, the focus is on doing its job and taking care of its employees.

"I've never been in a company that paid less attention to the results and more attention to taking care of people and that by doing that, they just trust that the results are going to be there, and they have been," he said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.


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