For a company many employees liken to a family, it's not surprising that Sun Prairie, Wisconsin--based Fairway Independent Mortgage began with a family event. Soon after founding the company in 1996, Chief Executive Officer Steve Jacobson received a call that his father was ill, and moved from Dallas back to his home state while his brother-in-law, Dean Anderson, left Minneapolis to move to Madison, Wisconsin, to help out. After spending the past 12 years in the Southwest, Jacobson says, "I never thought I'd go back there." He adds, "We had all these plans to start the company in Texas. But once you make those plans, the man upstairs, sometimes he laughs at you."
To this day, Fairway Independent Mortgage has two homes: Sun Prairie, where the company's administrative offices are located; and Dallas, where its mortgage operations are based.
But while this arrangement may seem to pose a challenge, Fairway has suffered no ill effects from it--in fact, quite the opposite. Within five years of inception, this full-service mortgage banker produced more than $1 billion in closed annual loans. Since then, Fairway has grown to 85 branches serving markets in 42 states and now originates more than $3 billion in loans. The company is steadily rising up the ranks of the nation's top lenders in spite of the real estate market's recent struggles. And it has emerged relatively unscathed from the mortgage market meltdown. Like most lenders, Fairway was forced to scale down its jumbo loan activity due to a lack of available product. But in 2005, Fairway's origination volume was $1.47 billion, and that number has increased every year since.
But for Jacobson, there's no time to pat oneself on the back. "In this business, you're only as good as your last performance--it's all about what you do today," he says. "The big picture is we've been very fortunate and lucky in lots of ways."
The thrill of competition
Some might argue Fairway's recent success has been more than just a matter of good luck. For those who know him, there's little doubt Jacobson chose the right career path.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW--Madison), where he was on the basketball team for four years on his way to earning a management degree, Jacobson moved to Arizona, where his parents were living, and started weighing his options. A neighbor across the street--since-retired commercial mortgage banker Art Peil--encouraged him to look into the industry. Jacobson followed Peil's advice, and soon discovered a number of similarities between the business and the game he loved.
"To me, basketball is a sport where you can't hide," he says. "There's no helmet, everyone can see your emotions and nobody cares what you did yesterday. The mortgage business is also very transparent like that. And like basketball, it also takes teamwork. No basketball team is one person. Not everybody can shoot, but everybody has a role--and when everything is clicking, it's a lot of fun."
Jacobson spent seven years in Arizona followed by five years in Dallas working for Fort Wayne, Indiana--based Waterfield Financial Corporation--first as a branch manager, then as senior vice president and, eventually, national sales director. But when the company moved toward centralized processing, Jacobson decided it was time to start off on his own.
Using his own funds, he formed Fairway Independent Mortgage in 1996 along with Anderson, also a UW--Madison alum and now Fairway's vice president of warehouse accounting. Since then, the company has crafted a unique strategy that doesn't sound so unique on paper. In fact, it sounds almost too simple: Hire smart, experienced and successful branch managers, give them the tools and freedom to succeed, and watch the business grow.
For this reason, Jacobson is quick to give the credit for Fairway's success to the people around him. …