The PROGRESS in Lending Innovations Award Winners gathered to talk about the future of mortgage lending. Over 100 mortgage executives came together to attend PROGRESS in Lending Association’s Eighth Annual Innovations Awards Event. We named the top innovations of the past twelve months. After that event, we wondered what would happen if we brought together executives from the winning companies to talk about mortgage technology innovation. Where do they see the state of industry innovation right now? And what innovation is it going to take to get our industry really going strong? To get these and other questions answered, we got the winning group together. In the end, here’s what they said:
Q: Some say innovation has to be sweeping change. Others say innovation can be incremental change. How would you define innovation?
MICHAEL KOLBRENER: At PromonTech we are very careful with the word “innovation”. While we strive to be innovative, whether or not we succeed isn’t our call, but our clients’ and the market’s. At the end of the day, innovation is in the eyes of the user. And innovation can manifest itself differently; it can be a “big bang” like Apple’s iPhone, or it can occur more gradually and quietly like Internet availability. Fannie Mae and FormFree are great examples in our industry of how significant technology opportunities require time in order to be realized. Day 1 Certainty is destined to be a game-changer, but adoption may take time. Just like it took time for the amazing tools in FNMA Desktop Underwriter to be appreciated. As technologists, it’s our job to celebrate the important technology opportunities and help our user communities keep working on adoption.
JOHN PAASONEN: Innovation, especially in our industry, takes many forms. Innovation pushes forward a process, changes a mentality, or reforms the way something is thought about or done. We’re seeing all forms of this in mortgage, whether it is Day 1 Certainty, upfront underwriting, or shared-equity financing. The best kind of commercial innovation sweeps people along with the change in the present, not 10 years from now, bringing actionable ideas to market quickly, iterating those ideas, and ultimately delivering meaningful impact to the experience, P&L or relationships in a business.
PHIL RASORI: Traditionally, I would say that innovation in our industry has been more of a gradual, step-by-step approach with new products, services and enhancements being launched as vendors identified demand and areas for improvement. However, the introduction digital mortgage movement, which has been rapidly building over the past few years has been sweeping, with an array of fintechs and new ideas being spawned to build a better overall lending process. The trick now is going to be the rate of borrower and marketplace adoption of these new technologies. Think about this: even adoption of now comfortable mainstays such as online shopping with Amazon or online trading with Schwab didn’t happen overnight. Adoption took time, and it will in the mortgage space, too.
GARTH GRAHAM: At STRATMOR, we see the innovation as a combination of People, Process and Technology, a variation on the classic 3Ps of People, Process and Product. You can have innovation that applies to any of the three, but it’s best is when it’s applied to all three together. In fact, that was a key message in my presentation at the most recent MBA Technology Conference — that changing across people, process and technology is what drives big changes.
SANJEEV MALANEY: I would describe innovation as significant positive change resulting from fresh thinking that creates value for its user. It’s a result. It’s an outcome. It’s something one works toward. There are no qualifiers for how groundbreaking or world-shattering that something needs to be, only that it needs to be better than it was before. Innovation is evolutionary, not revolutionary — like Einstein’s theory of relativity.
KELCEY T. BROWN: At WebMax, we believe that innovation means identifying a problem and coming up with a unique solution. Whether it be sweeping or incremental, that unique solution changes things for the better. Innovation, especially in mortgage technology, has been defined by streamlining processes, reducing operating and origination costs, and delivering a better borrowing experience.
ADAM BATAYEH: For us, it’s all about progress. Almost any amount of progress will do no matter how incremental the change is. If you create something that is cool and trendy but doesn’t necessarily push things forward in a way that betters people/process/industry, that “innovation” was more novelty than anything and will likely find itself extinct.
So in terms of impact, the amount of impact/progress isn’t as important because of all that happens downstream that we may not see immediately. You could make an incremental change that has monumental implications years later. In our space, it’s sort of like the butterfly effect.
LUKE WIMER: Innovation is the achievement of a consistently better outcome for time invested in an activity. I think creative problem solving needs to be encouraged, so we need to think of it as incremental change, and then allow for sweeping change to be the aggregation of persistent innovation. In our industry context, we might refer to the ability to electronically sign a mortgage as an innovation and the ability to digitally process a mortgage end-to-end as the sweeping change we are all driving toward. Innovation is also often the result of fostering a culture of continuous improvement. In our company, we set long-term aspirations, then we ask everyone to set improvement or innovation goals for the next quarter or half year. We don’t specify how to improve; we don’t want people to be constrained. Then we measure results, talk about what happened, and set goals for the next round, rewarding examination and striving rather than hitting the target itself. The pace of creativity is increasing as people get comfortable taking risks.
NEIL FRASER: Innovation, in most cases brings incremental change. Over time many incremental changes bring about what can appear to be sudden sweeping change. As the mortgage industry moves towards the sweeping change being called the Digital Mortgage, many innovations have been, and continue to be tried and tested. This is the necessary process for moving an entire industry towards a significantly different model.
At Paradatec, we are continuing to innovate in an effort to support the industry’s long term move towards a more efficient and accurate process for originating, servicing, and auditing mortgage loans.
More specifically, we define innovation in our particular niche as “the application of artificial intelligence to the problem of document recognition”. This could mean the creation of a new, more automated, document classification solution for a servicing world where scanned images of documents, that were originally paper, are still key, or it could mean the creation of new recognition capabilities for e-signed documents that never were paper. Regardless of the application, we at Paradatec are committed to an ever-expanding document recognition stack that covers origination, servicing and auditing mortgage loans.
Q: How would you define the state of innovation in the mortgage industry? Is it thriving or in a state of decay?
MICHAEL KOLBRENER: The mortgage industry is in an unprecedented phase of technology adoption. There is no doubt that Rocket Mortgage deserves lots of credit for truly introducing the “Internet” to the mortgage industry. Rocket has shown all lenders that technology is an integral part of the future of mortgage originations. Additionally, we are seeing lots of new technology companies competing in the mortgage space (including PromonTech!) We’re just beginning to realize the many opportunities to improve efficiencies.
JOHN PAASONEN: Twenty four months ago, my answer may have been different. But today, it is a thrill and a privilege to participate in the transformation occuring in the mortgage industry. For nearly a decade — in the wake of the financial crisis, the passage of Dodd-Frank, the creation of the CFPB, and major regulation like TRID — investment dollars were poured into compliance, not advancement. I’m incredibly encouraged by the increasing openness to the work of many innovators, from both inside and outside the industry, to incite progress. Innovation is alive and needs to be spurred forward.
PHIL RASORI: Post the mortgage crash and subsequent introduction of a myriad of new rules and changing regulations with Dodd-Frank and enforcement by the CFPB became a huge concern and instantly drew everyone’s attention to compliance adherence, which arguably distracted from technology innovation. Now more than ever, the mortgage industry is on a fast-track to achieve far-reaching changes via new technology, which is being fueled by anticipated demand for borrower automation and lenders’ positioning themselves to remain competitive, thus driving innovation across the board. We’re not only thriving right now, but some say we’re drinking from a firehouse. Again, adoption will be key to these innovations becoming reality.
SANJEEV MALANEY: The industry is ready for innovation and we’re starting to see major transformation impacting the end-to-end mortgage process. New companies are flush with venture capital. Lenders are funding innovation centers using their own capital investments. People from outside the industry with diverse sets of skills and experience are being hired to drive this transformation. We’re going to see more innovation in the next twelve months than we’ve seen in years.
KELCEY T. BROWN: Innovation in the mortgage industry is thriving thanks to the continuous flow of new ideas and products, and growing interest in technology from lenders. We’re seeing point-of-sale products become more intuitive and borrower-friendly, and financial data retrievers’ rules engines making loan processing faster and more efficient. Lenders’ interest in digital mortgages continues to grow as today’s home buyers lean more and more toward a digital borrowing experience. That said, a great deal of the industry still needs to transition to digital mortgages. Growing interest, paired with a sizable unaddressed market, makes a perfect storm for thriving innovation.
As much blame is put on regulation for technical stagnation, we like to thank it. It put our backs against the wall and forced companies to make major changes that they couldn’t handle or weren’t willing to take on. It led to that consolidation, and most importantly, it led to massive amounts of investment in what we like to call “foundation over feature” and that has helped increase transparency, accountability, and more. It’s what laid the groundwork for all the innovation you are seeing today.
ADAM BATAYEH: Innovation is thriving, thriving, thriving. If this were 2013, the answer would have been massive decay. The thing is, that decay was necessary and led to all of the innovation we are seeing today.
LUKE WIMER: Mortgage is a bit late to the innovation party compared to payments or online banking, so we are still more focused on automation and efficiency and just starting to affect true change to the consumer experience. But we should not underestimate the potential for change and innovation. The industry has been gearing up over the years with steps toward digitization, creative partnerships, driving new standards, and these will allow a fast pace of change once the scale is tipped. I am thinking of how one of Hemingway’s characters went bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly.”
NEIL FRASER: Innovation in the mortgage industry is definitely thriving today. For the last twelve years, we at Paradatec have focused on building our mortgage technology through advanced OCR using artificial intelligence and an ability to learn over time and provide increasingly more significant innovations.
In the last twelve years, we have not only increased our ability to innovate, but have further greatly accelerated this ability to innovate from our partnerships and integrations with others in the industry. This is a trend we expect to continue for years to come.
GARTH GRAHAM: I think that innovation is truly accelerating, but too often people define innovation as simply technology. They think the next software product, the next shiny object will transform their business. At STRATMOR, we often see companies with good people and good process being able to overcome substandard technology, but rarely do we see a company with great technology that can overcome poor people or process. This does not mean tech is not important, in fact I believe that we don’t spend enough on technology — but if you don’t have the people and process lined up to implement change, then the technology alone will not drive the results you seek.
Q: Lastly, if there was one innovation that you would say the mortgage industry desperately needs to happen over the next twelve months, what would it be?
MICHAEL KOLBRENER: All of us, in lending, need to evangelize the potential of technology and encourage our user audiences to understand the role it can play in the future of originations. Over the next 12 months, we need to keep pushing data providers to make applicant data more readily available, particularly around income verification (and tax supporting docs). At PromonTech that’s where we believe that next big breakthroughs will come.
JOHN PAASONEN: We’re just beginning to see the early signs of moving beyond “digital paper.” Over the last 10 years, the mortgage industry has largely taken a paper-bound process and digitized it. A loan application acted much like its paper counterpart, just with the ability to type answers, for example. In the next 12 months, regulators, lenders, investors and innovators need to continue to push forward with initiatives to all-together remove the tremendous burden on borrowers, loan officers, processors, appraisers and others created by our legacy of paper-driven process. The winners will be those who realize first that data availability and fidelity is too rich, and computing power too strong, to be ignored.
SANJEEV MALANEY: While we have witnessed significant innovation over the past year, there remains a series of key friction points that must be addressed for the mortgage process to truly be reinvented.
Perhaps the most critical enabler in our space (not unlike other verticals) is the use of data, and by extension, how to extract insights from that data to make faster and better decisions, which is where Capsilon is focusing its innovation efforts. It is worth noting, however, that while “big data analytics” has suddenly become a go-to catchphrase for many in our industry, our own experience in the space suggests that the challenges associated with implementing and realizing value from big data are more subtle.
For the past 14 years, we’ve been helping clients collect, validate and leverage the data to drive automation and improve productivity in the mortgage process. Those who succeed will master the harvesting and delivery of relevant data at the right time so every user (borrowers, LOs, underwriters, processors, closers) in the loan process are provided the information and tools they need when, where, and how they need it to remove friction in the loan process.
KELCEY T. BROWN: Faster adoption of digital mortgages. The faster lenders adopt digital mortgages, the better off their business will be, from their balance sheet to borrower satisfaction. It is evident that through technology, lenders can close loans faster, with more efficiency, for a better cost. At the same time, that boosted efficiency means borrowers get in their homes faster and are more satisfied with their mortgage experience. Real estate agent satisfaction grows as their listings get filled and closed faster as well, which can boost referrals. Imagine that your company waited to adopt email, how would that have worked out?
ADAM BATAYEH: To use our internal phrase again: foundation over feature. It seems that everyone is racing to be first with the next big thing and it’s very tempting to follow trends. At the same time, it can confuse lenders and can make it harder on them to make a decision. We can create all the new features we want, but if they’re hard to integrate and implement, we’ll find ourselves pigeonholed.
An example I can give is Windows vs. Mac OS and their respective web-browsers. The Operating System was the “foundation” and the web-browsers were built as “features”. Buy the OS, get the browser for free. The browser would work flawlessly with its respective OS.
Google Chrome came out of nowhere as it’s “foundation vs. feature” priority was the reverse. Knowing the future was in the Cloud, they built an agnostic browser, which resulted in Windows and Mac users collaborating in a new way. As Microsoft and Apple built browsers that were feature-focused and complimented their foundational Operating Systems, Google was busy playing the agnostic game and with Chrome has quickly emerged as the leader.
LUKE WIMER: There are so many different needs. I would like to see clarity on where federal regulators are headed. I would like to see some of this mortgage application automation technology make its way further into the loan origination process. We appreciate the need for increased security and rigor in vendor management, and are pushing for increased acceptance of SaaS and the tools many of us are making available to offer plug-in solutions. I believe it will be a collection of innovation and providers, which will be needed to really transform. It is a resilient sector that rolls with the punches, and is complex enough that no single innovation will win or solve the problems of every player. Therefore I am glad there are many of us working on improvement from different angles.
NEIL FRASER: Accurate data which reflects the terms, borrower, lender, and property information from Mortgage loans’ source documents will continue to be a critically important requirement. As a result, there will continue to be a need to audit the accuracy of the data as it relates to the legally definitive required source documents. As loans and their servicing rights are passed from investor to investor and servicer to servicer, a more efficient process for efficiently and accurately onboarding these loans as these transactions occur is desperately needed. At Paradatec, we are continuing to innovate and this need is one of major focus for us in the coming year.
GARTH GRAHAM: So, there certainly has been a significant amount of technology innovation at the point of sale — dynamic applications are more commonplace. I think it’s what occurs BEFORE the application that is critical for the next year. The reason is that we are pivoting to a heavy purchase market — only 25 percent refinance — down from roughly 50 percent refinance (or more) for the past 20 years. This is a MAJOR difference and will really stress originators who are not equipped to handle purchase opportunities. At STRATMOR we have a methodology of creating a digital roadmap for lenders, and we often find that they are not adequately valuing the tools that are required prior to application. We refer this to Lead Engagement — the ability to interact with purchase consumers across multiple touch points and for longer periods of time. We also feel that price competition will become more acute going forward. Thus, we think innovation needs to tackle the functions that typically are considered CRM functionality — managing customer interactions over long periods of time — as well as presentation to clearly show what customers are going to pay for their mortgages.
Also, we think that there is going to be a lot of industry consolidation, both for mortgage origination companies and for the technology vendors that support the lenders it. At STRATMOR we are active in M&A and have never been busier with lenders looking for strategic alternatives, and with buyers who are well positioned for the future, and are actively looking to acquire other entities to gain market share during this difficult period. Vendors are finding a similar climate, and some smaller vendors are seeking capital partners. New capital is entering the market to acquire additional technology capabilities.
PHIL RASORI: I hate to use what many feel is an over-used term these days, but acceptance of the “digital mortgage” and what it encompasses will be key to much of what is to follow. We are seeing that successfully be streamlined right now at the point-of-sale for borrowers. Digitization of the secondary market is also picking up speed, which is what we at MCT have been focused on. Technology integrations are essential for lenders to keep systems operating in real-time, while automation is streamlining processes. Digital whole loan trading is revolutionizing the loan sale process. Embracing the digital mortgage at every step in the process is helping lenders to increase efficiency and profits.