Innovation

Going for brokers

Written by Michelle Warren

It’s ironic that a company that helps people buy homes should itself be homeless. Yet that’s the predicament MortgageBrokers.com chose for itself as 2006 came to a close.

The startup’s office lease was expiring, but its management was having trouble finding the right space to accommodate its exponential growth. Rather than rush into something he’d regret, Alex Haditaghi, MortgageBrokers.com Holdings Inc.’s chairman and CEO, opted to move the head office into his brother’s house in Richmond Hill, Ont. “Here we were, a publicly traded company, yet our staff had to take turns shovelling the driveway,” he recalls. “There are major challenges when you’ve got 15 people working out of a three-bedroom house.”

Not the least of them: where do you hold meetings or sign contracts when you’re wooing investors and trying to persuade as many small and mid-sized mortgage brokerages as possible to join your fledgling broker network? For six months, Haditaghi’s team had to dodge barbs from its competitors and the awkward question from potential partners: “So, just where is your head office?”

Yet they didn’t let the upheaval deflect them from their goal: to take the lead among the consolidators that are creating massive broker networks in a traditionally fragmented sector full of mom-and-pop shops. MortgageBrokers.com (MBC) kept adding brokers at a breakneck pace, and now has 430 across the country. Like other consolidators, such as key Canadian players Mortgage Intelligence and Mortgage Alliance/MPH Group, Haditaghi’s firm has grown largely by signing up brokers to operate under its brand while remaining independently owned. But it has a crucial advantage over its rivals. As the only public company in its sector, it can offer brokers a unique incentive to join its network: equity in an enterprise that’s driving to become No. 1 in Canada and then the U.S. It also offers brokers an exceptional array of centralized support and a client-referral pipeline via partnerships with two major real-estate players.

It hasn’t all gone smoothly. MBC, which trades on a U.S. exchange, has seen its share price tank as the housing-market crash stateside has sent investors fleeing from its sector. The wrenching downturn has also forced MBC to delay plans to enter the U.S. market. Yet, even limited to its home market, its revenue has grown explosively, from US$250,000 in 2005 to US$10.3 million last year — a 3,993% increase that tops this year’s PROFIT HOT 50 ranking of Canada’s Emerging Growth Companies.

This hypergrowth has confirmed the wisdom of Haditaghi’s decision to tough it out at his brother’s house until MBC found a space suitable for its long-term needs. Now comfortably sheltered in relatively palatial offices in Concord, Ont., replete with marble floors, a sweeping staircase and colourful prints, he laughs about the months of homelessness. This is clearly a man whose confidence in his business vision is matched by his patience in pursuing it.

Part of that confidence stems from the fact that his sector is growing so fast. In 1999, according to figures from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., just 14% of new mortgages and renewals originated with brokers, who comparison-shop among lenders on behalf of homebuyers. By 2007, this had jumped to 33%. In the U.S., brokers’ market share is approaching 80%. What’s the appeal? Brokers do the legwork for homeowners who’ve finally realized that the rates the banks post are just a starting point for negotiations. Here’s a business offering added value that doesn’t cost customers a dime. And industry observers say there’s plenty of room for further consolidation in a sector that’s only at the point that financial planning was 20 years ago.

The key to MBC’s rapid growth is its willingness to offer brokers shares in the parent company in return for joining its network. That’s why Haditaghi decided his firm would trade publicly (OTCBB: MBKR) right from its launch in February 2005. “To build credibility, you have to do something nobody has done before,” he says, adding that this gives him an edge in attracting the best and the brightest: “Why would you want to build somebody else’s business?”

With almost 60% of MBC’s 39 million outstanding shares, Haditaghi retains control. Brokers and managers own 12%, and public and private investors the rest. MBC receives 15% of the commissions that lenders pay brokers. These average 1%, so, on a $300,000 mortgage, the broker receives $2,550 and MBC $450. This yields a revenue stream that has become a torrent as MBC has signed up hundreds of brokers. The company carefully screens potential members of its network to ensure they’re reputable and experienced, usually with at least 10 years in the business. MBC allots shares based on their best three years of revenue in the past five, then requires them to work with the company for five years before they’re allowed to sell their stock.

Haditaghi points to another key to MBC’s appeal to brokers: the intense support it gives them. “It’s important for people to know why they’re part of your company, why they’re leaving some money on the table,” he says. “You’ve got to make their life easier.”

MBC does so through extensive centralized services in payroll, accounting, marketing, human resources, tech support, customer relationship management and regulatory compliance. MBC strongly encourages its brokers to upgrade their skills by offering them online courses on subjects such as credit reports and alternative lending. It also sends each broker’s entire client base a customized monthly e-newsletter and weekly rate bulletins that appear to come from the broker. The company has a website from which brokers can download ad templates and buy MBC-branded promotional material, receiving a $100 gas card for every $3,000 they spend. And MBC’s data mining gives brokers insights into how to turn clients into “customers for life” — and wows homebuyers by promising to complete mortgage pre-approvals within two hours.

MBC has further bolstered its offering to brokers by signing referral agreements with two major realtors. In 2006, it inked a deal with Mississauga, Ont.-based RE/MAX Ontario-Atlantic to provide mortgage expertise to the real-estate giant’s clients in five provinces in return for investing US$2.1 million for almost 5% of MBC. Although the deal took 10 intense months to negotiate, Haditaghi was patient in pursuing what he saw as a crucial step: “In a way, that distracted us from growing the company, but we felt that bringing in RE/MAX would compensate in the long run.”

In 2007, MBC signed a similar deal with Calgary-based MaxWell Realty Inc., a major player in the Alberta market that is now also growing fast in British Columbia. MBC’s relationships with its private investors, such as MaxWell, go beyond money. For instance, MaxWell president Dick Oakes, a veteran of the Alberta industry, does double duty as one of Haditaghi’s mentors.

None of these manoeuvres has spared MBC from the U.S. housing crash. In combination with the currently toxic word “mortgage” in the firm’s name, the crash sent MBC’s share price plummeting to US7¢ this June from a high of US$2.23 in May 2007. “Alex is doing everything right,” says Richard West, a stock analyst with El Dorado Hills, Calif.-based Dutton Associates Independent Research, who rates MBC shares a “speculative buy” with a target price of US40¢. “But in this environment, you can do everything right, yet not get the recognition you deserve.”

Haditaghi isn’t panicking. He says MBC’s May 2007 peak price was inflated by a small share float and a run-up sparked when two analysts claimed the shares were worth US$4 — a number so overblown it led short sellers to drive down the stock. MBC’s shares rebounded to US14¢ after it announced a profit of US$376,000 in the first half of 2008, versus a loss of US$719,000 in the same period in 2007. (At press time, MBC shares traded at US11¢.)

Besides cratering MBC’s share price, bleak times in the U.S. have forced the firm to postpone plans to become the first in the Canadian industry to expand south. MBC almost entered the U.S. market last summer, but pulled out of a deal to acquire a Chicago-based firm when the meltdown began. “They had a great management team and business plan, but we just felt the risk was too high for us,” says Haditaghi. “We didn’t want to enter the market when things were going to go bad, so we decided to be patient. Sometimes, the best deal is the deal you don’t make.”

West applauds this decision, and says he fully expects MBC to meet its goals: “They’re in the right market, they’ve got the right people and they’ve got the right partners.”

Haditaghi says the depressed U.S. market has created a huge opportunity for MBC by making it easier to recruit brokers: “With higher interest rates and a tougher economy, they’re looking to reduce their overheads. Now, they can do that by teaming up with us and saving tremendous amounts of money.”

With MBC now in the black and still growing fast — its revenue of US$6.4 million in the first half of 2008 was up by 77% over the same period last year — Haditaghi can afford to take a calm view of the turmoil across the border. The patience with which he found the right head-office space and negotiated the RE/MAX deal will come in handy as MBC starts signing up brokers in the U.S. and keeps an eye open for a major acquisition there. Haditaghi says he expects the market to turn around in the next 24 to 30 months. By then, he plans to be well established on U.S. soil as he tenaciously pursues his vision of becoming the biggest consolidator in North America.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com
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