Not following the pack has been one key to success for Cara Heiden, who co-heads Wells Fargo & Co.'s residential mortgage unit.

Wells Fargo steered clear of nontraditional lending products like adjustable-rate mortgages and stated-income loans that many competitors were offering in the early and mid-2000s.

"As a result, we did not offer the products that some customers were looking for and it was difficult to recruit and retain loan originators, not having a complete product set," Heiden says. "While it was a tough decision, because of lost market share and lost economics, it turned out to be one of the best decisions over the long term."

The mortgage industry as a whole has toughened its lending standards in response to the housing market's bust, but that doesn't mean Wells Fargo has lessened its commitment to giving customers every opportunity to own a home, she says.

Under Heiden's leadership, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, based in Des Moines, helped 2.3 million homeowners either purchase a home or refinance their existing mortgage and modified about 500,000 loans in 2009. Wells Fargo originates one of every five mortgages made in the country.

Heiden's career path was shaped largely by her father, a homebuilder. She recalls how she often went to work with him and witnessed families receiving the keys to their first homes.

"There was such pride and excitement, and always impactful stories about what they believed the future would hold for them and their children," she says. "Those same stories and the many that have been added since are what continue to make me passionate about this business today."

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