A year after ending nearly three decades without a commissioned sales force, Countrywide Home Loans is rapidly nearing the halfway mark in its campaign to enroll 2,000 loan reps in the next 12 to 18 months.

Brian Hale, executive vice president of national production for the consumer markets division, who is in charge of the Calabasas, Calif., company’s 350 retail branches, says the initiative would not stop upon reaching the 2,000 mark.

“We envision a sales force someday exceeding 4,000 sales reps, and we have a five-year plan to gain substantive market share,” he said in an interview. “It has to make sense based on the economics of the time that we’re operating in, but there is an absolute commitment in the organization, top down, to substantively grow the sales force as fast a possible.”

If it reaches 4,000 reps, the company says, it would have one of the five-largest sales forces.

When Countrywide acknowledged its plans in June 2000, long-time observers and the company’s rivals were surprised by the move, which represented a sharp reversal of its core philosophy. The company had operated with commissioned-based salespeople when it opened for business in 1969 but fired its entire sales force in 1974 after a severe downturn in the market. For the next 26 years Countrywide bucked the prevailing trend of originating loans through commissioned officers, preferring to tie loan reps’ salary and bonuses to the branches’ productivity and profitability.

In a 1996 speech, chairman and chief executive officer Angelo R. Mozilo made clear his disdain for the practice of paying loan officers on a commission basis, calling it expensive and a conflict of interest.

“We don’t have a commissioned sales force, and this is one of the primary reasons why Countrywide has survived and dominated despite the dramatic shifts that have taken place over the past three decades,” he said at the time.

Five years later, the company now has roughly 6,300 employees in its consumer and wholesale divisions, a spokesman said, up nearly 17% from the time it announced the policy shift. It has trained and moved many employees to the new commission-based positions — called “external home loan consultants” — and is going after its competitors’ salespeople. The defectors include Mr. Hale, a former regional manager at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.

Mr. Hale, who has been on the job for just over two months, has been reviewing “everything that touches” the branches — from recruiting to compensation plans to marketing material — to boost productivity. Having a commissioned sales core to augment other strategies “brings to you market share that the organization can’t bring for itself,” he said. “Whether a low-interest-rate market or a higher-interest-rate market, a substantive retail sales force provides you an opportunity to control your destiny at the street level.”

Countrywide could have kept gaining share using its old model, Mr. Hale argued, but the industry’s consolidation wave forced it to change so that it could accelerate its growth and remain one of the nation’s top five mortgage lenders and servicers.

“We have the model in place that works,” he said. “We can continue to grow and replicate that traditional model, but this provides us an acceleration strategy.”

He boasted that over the last quarter of a century Countrywide has developed an enviable processing foundation, one that is helping it poach rivals’ sales personnel.

“The industry has always seen Countrywide as an excellent source of mortgage loans,” Mr. Hale said. “It’s very efficient, the loans get closed on time — everything gets manufactured quickly and efficiently.

“What you have here at Countrywide is an organization that has always been focused and always been excellent on the operations and fulfillment piece. As we add the sales piece, the sales folks that we’re talking to are finding outstanding value.”

Michael McMahon, an analyst at Sandler O’Neill & Partners, said it was “a stroke of genius” on Countrywide’s part to remake its business model.

“Having successfully built a direct marketing firm and put in place a highly efficient operation,” it is now “leveraging that with commissioned salespeople who only incur an expense if they produce a loan,” Mr. McMahon said.

Countrywide spends more on advertising and marketing than most mortgage companies, which rely on their commissioned loan reps to go out and get the business, Mr. McMahon continued.

In the past, a Countrywide spokeswoman said, the company focused on mortgages while its competitors — such as Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. — conducted multi-product marketing. Last year, Countrywide spent $71 million in marketing for all its divisions, she said; the company does not release advertising figures.

“Countrywide is really leveraging off its existing infrastructure in pursuing this strategy, so they’re doing it at relatively little cost,” Mr. McMahon said. “They already have the branches out there, and those branches are generating loans from direct marketing and are going to be there whether the loan commission reps are there or not.”

But there is a downside. For instance, the new compensation structure may grate on longtime salaried employees, and Countrywide may have to deal with overstaffing when business falls off. (Mr. Mozilo said in an earnings guidance issued Wednesday that the current environment is “the best in the company’s history.”)

Mr. Hale acknowledged that the new payment structure has imperfections.

“When you have a producing manager and an individual producing rep, there always can be times when things are not absolutely equitable — depending on your perspective,” he said. “But overall, our compensation plan creates a sense of equity, fairness, and balance.”

Mr. Hale said one of his challenges is to change Countrywide’s image so that it can take top talent away from its competitors and take advantage of the flux in the mortgage industry, one that finds companies being acquired or going through internal operational struggles. These things are cyclical, and Countrywide wants to be prepared.

“Frankly, Countrywide in the past was not perceived as an organization where sales individuals could find a career,” he said. “I plan to spend a lot of time over the next 12 months both in terms of industry image and industry perspective, so that Countrywide a year from today is seen as the retail employer of choice.”


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