Eighteen months into his tenure as chairman of Fleet Mortgage Group, Gerald L. Baker is starting to reshape the company in the mold of his former employer, Countrywide Credit Industries, industry observers say.
To be sure, Fleet is already a solid player - one of only five mortgage lenders with more than $100 billion in servicing. But Mr. Baker appears determined to give Fleet, considered a dinosaur before he took the helm, the agility and the profitability it needs not just to survive but to reassert itself as a dominant force.
As part of his program to transform Fleet Mortgage into a marketing and technology powerhouse, Mr. Baker is assembling his own team of key executives.
He will soon name Kevin Race, now chief financial officer, to the vacant post of president, said a spokesman for the parent company, Fleet Financial Group. And he is bringing back former strategic planning chief, Michael Torke, as finance chief. Mr. Baker was not available for comment.
The moves are the latest in a string of operational and personnel changes since Mr. Baker joined Columbia, S.C.-based Fleet Mortgage from Countrywide Credit Industries, Pasadena, Calif., last year.
"The premise is that Fleet will be able to increase its number of originations and become more competitive with the best in the industry," said Leilani E. Allen, director of mortgage banking services at Tenex Consulting, Burlington, Mass.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Baker - who headed loan production and marketing at Countrywide - can bring to Fleet the flexibility and versatility of an independent mortgage company.
But industry observers say nothing short of wrenching shifts are necessary at many bank-owned mortgage companies to counter narrow margins and increasingly aggressive competitors. The operations need support from their parents, but also the recognition that the mortgage industry is becoming even more volatile.
"It's an ongoing problem," Ms. Allen said. "How does a mortgage company that is part of a bank position itself?"
Some lenders have come up with unique solutions. This year Barnett Bank and Bank of Boston abandoned independent mortgage operations to join forces and Norwest Mortgage undertook a megamerger by purchasing the assets of Prudential Home Mortgage.
Fleet also appears willing to undergo a transformation, based on actions under Mr. Baker in recent months.
"You see Fleet Mortgage putting into play the management team and operations that he (Mr. Baker) feels will deliver the above-average returns that the business needs," said Gerard Cassidy, banking analyst at Tucker Anthony, Portland, Ore.
On the technology side, the company this spring began rolling out a $30 million branch automation system that will computerize tasks, like taking loan applications, that have been handled with pen and paper.
As part of the revamping, Fleet will close as many as 30 of its 75 lending offices, to focus on core, profitable operations. Fleet may undertake an expansion once the new computer system is fully operational, the Fleet spokesman said.
Mr. Baker also is appointing as his lieutenants people he is comfortable with, Mr. Cassidy said. Those executives that aren't in Mr. Baker's corner won't be part of the program.
Fleet's new president, Mr. Race, was a natural choice for the No. 2 spot, the Fleet spokesman said. "He has been with the company and is highly qualified, knowledgeable, and able."
Mr. Race, who was executive vice president as well as chief financial officer, has been with Fleet Mortgage for seven years. Key units, including strategic planning, compliance, and internal audit, will now report to him.
Mr. Race is filling a spot vacant since February, when Robert Golitz left the company. In May, Fleet also saw the abrupt departure of John T. Daly, an industry veteran who was brought in as production chief and lasted less than a year.
At the same time, Fleet has added executives as it emulates lenders not owned by banks by establishing separate sales channels. D. Steve Boland, formerly with Wells Fargo & Co., was named to head a new affordable-lending unit. And David Molde, a vice president at Advanta Corp., was brought on to set up a new channel for borrowers with blemished credit histories.
Juliana Ratner contributed to this article.