Thomas S. Johnson is having too good a time not to remark on his transition from buttoned-down commercial banker to master of "no-doc" mortgage lending.
"I'm a lot more of an entrepreneur than I ever thought I was," said Mr. Johnson, who, as chairman of GreenPoint Financial Corp., is rewriting the rules of lending by producing steady profits from the borderline borrowers that many lenders shun.
Indeed, as president of Manufacturers Hanover Corp. from 1989 to 1991 and president of Chemical Banking Corp. for six years in the 1980s, Mr. Johnson was much more of a traditionalist, practiced at delegating responsibility and then monitoring results.
Now, Mr. Johnson is on the front lines in a role he clearly relishes. "I'm leading the charge," he said, to take GreenPoint's lending program nationwide. "We are a group of people who are focused on one, very promising approach, and we believe we have only scratched the surface of its potential."
GreenPoint's forte, to the exclusion of virtually all other kinds of lending, is no-documentation, or low-documentation mortgages. These loans accommodate business owners and others who cannot readily verify their income and assets but who can cover a sizable down payment, usually at least 25%.
In the past three years, Mr. Johnson has made no-doc lending not only acceptable but also an engine for national growth. The $13.6 billion-asset GreenPoint is expanding from its New York roots to Chicago and San Francisco, among other places, and is also exploring potentially complementary businesses, like subprime auto lending.
"We want to create a big company that has at least one, but probably two or three, dominant positions in niche franchises," Mr. Johnson said.
The chief executive smiles often when talking about GreenPoint's lending strategy, and some might say he has reason to beam. GreenPoint, under Mr. Johnson's watch, is so far handling a type of lending that, just a few years ago, hobbled practiced lenders like Citicorp and Dime Banking Corp.
The secret is "management discipline," with checks and double checks, Mr. Johnson said. Others, he said, have used a scattershot approach that produces volume but also leads to lax standards.
At the same time, Mr. Johnson has quelled critics who, during the company's fractious initial public offering three years ago, said he was more interested in securing his future-through a big cash-out-than GreenPoint's.
Indeed, it was the GreenPoint deal that prompted regulators to tighten the rules for public offerings, limiting windfalls to management.
Mr. Johnson was paid $1.2 million last year and holds restricted stock awards that, when fully vested, will be worth about $7.1 million, according to GreenPoint's most recent proxy statement.
Mr. Johnson said his actions since the public offering have shown his sincerity, drive, and belief that "growing GreenPoint is the best way to make money" for executives and shareholders alike. "We're creating value, not just size," he said. "I feel totally vindicated."
Last year - the first full year of the national expansion-loan volume jumped 140%, to $2.4 billion, and earnings increased 23%, to $132.5 million. Analysts expect at least another 25% increase in lending this year. Earnings are expected to grow 14%, to $151 million. In the recent first quarter, net income rose to $39.7 million, from $27.4 million the year before.
Mr. Johnson doesn't quibble with analysts' projections-he too sees the company getting bigger, with growth equaling if not surpassing the size of the five out-of-state offices opened last year. "We have launched the aggressive national expansion of a business in which we are the recognized expert and major player," he said.
Mr. Johnson is convinced GreenPoint can sustain a presence in virtually any large metropolitan area because these sites breed the ideal no-doc borrower-budding and established professionals-and have property values to support default recoveries.
The strategy has impressed analysts and some of the mortgage industry's most experienced lenders. "This is a banker who has a clear understanding of how a mortgage bank operates," said Angelo Mozilo, chairman of Countrywide Home Loans, a unit of Countrywide Credit Industries and the industry's second-largest lender.
To be sure, there are a few other no-doc or low-doc lenders, but none appears to go after the business with the zeal or focus of Mr. Johnson. "He's one of my favorite people in the business today," Mr. Mozilo said.
GreenPoint "is transforming itself from a one-market New York thrift to a national specialty lender," said Michael J. Freudenstein, banking analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities.
Initial success of the national rollout-more than half of earnings now come from outside New York-"appears to indicate pent-up demand" for GreenPoint's style of lending, Mr. Freudenstein said.
GreenPoint, unlike most of its rivals, has built the infrastructure to support continued growth by maintaining an efficient deposit base that provides $11 billion of low-cost funds through 74 bank branches.
But not everyone is convinced the no-doc strategy can work nationally on a sustained basis. New York had an extended period during which property values rose significantly every year, so GreenPoint was insulated by being able to make virtually full recoveries when borrowers defaulted, said veteran mortgage banker Larry E. Swedroe.
"The credit problems didn't develop because the price of property kept going up," said Mr. Swedroe, former vice chairman of Prudential Home Mortgage. "Will that be the case in other parts of the country?"
Certainly, appraisals must be dead on, Mr. Johnson said. That's why GreenPoint spends millions of dollars each year maintaining its own corps of appraisers, instead of farming out the task as do most other lenders.
And not just any appraiser or underwriter will do-each must have at least 10 years' experience in his or her market and must be willing to undergo training by GreenPoint to hone an understanding of no-doc loans.
GreenPoint also takes a hard line with borrowers, frequently choosing to foreclose rather than renegotiate or restructure a troubled loans. The company collects 97 cents on the dollar when loans default, a rate with which Mr. Johnson is comfortable.
Still, there are challenges. Right now, GreenPoint retains most of its mortgages in portfolio, a practice that keeps the loans closely monitored by in-house managers. Mr. Johnson acknowledges that growth could compel his thrift to begin securitizing a portion of its loans, which could lead to quality-control problems.
Also, GreenPoint's successful national push could spawn a host of competitors, perhaps ill-equipped to handle the business and destined to give it a bad name.
But Mr. Johnson says he would welcome competition. Noting GreenPoint's history of success in the no-doc business, he said it has "continuity" that rivals can't match.