Susan E. Johnson has learned that success means not worrying about stepping on the competition's toes. "You can't worry about that, otherwise it would prevent you from doing what you have to do," she says.
Certainly there are many toes for her to step on. As executive director of the Real Estate Service Providers Council, she is at the center of one of the most contentious issues in the mortgage business: the struggle over rules that restrict payment of referral fees for home purchase, finance, and settlement transactions.
A recent ruling by a federal judge that lender payments of fees to mortgage brokers are illegal has pushed the issue into the spotlight once again.
Ms. Johnson, who represents a cross section of some of the biggest realty companies, lenders, and title insurers, bends the ears of some of the most influential politicians on Capitol Hill. Her goal: to lower the barriers to business relationships among big real estate brokers, lenders, title companies, and appraisers.
Along the way, Ms. Johnson has coped with opposition from other trade organizations and some community activists because of sharp differences over these barriers. Her aim is to make the concept of "one-stop shopping" in the real estate arena profitable and litigation-proof for her members.
At a time when convenience is king-banks are setting up in supermarkets, offering mutual funds through their branches, and providing credit cards to access home equity lines-real estate brokers are pushing the one-stop concept for home sales.
Shrinking profit margins have also brought pressure for change, with major mortgage lenders and large real estate franchises seeking to branch out or to build business alliances.
Giant corporations, such as Countrywide Home Loans, Century 21, Coldwell Banker, and Pulte Homes, have begun to offer title insurance, mortgage loans, appraisals, and homeowner insurance at the point where a home is sold: thereal estate or builder's office.
But the one-stop concept puts Ms. Johnson and her association's members at odds with the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, and some community activists.
At issue is the way real estate agents are compensated. Allowing agents to receive a referral fee from mortgage lenders for loans they refer sets up an unhealthy environment, detractors say.
In addition, some mortgage lenders fear that allowing homebuyers to get financing directly from the realty office puts the agent in the driver's seat.
Last year, the Mortgage Banker's Association even organized a campaign, "See Your Lender First," dedicated to removing the real estate agent from the home-finance equation.
For their part, community groups fear that if referral fees are legal, homeowners will be left with fewer choices and will be steered toward high- cost loans.
The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act-a collection of rules governing referrals fees-has become the battlefield for these opposing viewpoints.
Respa's rulebook-described by various executives as arcane, ambiguous, and unnecessarily complex-confounds many companies. Urging the Department of Housing and Urban Development to clarify and simplify the rule has been a goal of several trade organizations, but Ms. Johnson's group is the only one dedicated exclusively to this task, as it refers to her association's affiliated businesses.
"Respa is nothing but a regulatory turf battle," Ms. Johnson said, "with competitors trying to get price and wage controls on companies entering the business."
Respa's machinations are especially important now. A wave of class actions that hinge on the definitions of the rules threatens to bury mortgage lenders, which have long been wary of affiliated business arrangements.
They fear that real estate brokers will steer homebuyers to lenders that pay the highest referral fees, resulting in bidding wars that could put a dent in lender profits and shut some of them out of the market.
Such controlled business arrangements "are not an issue for America's community banker," said one banker. "The Mortgage Bankers Association has a whole lot of players who would like them to go away, and the realtors see themselves at the ones that would like to address the issue, but they didn't.".
Ms. Johnson's group has already had a batch of successes. Action by the association has:
?Prompted a reexamination of HUD's role and introduced the concept of transferring enforcement of Respa to the Federal Reserve Board.
?Ensured the group a seat on HUD's negotiated rulemaking board, which this summer attempted to hash out Respa issues.
?Put employee compensation in the forefront of congressmen's minds.
?Put off for months the inception of an unpopular HUD ruling on employee compensation.
The success of the group is due in part to its timeliness. The Real Estate Service Providers Council has "got the strength of its position behind it," said Larry Platt, a lawyer with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, who represents lenders. "Vertical integration shouldn't be prohibited in any industry, especially the mortgage industry."
But members of Ms. Johnson's group say that much of the credit is due to her dedication and competitive spirit. "She doesn't walk into groups where people have welcomed her, saying 'Sue, lead us on this charge,"' said the association's former chairman, Gerald Levy. "She started out on the fringe and aggressively presented her case."
Even detractors admire her tenacity. "She's good. I compliment her," said a representative of another trade association.
The competitive spirit and aggressiveness that admirers mention are offset by a soft-spoken demeanor. "When you meet her, you don't expect her to be so nice," one real estate consultant said jokingly.
Ms. Johnson attributes her group's effectiveness to its solidarity and its emphasis on just one issue, rather than to her dedication. "We've taken this broad coalition and kept our focus, and we haven't been sidetracked," she said.
Detractors say the group's deep pockets are the key to its success as a lobbying organization, but Ms. Johnson denies that. "We don't have a huge war chest, like many believe," she said. Dues run from $1,000 to $10,000 annually.
As a former liaison between HUD and Congress, Ms. Johnson used that experience to shore up relationships on Capitol Hill. As a director of government affairs at Coldwell Banker Realty, she learned the politics of a real estate business that was striving to expand to other areas.
When the Real Estate Service Providers Council holds its annual two-day conference, it is not your typical meet-and-greet schmoozefest. Top executives from affiliated companies come for one reason: to learn how to navigate the twists and turns of regulation and how to eke out the most for themselves and their employees from business partnerships.
The meeting represents a sort of cease-fire among factions that normally spar for business. "Our members are now calling themselves diversified financial services companies-they're not thinking of themselves as categorized by one industry," said Ms. Johnson.