These days, Cara Heiden spends an awful lot of time traveling, talking, and theorizing.
The versatility is required in her job as overseer of Norwest Mortgage Inc.'s sprawling network of loan servicing centers. Ms. Heiden makes sure the sites - the nerve centers of a massive loan administration effort - are operating smoothly and on the same wave length.
The former chief financial officer's responsibilities also require her to be a top-notch strategist. She recently played a crucial role in the decision by the Des Moines unit of Norwest Corp. to close one of the centers.
Loans at the Southfield, Mich., unit will be transferred to one of Norwest's eight remaining centers - six operated by the company and two obtained in the May purchase of Prudential Home Mortgage.
The Prudential purchase supplied Norwest with $47 billion of loans to service directly and another $40 billion that Prudential will retain and Norwest will subservice.
Looked at another way, Norwest now services 1.65 million mortgage loans, a volume that demands broad attention to routine details like making sure payments are processed and massive numbers of statements are sent on time.
"We're working very hard to make sure that the operation is efficient," said Ms. Heiden, who has the title of executive vice president for loan administration.
In its search for greater efficiency, Norwest evaluates each acquisition for practices that can be incorporated into overall operations. In Prudential's case, Norwest has adopted a system that speeds up collections by allowing electronic transfers of monthly mortgage payments.
"Instead of receiving it two days later, we get it that day," Ms. Heiden said.
Norwest also hooks centers together so that communications from customers can be handled promptly and smoothly.
The setup "allows us to accommodate different time zones," Ms. Heiden said. That means a customer on the East Coast won't reach a closed office when dialing in after 5 p.m. Instead, a West Coast center that is part of the network will pick up the call.
"This enables us to service customers when they want to be taken care of," Ms. Heiden said.
The company subscribes to the multicenter concept when other mortgage lenders rely on one or two operations to handle loans.
Ms. Heiden defends Norwest's use of eight centers - among the most in the industry - as making the operation more effective. By having centers in different cities, Norwest is able to attract qualified workers more easily, she said, allowing for "our orderly expansion."
The system also supports disaster recovery, she said. Norwest got first- hand experience in this in 1993, when Iowa had its biggest flood in 500 years. The Des Moines center was completely flooded, Ms. Heiden said. "But we were able to respond to customers the next day by tapping into another center."
Norwest can also try out a new program or approach at one location to see if it flies before rolling it out to others.
The Norwest approach certainly has its fans among analysts. Trends at Norwest Mortgage "look excellent," wrote Ruchi Madan, a banking analyst at Prudential Securities, New York, in a recent report.
Moshe A. Orenbuch looks at Norwest two ways: as a person whose mortgage was serviced first by Prudential and now by Norwest; and as an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., New York.
As a borrower, Mr. Orenbuch says he is satisfied with the treatment he has received as Norwest took over the Prudential accounts. "It's been a pretty seamless transition," Mr. Orenbuch said. "I received a number of letters explaining what was going on."
As an analyst, Mr. Orenbuch says he also is pleased.
"There is no reason to believe they cannot operate at the size they are now," he said. "So far they have done a very good job.
"The question will be, can they maintain the servicing quality level as they consolidate," Mr. Orenbuch said. Based on the company's track record, "they've got a good chance at making it work," he said.
Norwest, he said, runs one of the tightest ships in the mortgage business. "You look at them in comparison to others in the industry and the other mortgage companies are all over the map" in terms of earnings.
Norwest, on the other hand, delivers consistent earnings that are among the best in the industry. In the first quarter, the operation posted a record profit of $30.4 million, 44% more than the year-earlier period, and 3.4% more than the fourth quarter.
Norwest Mortgage originated $11.7 billion of mortgages in the first quarter, a 154% jump from the level a year earlier and 7.4% more than in the fourth quarter.
Indeed, all the servicing technology, planning, and management are useless without a constant flow of loans. Steady volume is crucial to replace ongoing portfolio runoff that results from early payments or loans that reach maturity.
Norwest has recognized this, and developed a strategy to keep loans coming in to the servicing portfolio. The mortgage company originates loans in traditional ways, through loan centers, and by nontraditional means, like setting up lending programs with Wells Fargo & Co.
Norwest can handle the volume, Ms. Heiden said. The centers, although operating effectively, still have room for more loans and can accommodate internal growth or the acquisition of more portfolios, she said.