As many mortgage companies fight for their lives in the rapidly consolidating business, Old Kent Mortgage Co. has hired an Air Force fighter pilot veteran of the Vietnam War to help expand its retail business.

The search for someone to spearhead its growth led the company to Don Britton, formerly senior vice president in charge of residential lending at First Fidelity Bancorp, Lawrenceville, N.J.

When he joined First Fidelity in July 1992, he said he was attracted by the growth potential there. That seems to be an attraction again; his plans at Old Kent are for exponential growth of its home mortgage business.

"We need to grow," Mr. Britton said, "and now is an opportune time."

The new executive vice president said he plans to double Old Kent's production in three years and expand its servicing volume to $20 billion in five years.

Old Kent's production is a little under $2 billion a year. The servicing portfolio totals $6 billion.

Mr. Britton said Old Kent has managed to stay profitable with low costs, but expansion is the only way to remain in a business that has been quickly consolidating companies not able to stay competitive.

"They've managed to stay lean but they see the handwriting on the wall from cost," Mr. Britton said, adding that Old Kent needs to expand a bit to remain profitable.

"I think this is a good time to grow if you can afford to grow in terms of the opportunities you select," he said. With a good framework in place, Mr. Britton said, a franchise can be built out as the economy of the mortgage business changes.

Mr. Britton plans to expand Old Kent's reach as a mortgage provider through acquisitions, but at a reasonable pace through reasonable channels, he said.

Robert H. Warrington, president of Old Kent Mortgage, is confident his new hire will fit in with Old Kent's corporate culture and help the lender become a formidable home mortgage lender.

"Don was clearly head and shoulders above the other folks we interviewed," Mr. Warrington said. "His level of experience and past performance and managerial style fit in with what we were looking for."

Mr. Britton is a proven mortgage loan production manager with experience in retail and wholesale lending, which is what they were looking for, Mr. Warrington said.

One of Mr. Britton's immediate plans is to reengineer mortgage transactions. Old Kent uses the Freddie Mac automated underwriting program that allows the lender to connect directly with investors. This permitted Old Kent to change the mix of loans offered a bit, Mr. Britton said.

Mr. Britton said he plans to explore alternative lending opportunities, such as affinity relationships and building relationships with brokers, as well as traditional programs, like relocations and employee benefit programs.

"Consumers don't always deal with builders and realtors, they sometimes look on their own, so we want to be able to get to consumers directly," he said.

Mr. Britton said Old Kent will continue to look at and make acquisitions to expand its retail operations in other areas. The lender's eventual goal is to have a presence in the entire country. For now, he is content to limit the growth to California and the Northeast, he said.

"We certainly hope Don will help lead us in existing and new areas," Mr. Warrington said.

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