To say that 2020 was “a year like no other” wouldn’t adequately describe these past twelve months. The year began with my bold efforts to expand our relationships with business partners and associates through creative events and venues. We had many ideas that we were eagerly anxious to deploy in the months ahead.
Our first endeavor was as the platinum sponsor of the Greater Bergen Board of Realtors Circle of Excellence celebration held at MetLife Stadium. The event recognized the elite real estate agents of Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic Counties in New Jersey. Walking on the field and networking with new and old agents was a mesmerizing experience that I didn’t realize would indeed be so cherished. I was one of the last people remaining as I dismantled our booth, looking at the big empty field, not knowing that all sporting fields and stadiums would soon become deserted.
Another monumental undertaking for us was organizing and hosting the first-ever business conference in the newly opened American Dream. The multi-billion-dollar development was not even fully complete when I was having confidential meetings with their management about our venue. With its enormous three million square feet of space, finding the best location to entertain guests of our “Success Summit” was thrilling. I toured the facilities with VIP’s until we found the perfect spot overlooking their stunning Nickelodeon Universe amusement park. Our sellout crowd marveled at the night’s speakers and wondrous ambiance. Little did I know that when we huddled for the historic group picture, it would be the last time that I would see so many of those gathered.
After our networking summit’s success, we knew our growth strategies were on target, and we began rigorous meetings planning our next events. We had just expanded our offices and anticipated widespread company growth, expecting to bring another 25-30 people in-house over the next few months. I remember speaking with one of the office designers we were looking to retain, but she canceled an in-office meeting because she was concerned “about some virus” starting to spread. Still, now, one giant section of our newly expanded offices remains empty, devoid of furniture and life to occupy the space.
Allowing our employees to work remotely was not only a no-brainer, it was the uncompromised mandate we adopted, ensuring that their safety and family was the number one priority. Looking back, the fact that we were able to so seamlessly allow continuity of business made the difference to so many of our employees and their families. Demonstrating to our employees that we care more about their well-being than to monetize more productivity out of them, in turn, showed them how we should treat our clients during that time – which was with sympathy, compassion, and accommodation.
I vividly recall March 9th, the day that the 10-year U.S. treasury tanked to the lowest in history as if it were yesterday. Our cell phones and office phones were ringing off-the-hook with opportunistic applicants trying to take advantage of a sudden drop in mortgage rates, without regard for the cause. Immediately, I began having flashbacks to the 2008 housing crisis where the Federal Reserve was forced to step in to prevent market calamity and backstop the markets from massive sell-offs. This time, the fall proved to be very short-lived as treasuries just as quickly spiked up, catching many borrowers and loan officers off guard and out of synch.
I couldn’t spend too much time wallowing in nightmarish memories of the Great Recession, as I was forced to quickly manage the new flow of mortgage requests. The pit in my stomach echoed my concern, uncertain if there would even be investors on the other end to buy our loans with such unprecedented discounted rates. Ironically, it was just weeks before that I was on stage at the American Dream detailing how I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars during the 2008 housing crash, when no banks were willing to buy the loans we already closed. This was the first time in my career that I was genuinely fearful about actually having new business.
The dichotomy didn’t stop there. The next day, I went to a business meeting that I was trying to get for months and recall how insecure I was about what to do when the person came out to greet me. Were people still shaking hands? Would he be insulted if I didn’t shake? Would he squeal if I did extend my hand? Would I seem unreasonably phobic? Such a simple business meeting turned into such a questionable event.
In a matter of days, the world seemed to unravel. As a board member of my shul, conversations began surfacing about a self-imposed lockdown in our community and in many parts of Bergen County. In speaking with family and friends from other neighborhoods, some mocked our actions as unwarranted, while others began planning where they can travel to maintain a minyan outside of our area. A family member took a picture of me davening at home alone, the first time in ages that I could recall voluntarily missing a minyan. I still look at that picture with distress.
From there, the unprecedented steps of cutting rates, flooding the markets with cash, and implementing federal stimulus programs overwhelmed the markets. The world was officially on lockdown, and the mortgage business was in disarray. The days in isolation with immediate family was frightening and extremely unforgettable. We prayed for those who caught COVID, and worried about those we knew who might get infected.
I took the time in isolation to break out of my comfort and do videos about the changes in the markets and banking. I collaborated with real estate and financial experts and began disseminating timely updates about how to navigate through the current marketplace. From there, I expanded to podcasts, where I had the honor to interview people who I admired, such as Tom Ferry, Stephen Flatow, Hillel Fuld, Tamir Goodman, Haim Gozali, Charlie Harary, Meir Kay, Rudy Rochman, Coach Elliot Steinmetz, Mike Sweetney - to name a few. I will forever be grateful for the conversations and insights that I established through these discussions.
Internally, things started to change for me. I was no longer retreating from the pandemic, I began to lean forward. Although I wasn’t a frontline worker or those battling the disease firsthand, my attitude shifted to being service-oriented in any manner that I could. Aside from the charitable contributions that our business and family made, I started focusing my efforts on bringing value wherever I can. I volunteered to give webinars to those facing mortgage hardships and personally consulted with anyone who needed financial advice. Divorce attorneys and mediators reached out for guidance and connected me with clients who needed assistance during these delicate times. The unpaid work that I participated in during these times will forever be amongst the highlights of success that I achieved in my lifetime.
As the financial markets stabilized, historically low interest rates brought about the biggest mortgage boom we have ever experienced. Leading an organization virtually through this market proved to be a challenge in of itself. I quickly learned that transparency and taking care of your employees are the cornerstones of any successful business. If our model was simply to facilitate loan requests, we would be doing enormous business, but it’s not how we operate. I have spent years training and modeling for my employees that each loan request represents an individual person’s needs more than merely a mortgage. This personalized approach takes patience and diligence.
This past year was full of so many challenges and questions that will forever go unanswered. When I look back, I will recall the moments where I garnered the needed strength to push forward despite my fears and doubts. I will look at those who suffered immensely and learn from them how to be thankful and appreciative. I will hope and pray that the lessons of 2020 will forever remain with me to ensure that I aspire to be a better person than the day before. Wishing you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2021.
Shout out to Shimmy Stein! Happy Birthday to Sarit Friedman, Jason Jacobs, Uri Jacobs, Natalia Kabanov, Charlie Klugmann, Elli Orlinsky, and Tzina Samet. Special Birthday wishes to Devorah Shayowitz and Elana Shayowitz.
Shmuel Shayowitz (NMLS#19871) is President and Chief Lending Officer at Approved Funding, a privately held local mortgage banker and direct lender. Approved Funding is a mortgage company offering competitive interest rates as well as specialty niche programs on all types of Residential and Commercial properties. Shmuel has over 20 years of industry experience, including licenses and certifications as a certified mortgage underwriter, residential review appraiser, licensed real estate agent, and direct FHA specialized underwriter. He can be reached via email at [email protected]
By Shmuel Shayowitz