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Family man Featured

11:54am EDT January 31, 2005
The first thing you notice when you walk into Leonard Stein-Sapir's office at Mortgage Information Services is the hustle and bustle of his employees. Phones ring constantly. The din of conversation floats through the building. People come and go through the city of cubicles that make up MIS' burgeoning Warrensville Heights headquarters.

The second thing you can't miss is the "Dirty Dozen" movie poster that hangs prominently on the wall near the lobby.

"It's a badge of honor," says Stein-Sapir about the poster, which graces the entrance of every one of MIS' locations nationwide.

The poster's story has its roots in the scrappy, entrepreneurial nature of this lawyer-turned-businessman, and the role of underdog embodies not just Stein-Sapir's personality but those, too, of his 750 employees. Stein-Sapir and his MIS team have made it their mission to beat the odds at every step of the company's evolution and succeed where the competition doesn't give it a chance.

MIS, which provides mortgage title insurance, valuation assignment and other settlement services, is not Stein-Sapir's first venture. He's had numerous companies over the years, including one he sold to TRW in the 1980s (Record Data) and a public company (Morgan's Foods) of which he's still majority owner.

MIS is in growth mode, expanding almost monthly by adding new service centers nationwide. Stein-Sapir loves growth, and, if the past is any indication, his penchant for building and selling businesses will lead him to another enterprise or two before he retires.

But despite the change that growth has brought, one constant throughout Stein-Sapir's career has been his commitment to his employees.

"We have little things," he says. "Like if we have to go out and have a dinner here outside of the office, we always require the people at that dinner to bring home a dessert to their significant other. It's never about the money. It's the fact that someone thought of you."

Stein-Sapir gives more than just lip service to building a corporate culture comprised of team unity, loyalty and a sense of family; it's what drives him. Smart Business spent the day with him and his staff to learn about the importance of family and of creating a sense of family in the workplace.

How important is it to make a commitment to employees and their families?

If a family unit is not united, you're going to have strife. That's not going to be good for anybody. When we hire the highest management levels in this organization, I have those people over to my house.

If they're from out of town, they stay with me because I want to see what they're like as people and what their relationship with their other partner is like. (My goal) is to see if there's a solid foundation, because that's very important. They can make a judgment about my values and I can make a judgment about them. In the final analysis, that's what's most important.

Do you think it's necessary to dig deeper and really get to understand your staff?

All knowledge is critical in terms of being successful, not only in business but in life. Psychology is a big part of running an organization. How do you handle the demons of certain people who are very important to you and make them feel comfortable and at home?

Everyone has their demons. It's simple human relationships. Those are very important things.

What happens when companies get bigger and bigger is that they start getting departments and committees and no one is really attending to the important things. So far, for us, it's working very well. Every time I have a chance, I tell my new staff members, 'If you ever have a decision to make that involves your family or this company, as much as I love (this company), you always pick your family.' It isn't even a question. It's not even something to think about.

And it's worked. It's worked to instill motivation in people and build their loyalties.

So how does the Dirty Dozen relate to you and your team?

There was a company called Record Data that I sold to TRW in 1985. Not long after that, I was getting phone calls from people who worked for me at Record Data saying, 'Please help us find a home because we're getting chewed up and spit out by this Fortune 50 company because we don't have college degrees and we don't have MBAs and we don't have gray flannel suits and we don't have attaché cases.'

All they had was that they really knew the business cold and they were honorable, hard-working people. But they didn't fit into the TRW mold. So when my noncompete (agreement) was up, I started (MIS) strictly as an opportunity to create jobs for people.

We promptly took most of the business away from TRW. One of the people who worked for me called me and said, 'We have to tell you about this meeting (of the TRW executives). (One of them) said that you were nothing but the Dirty Dozen and that you were going to be out of business in six months.'

I laughed when I heard that and said, 'Go back and tell (them) they ought to see the movie, because the Dirty Dozen beat the Nazis.'

To make long story short, that subsidiary of TRW is out of business, TRW is out of business, and we now have a service center there (in the city where Record Data was located) that has 60 people. So there is justice in the world. So every time we open an office now, I get a Dirty Dozen poster and we hang it in the hall.

What strategies do you use to create a sense of loyalty in your employees?

Business is people, and it's the people in the trenches who interface with customers and do the things that have to be done to make the difference. You cannot motivate people by looking over their shoulder 10 or 12 hours a day.

You can't say to them that this has to be done, and will you stay a couple extra hours tonight or come in on a Saturday and clean up the ant problem or stop by because you think the desks need cleaning. That comes because of a feeling of self-worth that you imbue in these people, a feeling of empowerment and a feeling that they're being treated fairly.

It sounds corny, but it is true. Think about your own family. If you want your wife to be loyal and she wants you to be loyal, it's not going to be because you're looking over each other's shoulder. It's because in your hearts you want to be.

So how do you get people to want to do something? You treat them fairly. People here are happy. They know they're being judged for themselves.

And I'll tell you one of the things we get out of it, especially with the teams we have. If someone is slacking off, they'll tell their supervisor. They don't think about it as being disloyal to a friend; they think of it as being loyal to their family.

I think it's Management 101, but not a lot of people do it. We do, and you can see the results.

I love the opportunities we give to people. I love coming into the office and seeing the people in this organization. There's an energy here, and it's true of every single service center we have. People are happy and they're excited. They work sometimes until 10 or 11 o'clock at night when they don't need to do that. That's exciting.

How to reach: Mortgage Information Services, (216) 514-1330 or www.mtginfo.com