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6:36am EDT November 22, 2005
Just four years after its founding, Emerald Financial Group LLC has grown to $3.5 million in revenue. But President Gary Weinhauer says he’s in no hurry to grow further — he plans to take his time and do it right.

“A lot of people go out and get licensed in every single state they can,” he says. “However, each state has different compliance laws, so there’s a huge time investment, and compliance is something we take very seriously.”

Headquartered in Independence, the full-service residential and commercial mortgage broker is licensed in five states and is looking to grow in markets that offer the highest potential return.

“You can make more on a $300,000 mortgage than you can on a $30,000 mortgage, so that determines where we go,” Weinhauer says. “We are looking at adding three more states by the end of 2006.”

Smart Business spoke with Weinhauer about how technology has impacted his business and how he sets his company apart from the competition.

How does technology affect the way you grow your business?
We can type the customer’s loan application on our loan origination software, upload it to the bank ... and it will actually underwrite the file in a matter of seconds.

If somebody had an appraisal on their home and had title work done already, they could give me a loan application and I could close their loan in a half hour. [In the past], the customer went into the corner bank, and the bank’s board of directors sat and decided on a loan decision. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Three years ago, there was a handful of lenders that had systems such as this, where you could upload and get underwriting decisions, and now it’s become more the norm than the exception.

How do you stay on top of this technology to make the process more efficient for your customers?
It’s a constant learning process. I don’t really know if there’s a way to stay on top of it more than just being in touch with each bank’s account executive or lender rep. They come in and they train us on their system, and from there, it’s just learning each bank’s system of programs.

There are definitely lender systems that are easier than others, and that affects to whom we send loans.

How has your ‘no application fee’ system impacted your business?
When we started the company, our goal was to treat our employees like gold; we don’t want an unhappy customer. It’s definitely a competitive advantage where a customer can call me and it doesn’t cost them anything to find out what I can do for them.

Once we approve a customer and lock in their interest rate, we have the customer pay for the appraisal.

[At banks that charges an application fee], if the customer decides not to take the loan or if underwriting turns the customer down, the bank keeps that application fee as profit. I find (having a no application fee rule) more ethical, better business and better customer service.

It definitely makes people more willing to apply. If people who aren’t so sure of their credit have to pay a $300 or $400 application fee, they’re going to be a heck of a lot less likely to give it a go and see if we can help them. If it doesn’t cost them anything, it allows us to get a lot more applications in the door.

In some cases, we do a lot of work for nothing, too. But the good outweighs the bad.

How do you set your firm apart from your competition?
Where we try to stand apart is treating our employees fantastically. We have an extensive Christmas party. At the end of the year, employees who hit their sales quota, we take them on a vacation with their spouse or a guest. We do a cash contest or little trips to Windsor. We want to attract the cream of the crop as far as employees.

The second part is not having unhappy customers. A huge source of our business is referrals. That’s very important to me as an owner. I don’t want one bad word said about Emerald Financial Group out there, and we do everything we can to satisfy each customer.

How do you do that?
If a customer is upset over anything that happens, I’ll get on the phone with him or her and say, ‘What do you want? What would you like me to do?’ As long as it’s feasible, I’ll do pretty much anything to make a customer happy.

We train our people very well, and everyone is conscientious of my stance in making sure each customer is happy. I rarely have to [make that phone call] because my employees treat our customers fantastically.

HOW TO REACH: Emerald Financial Group LLC, (216) 674-4400 or www.efgmortgages.com