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8:00pm EDT June 29, 2006
Not many people can turn $1,000 and a childhood friendship into a successful business, but that’s exactly what First Security Lending co-founders Justin Aldi and Ronnie da Motta did.

Ten years ago, the mortgage lending firm was a fledgling venture run out of the front bedroom of Aldi’s house and staffed by six high school students working as telemarketers. Today, the company has grown to more than $20 million in revenue and has more than 250 loan officers and 30 office employees, says Aldi, who serves as CEO of the 13-branch company.

The key to propelling the Burbank-based business, he says, has been the pair’s nontraditional way of approaching things — whether it’s forming relationships in the community or building a company culture.

“We’ve always had a direction we wanted to take our business from Day One, but we’ve never had a specific plan to get there,” he says. “We definitely change on the fly, and we leave ourselves very flexible to move along with the market, which has attributed to our success for sure.”

Smart Business spoke with Aldi about how he’s managed the challenges of growth and created a motivating culture at First Security Lending.

What’s been your biggest challenge to growth, and how have you managed it?
Our ability to find good employees. Our company would probably be twice the size if we could secure the appropriate amount of help. We’ve tried everything — recruiting agencies, job fairs, Monster. Nothing works.

We’ve got a core group of not just loan officers but staff employees that have been really recruited from our childhood. It’s been people we can trust, with no mortgage skills, that we’ve trained and brought aboard to help us run the company because we gave up on trying to find outside employees.

We would rather take someone that has the right mentality and the right energy and the right enthusiasm and train them to our specific standards of quality and customer service rather than take somebody who has preconceived ideas of what’s going on and coming in with bad attitudes and so forth, which is rampant. We ask constantly for referrals from our existing employees.

How do you create a culture that motivates employees?
Our culture is very unorthodox for this industry. If you want to bring your kid or your dog to the office, that’s fine with us. I have two 150-pound dogs that I bring to the office.

We’re not big enough to have a childcare facility, so if you want to bring your kid and have it sit next to you in a crib or playpen or cradle, it’s fine with me as long as it doesn’t disturb anybody else. What does it really hurt? They’re here working and making us money.

As long as they’re able to maintain their duties ... I don’t care what you wear, what you look like, when you come into work. I don’t care if you come in at 5 in the morning or 10 o’clock at night, as long as you do your business.

We have a lot of fun at work, which is key. Practical jokes are numerous ... whether it’s filling desk drawers with sand or putting gold fish in the water tank or moving somebody’s desk down into the parking garage.

We also keep it uplifting by doing company parties that are very unorthodox. We don’t have a Christmas party. We never have because it’s too traditional. We’ll have a St. Patrick’s Day party or a Cinco de Mayo party.

It builds a tremendous amount of loyalty because we’re putting ourselves on a limb a little bit by allowing this freedom.

How do you make sure people don’t abuse these privileges?
We’re very laissez-faire, but we do hold the bar extremely high for ethical and customer service standards. We let people do what they want, but that does not eliminate you from the high standards.

I judge them by their actions and how it reflects our image as a company. We hold our reputation and our moral code to the highest level possible.

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