Jeff Coury Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

When Fidelity National Financial acquired ServiceLink LP last year, it cast a sideways look at the company’s morale budgets, funds set aside for each department to, on occasion, reward its employees for a job well done. Adamant about keeping the recognition program in place at the $120 million closing management company, ServiceLink CEO Jeff Coury insisted that the budgets be preserved. To Coury, they were an outstanding way of keeping employees motivated and a piece of company culture worth keeping, even if he had to fight for them. So he did, and he won. Smart Business spoke with Coury about checking your ego at the door and why you should only worry about the things you can control.

Hire managers with strong people skills. I look for management that can park their egos at the door, listen to the people that are really doing the work and bring to them what they don’t have — their management experience, their leadership skills.

What I really look for, more than a title executive, is a good manager, someone who can listen to the team around them and then lead them to where they need to go. The right person with those kinds of skills, more than the technical skills needed for the business, is what I’m looking for.

First and foremost, at least in this company, people skills are No. 1. If you have people skills, they will take you a long way. The second is, can you check your ego at the door? Can you empower people? Can you let go?

Remember what made your business successful.

One of the things that I tried to stress to Fidelity National Financial when they came in and purchased us was to allow us to maintain our current culture. Based on that, we were able to keep our morale budgets, one of the few operations under the Fidelity umbrella of families that have one.

Morale budgets are important to me; it is our way of staying in front of our people, thanking them for what they do and communicating that message to them. We take them out to a ballgame or do something as simple as a cocktail hour.

We did these things when we were a 50-person company, a 200-person company, and we’re doing them as a 900-person company.

I think when you make it a priority and you realize that that’s been your secret to success — your people — you don’t miss the little things.

Don’t worry about things you can’t control. We are in a very cyclical industry. When business was down in 2004 and the sales reps would panic and the employees thought we were going to lay off and everyone was laying off around us, our philosophy was, worry about what we can control.

I can’t control interest rates, I can’t control where the refinance versus purchase index is going to go. I can’t control market conditions. We don’t have any power over those things, but let me tell you what you can control.

You can control your customer service. You can control when the loan order comes in, how well you service that customer, how well you close that loan, how well you communicate.

Use your first 100 days as a new CEO to learn.

Don’t try to hit a home run. Don’t come in and, just because you hold the title of CEO, start making changes.

What you need to do is talk to the executives that are there, take an opportunity to size up, learn what’s going on before you make changes that shouldn’t be there and find out later that they shouldn’t have been made. In that process, you lose the respect of your management team whether you’re right or wrong.

You should use that first 100 days to learn about the organization, learn about the people around you, humble yourself.

Don’t let the title of CEO go to your head. That’s being a smart leader. It’s how you gain the respect of the people around you, because in those first 100 days, changes are being made, but they’re being made with them, not to them.

They’re being made as a group, not, ‘Here’s the new guy. Without asking the right questions, he’s making changes.’

Seek good people first. We have a philosophy that’s real simple. At the processor level, I look for good people because we can teach them the trade.

So what I look for are good people who have a good work ethic, good morale, good ethical standards, loyalty and who want to make a difference. You can have the smartest person in a position, but if they don’t have those kinds of qualities, they’re not any good.

What we promise them is if you bring those things to the table, we’re going to teach you a trade, we’re going to pay your benefits, we’re going to pay you a good wage.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. I don’t like to fail, and I think what stops me from failing is fear of failing. I respond to the prospect of failure by being prepared.

When we would walk out of a meeting with one of our top 10 lenders, it wasn’t the meeting that was a success, it was the preparation for the meeting that made the meeting a success. The tee-up to the meeting or to the process, that’s everything.

There hasn’t been one meeting where we’ve walked out of it and said, ‘Boy, did we ever overprepare for this one.’

Lead by example. I’m a very strong leader, but I don’t demand, I try to command. I try to lead by example. I don’t expect anything out of my people that I don’t do myself.

If they’re here late, I’m here late. If they need to travel, I’m traveling. My title is CEO, but I’m the same as janitor, as far as I’m concerned.

You’ve got to be a humble but strong leader, and you’ve got to be able to show that balance.

HOW TO REACH: ServiceLink, www.servicelinklp.com