Brian Cullen finds the right combination of support and autonomy at SingleSource

CEO Brian Cullen believes SingleSource Property Solutions is blessed to have the right team, a team that is secure in itself, which in turn enables people to step up and grow.

“The key has been finding the right people with similar mindsets because that can be hard,” he says. “We’ve had managers or people in our company in the past that, as we brought in more talent, they were threatened.”

In a services company like SingleSource — a nationwide provider to loan origination, servicing and secondary entities like mortgage brokers, Realtors, etc. — people are critical. The job requires employees who are comfortable with their selves and who see strength in others as something that benefits the entire organization.

That mindset was something Cullen himself experienced when he and President Andre Lacouture established SingleSource.

The two are friends with Brian Uffelman, who started iMortgage Services in 2000 to work with real estate appraisers on a national scale. Lacouture and Cullen wanted to do something entrepreneurial and Uffelman felt they could take iMortgage’s processes and apply some of them to real estate agents who would work with banks and lending institutions.

So, in 2004, SingleSource became the startup of a startup.

A model for success

At SingleSource, Uffelman was the chairman and key investor. Cullen and Lacouture ran the company, which gave them equity. They also had the benefit of Uffelman’s industry contacts and could learn from iMortgage’s early years.

As a separate entity, SingleSource was able to move fast and build its own culture. The strong connection between the two, however, gave the new startup a leg up, as they took some of iMortgage’s best practices and utilized them for SingleSource from a different angle. The two young companies also essentially outsourced HR, IT and accounting to a third company, so both could focus on core services.

This model of both connection and independence has been so successful that the executives have continued to repeat it. Cullen and his team have added new divisions when it made sense, while also creating new companies, like American Destiny Real Estate Services, in instances where freedom and autonomy were more critical.

Most recently, the subsidiary Resolute Diligence Solutions is run by a SingleSource vice president who felt there was an opportunity in the single-family rental space. The company opened in Utah last year.

Cullen finds himself passing on the mentorship that he received in SingleSource’s early years. He tries to give the same autonomy, trust and support.

“This is really his first time in a startup mode, and there are things that you don’t learn until you get there,” he says. “We’re trying to give them the best guidance that you can knowing that there’s going to be times that we fall, but trying to help them find the solutions as quickly as possible.”

Cullen finds it important to listen and understand that someone who doesn’t want to be coached can’t be coached.

“Something we’ve read a lot about as a management team the last several years is servant leadership, and being more of a partner and not being a dictator,” he says. “Some of that is letting go and letting people fail. Because a lot of times, giving them that freedom, they might be successful in a way that you never thought was possible, too. Every situation is different, and every decision has another side to it.”

Entrepreneurs and business leaders learn that people will question every decision. But Cullen believes the most important question is, what was the alternative. What’s the opposite to yes? What happens if you say no?

“A lot of times as a leader, you have a decision to make, and neither option is great,” he says.

To get buy-in and commitment, sometimes you have to walk your employees through the alternative, Cullen says.

It’s also important to understand that failing doesn’t mean it was the wrong path. Sometimes you can make the right decision, take the right course of action, and something outside of your control still makes you fail.

Coming together

Over its first decade, SingleSource grew to more than 125 employees and caught up to iMortgage, so the two organizations were about the same size. That’s when the idea of merging for better sustainability and scalability surfaced.

“We never liked to refer to each other as brother or sister companies because we wanted to stand on our own, but the reality was there was a ton of crossover,” Cullen says.

Some employees at SingleSource had started at iMortgage, or vice versa, and sharing the same HR, IT and accounting functions promoted familiarity.

“That being said, I think we underestimated how different some of the things were culturally, even though everybody knew each other and generally liked each other,” he says. “It was still two different ways of doing things, with two different types of product lines.”

Cullen says the new senior management team was very conscious of taking the best from both organizations, including creating cross-pollinated merger committees.

“We tried to give people from both organizations a voice in how this was going to look going forward,” he says.

Cullen also utilized his early background as a consultant, when he was involved with industry consolidation.

“I had a good understanding of what it took to make sure that the new people coming in were comfortable, while at the same time knowing that no matter what we said, there was going to be some uncertainty about what the future held,” Cullen says.

The merger also pushed Cullen into more of a strategic role and away from operations, which he admits is something he probably should have been out of already.

Because iMortgage and SingleSource were so close already, Cullen says they thought it wouldn’t take as much time to combine, even though most resources pointed to two-plus years for it to feel like one organization.

“We all sat back and said, ‘We’ll do it faster than that,’ because we know each other and we’ve all worked together,” he says. “What we learned was you can’t do it faster than that.”

It wasn’t until 2019 that SingleSource felt once again like one business — poised for bigger and better things.

Adjusting through a down year

While the combined company immediately doubled in revenue, Cullen says the first couple of years didn’t produce the organic growth they had expected. SingleSource still had to consolidate both teams and technology, and the real estate market wasn’t going great in 2016 and 2017.

“The growth really started to happen in 2018, where we started to see year-over-year, nonmerger-related growth of 8 to 10 percent,” he says.

That momentum grew until the first quarter of 2020, which was one of the most successful quarters in the history of either company.

“If you took the tone of our holiday party in 2019, looking at 2020, that’s when we were really pounding our chest,” Cullen says. “Twenty-year anniversary. We fought through the merger. We’ve got these cultures combined. We’re growing. We really are entering 2020 as one, and what a great way to celebrate the 20th anniversary.”

SingleSource’s revenue dip for 2020 ended up being about 15 percent, because many of the real estate markets just stopped. However, the company was able to take advantage of the refinancing boom.

“It wasn’t what we wanted,” Cullen says. “It wasn’t what we anticipated as our big record year, but there are a lot of people that would trade places with us right now.”

SingleSource’s equity partners had the flexibility to be able to invest in new product lines and new companies, even in a down year.

“We felt like it was a grow-or-die type thing, that we had to keep pushing forward because, we know when our market comes back, there are going to be tremendous opportunities,” Cullen says. “And as a survivor through this, we’re going to come back bigger and better — and at the same time be able to acquire some talent in the industry at a time when other people are consolidating.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • Find the right balance of autonomy and support.
  • A true merger cannot be rushed.
  • Invest in others to make the overall entity stronger.