Who'd start a mortgage lender during the depths of a financial crisis induced in large part by bad mortgages?
Well, Jerry Schiano did when he launched New Penn Financial L.L.C. in Plymouth Meeting in early 2008. He had a track record in the industry, having sold the last mortgage lender he ran, Wilmington Finance, to a unit of American International Group Inc. for $121 million in 2003.
After some lean early years, New Penn now has about 1,000 employees in 36 locations around the nation, including about 350 in its two Montgomery County sites. Schiano, 52, said the company expected to originate $5 billion worth of residential mortgages in 2012.
Earlier this year, New Penn was ranked No. 310 on Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing privately held companies. According to figures supplied by the company to the magazine, New Penn had a 1,200 percent rise in revenue from 2008 through 2011, when it generated $47.6 million.
I talked with Schiano in his office, which overlooks the Pennsylvania Turnpike Mid-County Interchange, about managing such rapid growth during one of the weakest housing markets in generations.
Question: You founded New Penn in 2008, and I can't imagine a worse time to start a company.
Answer: In hindsight, the best time to do anything is when it feels so wrong, because you have the chance to change things and create a different business model. The problem is it feels so wrong because the time is tough.
Q: Did you have an advantage starting a company after the mortgage industry collapsed in 2007?
A: It definitely wasn't an easy time, and it was not for the faint of heart, and without a little bit of luck, things could have been very different for us. We were able to get people to believe in us because of past track record. We were able to get banks to lend to us when even some in business couldn't get people to lend. The advantage we had was we had no legacy issues.
Q: Do you have enough staffing going forward?
A: In a comparable market to now, with the same amount of government programs, like HARP [the Home Affordable Refinance Program], and interest rates, we think we have a lot more hiring to do. Our staffing next year could be about 1,500. If the government programs change . . . and if interest rates change too quickly, we would back off that.
Q: The housing market is better but still weak, and more regulatory changes are to come. Is New Penn where you thought you'd be by now?
A: When the market is sound, you're able to run your business model longer. In this company, it's been more of a relay race. You get the baton, and you run for a period of time, and the market is still shifting. Then you have to shift what you do and run the next relay.
One of my employees said, "We're changing too much." The problem is we can't stop changing when everything else is changing around us or we'll be left in the dust. Change is hard."