Community player Julie Stamp

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One of the first qualities I notice in Julie Stamp, aside from her friendliness, is her focus. We're playing on the same team at the second annual Ontario mortgage industry ladies charity golf tournament, and while the two other women on my team and I tee off without too much thought (my goal as an amateur golfer is, quite simply, to make contact with the ball), Stamp takes her time.

At each hole, she places her club on the ground, lining it up with the flag in the distance and crouching down to concentrate on what direction her ball needs to head. On many occasions, her calm preparation ritual works - we're playing best ball and she's the one with the highest number of top shots among us, likely contributing to a much smoother (and faster) game. Our team didn't place first at the tournament, but thankfully we didn't finish last, either.

When I catch up with Stamp, a mortgage agent in Oshawa, Ont., a couple of weeks later to arrange an interview - there was only time for informal chatter on the golf course - she tells me she participated in three other games of golf in the week of the women's mortgage industry event, among them a charity tournament for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Oshawa (an organization she volunteers for) and a networking game with an insurance company she gets referrals from.

"It was a lot of golf in one week, but I surprisingly wasn't tired at the end of it all," she says when we meet up again, this time for a guided tour of Oshawa in her red Ford SUV. "It was a lot of fun!"

Her willingness to say yes to four games of golf in one week speaks to Stamp's business philosophy of what she calls "constant networking" and community involvement - two things that have taken her far during her short time in the industry and led her to build a large client base during a period of hardship in Oshawa and the surrounding areas.

Tough times
In the middle of May, Oshawa's General Motors truck plant closed its doors, an event that meant the loss of 2,600 jobs in the community, not to mention a ripple effect on surrounding businesses both related and unrelated to the auto industry. Stamp, who lives in the nearby community of Brooklin (which she describes as a kind of "Pleasantville"), says the state of the local economy caused a notable shift in her clientele.

"Most of my business was A business before, but with lots of people in danger of losing their homes, it's been about finding new solutions like re-financing or bringing on a co-signer, or consolidating debt," she says, recalling phone calls she received earlier this year where people were crying on the other end of the line because they couldn't pay their mortgages.

Helping hand
In one instance, Stamp helped a husband and wife who were both let go from a plant that manufactured car seats. Although they faced a large penalty by breaking their mortgage, Stamp was able to find them a much lower interest rate at another lender and reduce their monthly payments by almost $1,000. She has also helped clients who have run into trouble when refinancing their homes because they took an early retirement package from their employer (not always considered "gainful income" by a lender).

In another case, she met a woman who bought a new house but wasn't able to get the lender to advance the difference between her old mortgage and her new mortgage, bringing her to take out a second loan from a private lender that eventually drove her into debt. Stamp ended up asking the woman's sister to co-sign on the new mortgage and got rid of the client's second mortgage - something that saved her almost $1,300 a month.

"Probably the best part of the job is being able to help people financially and come up with solutions for them to help relieve some of the burden of debt," she says.

While Oshawa is still in recovery mode, Stamp says she has seen the city's situation slowly improving, citing new developments like the downtown courthouse building and various condo and housing projects. From her office, she also sees many workers at the Michael Starr government building on the main King Street strip and says she has several younger clients who work for the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) in nearby Whitby.

"The population has really been building along the outer edges of Oshawa in the last 10 years and there has been a massive new home build-up in the northern areas," she says while driving around the city's old and new parts. She also points out that Oshawa has some of the highest taxes in the province due to its lack of industry.

Grassroots marketing
With a background in sales and marketing and work experience at a bank, Stamp started exploring a career in real estate a couple of years ago when a friend mentioned the mortgage business to her. She says her love of meeting people and working with numbers prompted her to take the leap to self-employment as a mortgage agent in 2006. Since then, she has worked to build her business by attending local events, joining networking groups (like the one at the Whitby Chamber of Commerce) and advertising in smaller community newspapers.

"I really believe in grassroots marketing," she says. "If you're an active part of your local community and you support it then they, in turn, will support you."

Stamp is also a firm believer in education, so she started holding "lunch and learn" sessions with local businesses to promote the services of a mortgage professional. She contacts the human resource departments of companies for permission and then gives half-hour talks covering topics like credit history and the benefits of using smaller "broker-friendly" lenders as opposed to big banks. A recent session at an auto company drew 16 attendees on short notice.

The legwork of finding community contacts and referral sources has paid off for Stamp, who says her business increased almost tenfold in the past year (the constant buzz of her BlackBerry during our drive is a good indication of the demand for her services).

"May, June, July, August were crazy months for me - I was working from first thing in the morning until about 7:30 at night - but I'm not complaining because it was nuts in a good way," she says, adding it meant much less time to devote to hobbies like mountain biking along Oshawa's waterfront and cooking.

Looking forward
While Stamp expects the fall and winter months to be slower - she has scheduled a well-deserved cruise in November - she is also launching a side business in the coming weeks with a real estate agent in the area. The business, called SmartHome Solution, will be a referral service directory for local homebuyers and owners who need to find businesses like movers, painters and real estate and mortgage professionals. She says it will provide her with co-branding opportunities and another avenue to get her name out in the community.

With her focus on building a client base - a focus that harkens back to her determination on the golf course - Stamp is not only optimistic about the future of her business, but about the future of Oshawa, which she believes is slowly but steadily shaking its downtrodden image.

"When I first moved here, lots of people were like, 'what were you thinking?'" she says, laughing. "But I think in five to 10 years, Oshawa is really going to be a destination ... right now it's just in a transition stage."

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