When Donna Ramsay and her staff members are having a stressful day at the office, they don't let it get to them. They simply press the "panic button" - found in each of the audio-equipped Hoops and Yoyo greeting cards on their desks - and laugh at the recorded screaming that ensues.
"Anybody that walks in our office can tell we're having a good time," says Ramsay, a mortgage planner/owner with Mortgage Architects. "And lender BDMs in the area love to take us out to lunch -they're always telling us how fun we are."
Ramsay employs six staff members at her head office in Orangeville, Ont., and two more at a branch in nearby Alliston. The all-female team - who Ramsay affectionately refers to as "the girls" - were all born and raised in small towns from around the area and have known each other for several years (four of them also worked with Ramsay during her 17-year stint as a mortgage representative at National Trust). She says they share "a great sense a humour and a love of chocolate" and have gone on vacation together twice.
"Everybody gets along so well - it's like we're a family," she says.
"The girls" work out of an office in a 14,000 sq. ft.building that Ramsay and her fiance, Ed, commissioned to be built 10 years ago. It includes three other offices, Ed's towing business and auto shop, and their apartment.
"I just roll out of bed and my door goes right into my office," she says, laughing. "I'm here 24 hours a day, seven days a week - I'll answer calls at midnight and respond to e-mails at three in the morning."
Ramsay's dedication to her mortgage business has earned her a ninth place spot on this year's CMP Top 50 list, customer service awards from the local Chamber of Commerce and nominations for the Dufferin Business Woman of the Year two years in a row. She started working as a mortgage agent a decade ago and, over the years, has carved a niche for securing financing for more unconventional properties like farms and rural land, which are common in the area she lives.
Although she calls leaving a salaried job for a commission-based job the biggest risk she ever took, Ramsay likes the ongoing attention she can give clients as a mortgage planner, something that wasn't emphasized at her former job.
"We have a huge database and we work it," she says. "Clients like the personal touch, so I find if you work with what you already have, you don't have to go out and do cold sales calls."
Ramsay was born and raised in the Orangeville area and describes it as a bedroom community with lots of opportunity - something she'll go great lengths not to miss out on. She recalls a time when she was grocery shopping and got a call from someone looking for her services. Without a pen or paper on hand, Ramsay carved their phone number into a banana with her car keys.
"Wherever I am, I'll take an application down on anything - cigarette packs, napkins, you name it," she says. "I drive the girls crazy."
She points out that 95 per cent of her business comes from client referrals that stem mostly from her community ties - for example, kids she used to see at the bank who are now grown up and whose parents refer them to her or people she has met through volunteering with a local Coats for Kids initiative.
"As an office, we know everybody and our phone never stops ringing," she says. "I run into clients and business associates all the time in my everyday activities."
As the face of the business, Ramsay generates leads and her staff members help underwrite the deals and submit applications. Her fiance‚ Ed, who used to work for the local fire department, is dubbed the manager of marketing and promotions because he is a prominent referral source - Ramsay jokes that more people call him for a mortgage than her office.
Ramsay visits her Alliston branch (which she opened seven years ago) once a week and goes to lunch with real estate agents from the area who she met during her years working at the bank as a mortgage sales representative. Her annual business-related Christmas party (held in the town's Gibson Centre for Community Arts and Culture) draws close to 200 people, from lawyers to real estate agents to clients and friends.
Small town challenges
Orangeville, Ont., about 75 kilometres northwest of Toronto, has a population of nearly 30,000 and is surrounded by several small towns, including Shelburne, Bradford and Alliston - all areas that Ramsay services. But along with the benefits of working in a small community she says there are specific challenges, such as finding financing for farm properties or getting accurate appraisals on highly valued land.
"In certain townships in the area, the land is worth a lot of money, so it's hard to appraise and harder to get lenders to approve," she explains, adding that "banks won't touch" land that is zoned for agricultural use, even if it's not being used for a farm. And if property owners plan to have livestock, they are considered by lenders to be making money off the property, which is another challenge when it comes to financing.
To overcome the obstacles, Ramsay - who also takes on construction deals, many with private lenders - has built up strong relationships with bank branches in the community. When sending in an application, she submits detailed packages that explain a property's value with comparable properties in the area and outlines the development of a community and its proximity to industry.
"You do have challenges with rural properties and in small towns like Shelburne," says Ramsay, pointing out that many people in Toronto don't even know where Orangeville is. "The banks in Toronto will cut back LTV because there isn't enough population or because it's a rural property, so you really have to sell the positives of the town."
A more recent challenge Ramsay is noticing is job loss in the area. The large Honda plant in Alliston recently cut production to three days a week and several related businesses have been affected by the slowdown, such as automotive parts manufacturer Johnson Controls, which has been temporarily closed as a response to Chrysler's bankruptcy proceedings.
Ramsay says the rising unemployment in the area has given her a heightened awareness of the importance of good credit and has made her think of ways to help clients who find themselves jobless. She gives the examples of a client who was temporarily laid off from a job at Chrysler and was looking to obtain a 30 per cent LTV mortgage. When the lender was waffling, Ramsay pushed back on the grounds of a small loan amount and the client's past salary, credit history and estimated EI payments. She eventually got them to accept the deal.
"I think we've built our business on our service and our proactive approach," she says. "What has made us so successful is that we think things out and we give good advice to people."
Although Ramsay rarely shuts down her work life, she tries to escape regularly to her house in Florida and is planning to spend more time at her home in the nearby Hockley Valley in the summer where, she says, "you can practically see the salmon spawning from the kitchen window."
And even in her downtime, Ramsay says she is constantly thinking of ways to improve and build her business, even though - unlike client phone numbers - she rarely records her plans.
"I can't write down what I think I'm going to do - I just have these thoughts and I do it," she says. "The girls always say that they need to download me into a computer because I have all this stuff in my head."