Since becoming president of Finance of America Reverse six years ago, Kristen Sieffert has earned a rightful place as one of the top business leaders in the reverse mortgage industry.
Her constant inquisitiveness and need to innovate, coupled with a compassion for consumers and promoting a work environment that empowers innovation and personal growth, have consistently kept FAR near the top of reverse mortgage providers.
Sieffert was fresh out of college in 2004, having graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in political science, when she started working as a wholesale sales representative with Irvine, CA-based Financial Freedom Senior Funding Corporation.
She had no prior job experience in business or finance, but she was exceptionally driven, and that’s all it took to secure her climb up the corporate ladder.
Reverse Mortgage magazine sat down with Sieffert to talk more in-depth about her leadership style and future priorities.
Reverse Mortgage: How would you describe Finance of America Reverse’s business model today versus pre-COVID?
Kristen Sieffert: We have always focused on ensuring the best experience for our borrowers and for our employees. There haven’t been any major business model pivots pre-COVID versus today. However, COVID has further amplified the need for us to continue to elevate and invest in that experience and further strengthen our business to support current market dynamics. Importantly, we are laser focused on compassionate borrower engagement. If we’re going to continue to transform legacy perceptions of the industry, we need to invest in every touch point that our borrowers, partners, estates and heirs have faced in the reverse mortgage process. The biggest focus for us right now is the experience that estates and heirs have when paying off a family member’s loan. That’s the next generation of borrowers. If we can provide ways to surprise and delight those people, it could really help create a more virtuous circle around our industry.
RM: In the past year, FAR formed partnerships with the Center on Longevity at Stanford and the Financial Planning Association. Can you discuss the importance of these relationships?
KS: We are committed to providing more comprehensive ways to help our borrowers thrive after they get a reverse mortgage. The Corporate Affiliate Program of the Stanford Center on Longevity was a really exciting opportunity. They’re at the forefront of some amazing, cutting-edge research around the aging of America and, even more broadly, on planning for a 100-year lifespan. It not only affects today’s retirees, but future generations who will be challenged with living longer. What tools do we need? What new perspectives do we need? Stanford’s research shows that people don’t plan. We want to take a good look at that research and figure out how can we help Stanford spread these messages that really are important for all of us to learn sooner rather than later. Separately, we developed an educational partnership with the Financial Planning Association to directly connect with financial planning professionals and educate them about reverse mortgages. We know how important a role reverse mortgages can play in a diversified retirement approach. By virtue of this touchpoint, we can reach an even broader subset of Americans and help them have more positive financial outcomes during their non-working years
RM: Concerns over the Delta variant have arisen lately and the impact it could have on the elderly, even those who have been vaccinated. What precautions are you taking to protect your borrowers and your employees?
KS: The pandemic is something that none of us have ever experienced and it has really shown how resilient we are as a company. While there’s no playbook to navigate the pandemic and the different variants, we remain focused on FAR’s guiding principles: maintaining a customer-first and employee-first approach and helping people thrive and find the financial flexibility they need. We have not mandated that anyone at FAR return to the office, and we are providing tools and support employees need to thrive in their current environment, which is typically their home office. Importantly, we are not just enduring, we are thriving. In fact, our borrower engagement team has grown tremendously. We’re really proud to offer borrowers the support of professionals who listen to their needs and offer unique and creative ways to support them.
RM: What are your primary goals for FAR in 2022?
KS: We’re focused on continuing to change the narrative around reverse mortgages, so this amazing product that helps people enjoy financial flexibility and stability in retirement can become more mainstream. To do this we are focused on two main areas: the first is a fresh perspective around how we market the product to consumers; and the second is doubling down on our people first, ten-star approach. As a team, we wake up every day and think about how we can help each other, our customers and our partners thrive, and how we can surprise and delight people at every opportunity. That’s a really inspiring thing to be able to do as a team: prioritizing people, putting them at the core of what we do, investing in their well-being. It makes any goal that we set as a company much more attainable and fun to reach.
RM: FAR is one of eight companies that offer private-label reverse mortgages. What distinguishes HomeSafe from its competitors?
KS: We have always charted our own path and pushed innovation. When we launched HomeSafe in 2014, the initial volume we did was relatively small, but it gave us time to refine our processes and learn to improve the product to meet larger sets of consumers. When the HECM program shifted in late 2017, HomeSafe was there to fill a void, and it really started to thrive at that point. We continue to have high hopes for our HomeSafe suite of products, which has been very successful so far in providing options to borrowers not well served by HECM. Our newest proprietary product, which we’ve deemed a retirement mortgage, is called EquityAvail. It’s the first of its kind, an innovative solution that really addresses a gap in the market that wasn’t addressed by HECM and the original HomeSafe. EquityAvail provides that extra loan-to-value (LTV) by combining a traditional forward mortgage payment for ten years that is typically about a third of what the regular forward mortgage payment would be and then automatically flipping to a reverse mortgage afterwards. By some estimates, roughly two million homeowners could benefit from this type of option in retirement.
RM: The last time we spoke in early 2016, you had just been promoted to president of FAR. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned over the past six years?
KS: I was a little scared to step into this lead role for the company, but I have had more fun than I ever thought possible. I have been given an opportunity to focus on the things that I care deeply about, namely helping people thrive. Finding a way to play for a bigger mission and vision and then empowering our team to achieve their goals through the work we do every day really underpins the success that we’ve had as a company. We’re very intentionally creating a relational organization versus a transactional one. It sounds simple, but it’s a big shift from how the mortgage industry, in general, has operated. Mortgages are very transactional, but when I look at the reverse industry my mantra is that the real work begins after a borrower’s loan has closed. Our industry is still paying a reputational price for the lack of real support historically given to borrowers while their loans were being serviced. I believe very passionately that we have to find ways to elevate the servicing experience. We have to find ways to create advocates and evangelists at each touch point, so that we can continue to be perceived as a trusted resource to borrowers, their estate and their heirs. I like to imagine how we could transform our industry perception if every heir who dealt with our industry at the time of payoff had a ten-star experience and walked away saying, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know anything about reverses, but I just dealt with that industry and it was phenomenal.” That type of goodwill is necessary for the future growth of our industry. Our industry offers a unique platform to be able to have that passion come to life, especially the ability to really help people during such an important time. Retirement can be a five-year stint or it could last 35 years. We have this opportunity to really help people make the most of this time where they may not have fully planned for what they’re going to be facing.
RM: What makes someone an effective business leader?
KS: An effective business leader focuses on his or her customers, partners and employees. An effective business leader focuses on innovation. If we can remain focused on both innovation— looking five, ten, 15 years down the line and asking ourselves, “how are we going to build for an unknown future?”—while also creating a culture of compassion for our people so that they want to come here and help contribute to that cause gives us a better ability to be resilient and to pivot when we need to and weather any storm that we may face. There’s a quote I love from Jeff Bezos, “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.” I truly believe that. We come to work treating each day as Day 1. We don’t look at our successes and rest on our laurels. We think about how we can build a future where tech companies could be our competitors, rather than just other mortgage companies. A good leader understands the needs of the workforce and builds an environment that nurtures people, so that they feel like they have opportunities to grow, contribute and be innovative. When I came into this role, I didn’t have all the answers. It was liberating to be open-minded to things I didn’t know, challenging the status quo, asking really good questions and finding ways to think differently in an industry that has done things a certain way for a really long time.
RM: By the time this interview is published, NRMLA will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. Where do you see the reverse mortgage industry 25 years from now?
KS: Okay, 25 years in the future is fun to think about. I believe the use of home equity to support financial stability and retirement will be a mainstream concept. I actually think we should get there much sooner, but to do so it’s critical that our industry finds novel ways to educate the market at a much broader scale. Our industry is really challenged right now just juggling the current refi wave and trying to find ways to market to new customers. Collectively, we need to be thinking about new and fresh ways to invest in marketing, so that we can continue to change the conversation and pave the way for this product to be mainstream. There still are a lot of people out there who have misconceptions about what it means to tap home equity during retirement. That, coupled with continued investments in product development, can help us break down barriers between the forward mortgage industry and the reverse mortgage industry that can help our cause.
RM: Thank you for your time. I have one final question. Who is Kristen Sieffert?
KS: I am a compassionate optimist, who has grand visions for what the future holds. I’m committed to finding ways to inspire and empower more people to experience their own higher potential. I really believe in living a purposeful life with wonderment and curiosity, but also using whatever power and resources I have to help others achieve the same.