This past January, Sarah Cavanaugh celebrated 30 years in the reverse mortgage business.
When the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association held its first-ever conference in 1997 at the Ritz-Carlton in La Quinta, CA, Cavanaugh was one of 50 people who attended. This writer was there too, assigned to cover the festivities for National Mortgage News.
While most people specialize in one area of the reverse mortgage business, Cavanagh has had hands-on experience in every facet of the business, including state and regulatory compliance, risk mitigation, retail, wholesale and correspondent origination environments, operations and sales management. She also owned her own mortgage brokerage business for two years before returning to a corporate environment.
She was first elected to NRMLA’s Board of Directors in 2000 and served as co-chair from 2003 to 2006 and in 2012. She currently co-chairs NRMLA’s Ethics Committee and is an active member of the HUD Issues and Compliance Committees.
Reverse Mortgage Magazine sat down with Cavanaugh to reflect on her long and distinguished career.
Reverse Mortgage: How did you get into the reverse mortgage business?
Sarah Cavanaugh: It was a function of being in the right place at the right time. When I was at the end of my college career, I went into marketing research and specialized in working with financial products and financial institutions. One of my clients asked my company to host a series of focus groups on reverse mortgages. This was 1991. We hadn’t heard about them, so, of course, we researched them before doing a series of focus groups in Santa Rosa, CA. It was really fascinating, because even then I got a feel for the impact that a reverse mortgage could have on people’s lives, and that really piqued my interest. Ironically, a few months later, a friend of mine told me her company had just gone public and they were actively hiring. That company was Providential Corp., which was a reverse mortgage lender. I interviewed, got the position, and started in 1992 as a marketing representative. It’s amazing to think that it’s been 30 years now since that day, and here I am still in this industry.
RM: Congratulations on your recent promotion to senior vice president, retail operations. What are your primary responsibilities? What improvements would you like to see implemented while you’re in this role?
SC: Well, first of all, thank you—I was really honored to be considered for this position and excited to continue working at FAR. In my new position, I’m responsible for retail operations—from processing all the way through underwriting. I have teams reporting up to me, and I work closely with those teams and other stakeholders, both at FAR and in our parent company. FAR has done a really great job of building a strong corporate culture and centering its values around helping customers and enhancing the customer experience. My aim in my current role is to implement those values effectively and really focus on our customer experience throughout the reverse mortgage process to see how we can improve it. I also look at our employee experience and make sure that, in addition to providing the best service for our customers, we also want our employees to be happy and to have what they need to succeed. At FAR, we’re really focused on creating a culture that’s positive and uplifting for everyone.
RM: You’re one of the few people I know who has been involved in every facet of the reverse mortgage business. What was your favorite job and why?
SC: That’s tough. I’ve had an incredible journey with FAR and Finance of America Companies for over five years now, but when I look back over the years, I’m also reminded of my time at Seattle Mortgage Co. That period of my career really stands out to me. I was there from 2000 until 2007. When I first started, we were doing about 40 reverse mortgages per month. We were a small department in a company that had been around since the 1940s. When I left six-and-a-half years later, we were well over 1,000 loans per month, both wholesale and retail. We were one of the biggest wholesalers in the industry, so it was a huge amount of growth. It was such an exciting time. The product was just starting to grow. Building a team, hiring the right people, mentoring people and really helping them grow into being the best they could be—it really was almost magical. We all had a common passion for the product, and we had a lot of fun at the same time. That was such a special time for me. I built many friendships over those years that will last me for the rest of my life.
RM: What do you consider to be your greatest career accomplishment to date?
SC: Two things come to mind. The first is helping inspire women to enter the financial services industry and to not be afraid to take on leadership roles. In 2000, I was the first woman elected to NRMLA’s Board of Directors and the first to co-chair the board working alongside Jim Mahoney. I take a lot of pride in that. I’ve had a lot of women over the years come to me and say, “Thank you for being a leader in this area and showing younger women what’s possible.” That means a great deal to me. The other accomplishment has to do with mentoring. Over the years, I’ve worked with and mentored a lot of really amazing people. It’s so rewarding today to look at my LinkedIn network and see the names of all the amazing connections I’ve made in this industry. A lot of them I worked with over the years, and some of them I hired and trained way back in the early 2000s before they went on to become successful professionals. I find that deeply satisfying and am so grateful to watch their journeys play out all these years later.
RM: You’ve been active in NRMLA since the association was founded. How have you benefited personally from this partnership?
SC: Well, relationships are the first thing—having long-term connections with people from different parts of the industry. And having the opportunity to meet and go to conferences, sit on committees, host conference calls and work with peers, investors, NRMLA and NRMLA’s outside counsel and lobbyists. All of that, I think, has really helped me become a more well-rounded professional. Being an active part of NRMLA, I’ve established some amazing friendships. I have colleagues who feel like family after all these years. That’s been a real gift, and it’s also helped me stay sharp and keep me close and in touch with the latest of what’s going on in the industry. Lastly, as a member, I’ve always felt that I had a voice here. If I had a concern, there was always someone there to listen and to take me seriously.
RM: You’ve always been a strong supporter of ethics. You helped draft NRMLA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility and you’re currently chairwoman of the Ethics Committee. If you could stop one type of inappropriate behavior that you’ve seen consistently over your career, what would that be?
SC: I wish I could stop the deceptive and misleading advertising that still goes on in parts of the industry. Being on the Ethics Committee, I’ve seen it. Being out in the industry, I’ve seen it. I feel that it just has done such a disservice to our industry. In my 30 years, we went from this little niche product no one heard about, and now financial planners are accepting it as an option for their clients and want to learn more. But when misleading information is put out in our communities, it chips away at people’s trust in the reverse mortgage product itself. It chips away at all that knowledge we’ve tried to convey to them over the years and creates a lot of questions, concerns and confusion. It’s wrong, and it makes us look bad. I think this is probably one of the most damaging practices that we’ve dealt with in this industry and in the association, and it distracts people from our mission to help educate seniors so that they can meet their retirement goals.
RM: As you know, most of the bad ads we see on the Ethics Committee are distributed by non-member companies. NRMLA will submit them to federal regulators if the Ethics Committee directs us to. Your last job focused on compliance. Would you like to see FAR and the other wholesale lenders take a more proactive role in policing bad ads?
SC: While it is impossible for lenders to successfully monitor every advertisement and communication sent out by third-party originators (TPOs), I would like to see all wholesale lenders provide the guidance and tools necessary to ensure the TPO is educated about how to promote reverse mortgages in a responsible and compliant manner. Providing those resources is half the battle, especially when working with new entrants to the reverse mortgage industry.
RM: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to get into the reverse mortgage business?
SC: Don’t forget why you’re here. Remember why you entered this industry in the first place and keep that focus. One of my true passions in life is helping seniors, and that was true even before I got into reverse mortgages. I’ve kept pictures of me with my borrowers. Many of them are framed, and some of them date all the way back to 1996. I look at those pictures, and I remember the borrowers. I won’t name names, but I had this one borrower—let’s just call her Maggie Smith—and her cat’s name was Marmalade, who was the love and the joy of her life. And all these years later I still remember her and so many others. I look at those photos regularly because it’s easy to get swept up in the metrics, the dollars, the units and making important, difficult decisions. Ultimately, this is about people, and I always try to keep that in the back of my mind. Every decision I make, every question that hits my desk that has a loan number attached to it—there’s a real person associated with that file who has their own unique story.
RM: Thank you for your time. I have one final question. Who is Sarah Cavanaugh?
SC: The first thing that came to mind is that I am fiercely loyal—I’m protective of my family, my friends and my borrowers. My grandparents played a huge role in my upbringing, so from a very young age I have always respected seniors and all that they offer—their history, their knowledge, etc. That is what has steered me through my career. I also try to stay focused on what’s important. I try to lift people up. I like to have fun and a good laugh. And I like to end my day knowing I made a difference in someone’s life.