CHAPEL HILL — Corporate Investors Mortgage Group in Chapel Hill is a rarity among mortgage lenders. When the twin blows of the 2008 financial crisis and the 2010 Dodd-Frank regulations forced smaller mortgage banks out of the industry, CIMG was able to weather the storm to become a major player in the region.
Robby Oakes, who has been with the lenders for 16 years, has been CIMG’s top producer since he started and was named the 2004 NC Association of Mortgage Professionals “Rookie of The Year.” Now, he is also topping the list of North Carolina producers, being named Scotsman Guide’s No. 1 purchase volume producer in the state and No. 3 in the Southeast (after two lenders in the booming Florida market).
Oakes had a total volume of $155 million in 2017 and well over $1 billion overall in his career so far. When the 2018 numbers are finalized and announced later this year, he is likely to top the list again, as he’s done for North Carolina the previous two years.
Oakes started at Northwestern Mutual right out of college after interning for them his senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill. But after 11 months selling life insurance and financial products, he saw an opportunity to get into real estate and jumped on it.
“I always knew I wanted to get into something real estate related,” Oakes told North State Journal. “A good friend of mine was leaving CIMG to go work for Edward Jones. I was very interested in what he did and at 23, Corporate Investors Mortgage Group sounded really important. So, I kind of lucked into it because they hired me to take his place.”
Oakes said that as a life insurance salesman, every sale had to be chased down and rarely would a lead just call you up. “You’re always trying to track down people to sell them something that, they need, but they really don’t want to talk about,” Oakes said. But as he transitioned to mortgage origination, he was pleasantly surprised as his phone began ringing.
“When I got in the mortgage industry, on the second day, somebody called for me. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. People call for me in this business.’ And I knew immediately this was the place for me.”
This early period, before the 2008 financial crisis, had a lot of opportunity, but there were also a lot of mistakes made in the industry, according to Oakes. The reason CIMG survived was they only dealt with “A paper,” known as prime loans.
“When I started in the industry, it really was true that if you could fog a mirror, you could get a mortgage” said Oakes. “There was a lot of irresponsible lending leading to the financial crisis. I’ve only ever done one subprime loan in my career. We never saw the need to go to subprime products, and that’s why we’re still here. We focused on smaller margins, quality loans and volume.”
They were able to survive the financial crisis when every other locally-owned and operated mortgage bank in the Triangle went out of business. All the others, he said, either left the industry or sold out to a major national company.
Even though they survived, the regulations that came in the aftermath of the crisis made the cost of compliance skyrocket. In less regulated times, CIMG could get by with only a handful of staff. Oakes only had one on staff, and just to “handle the sheer volume we were doing at that time.” After Dodd Frank was signed in 2010, it became necessary to hire a team of full-time professionals to manage all the paperwork that he says causes them to “painstakingly document every element of the mortgage process.”
“We certainly needed a lot of the regulations. I’m not sure which ones you could really cut at this point. Once we got dealt that hand, we just learned how to work through it and with it. But we brought it on ourselves and the pendulum always swings too far in a regulatory environment. It’s certainly hindering big banks from being able to do mortgages effectively and keeping smaller banks out of the industry entirely.”
But CIMG and Oakes have found success in the midst of this environment. While being in a booming real estate market like the Triangle has contributed to Oakes’ career, he says it has been a “double-edged sword.”
“It’s certainly a hot market, but that’s also created a lot of competition because national lenders see Raleigh as the first place they want to open a shop.”
Oakes says there is “no magic formula for success.” Being with the right company, he says, has made all the difference. CIMG has been in the business locally for 22 years, which lends a level of stability that is not often present in the mortgage industry, building credibility and trust.
Keeping close ties to the community is another key — a value that he says has been “lost in this day and age.”
“Not many young professionals are starting their own businesses in the first place, and they also aren’t getting involved in civic organizations in their community,” Oakes said. “That’s the kind of community involvement that I think is a huge piece. People want to know personally who they’re dealing with and who they can trust when making what is likely the largest financial decision they will make in their lives.”
Being a Chapel Hill native who went to Chapel Hill High School and UNC-Chapel Hill and is involved with multiple community groups has kept Oakes rooted in his hometown. These ties, in addition to finding a great company and his belief in “returning calls and following through,” are what he believes led to his success.