When exploring and discussing the challenges that arise out of starting a business, entrepreneurs often emphasize the strategic considerations first: how to craft a business plan that appeals to investors, how to build a sustainable financial model, how to implement a marketing communications plan. And while it can be said a business’s strategy is what allows it to live, the team that comprises it is what gives it life. Thankfully for the Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation team, their Founder and CEO Steve Jacobson has internalized both of these tenets.
Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation, one of the largest mortgage lenders nationwide, was declared Energage’s #1 Top Workplace for 2021. The award was based on employee surveys and included more than 1,100 companies. What’s more is that this type of recognition is not unique to Steve’s company: Fairway was recently selected by Mortgage Executive Magazine as “Best Mortgage Company to Work For” six years in a row, as well as the “#1 Mortgage Company to Work For 2020” by National Mortgage News.
To have grown into a company with 9,900 employees and 300+ branches is surely a testament to Fairway’s unique corporate culture that attracts and retains team members. Steve shared some of his insights on leadership and managing teams with students during a Distinguished Entrepreneurs Lunch event during the spring semester, in his typical candid style:
“You’ve got to listen to your teammates. You’ve got to get wise counsel [and] as soon as you start growing a little bit, you’ve got to really start listening. You say, ‘Well, that’s not that complicated’… well, yes it is, when you don’t like what you hear.”
Steve fully embodies the “work hard, play hard” mantra. He likes to cite his humble Pardeeville, Wisconsin origins and competitive athletic background as formative experiences that laid the groundwork for his successful career. And while he thrives on the high-speed, high-stakes nature of entrepreneurship and mortgage lending, he insists that in order to be successful you cannot rely on adaptability and improvisation alone.
“You’ve got to be disciplined and consistent in whatever you’re going to do. You’re going to have systems of discipline and consistency — that isn’t BS. That’s true. You’ve got to do little things, little things, little things, over and over and over, every day. Your teammates will see that and you have to lead that — not by your words, by your actions.”
Another principle Steve extolls is the importance of never losing sight of the present and what you know. That is not to say entrepreneurs can afford to be short-sighted, though he urges leaders to not let themselves get distracted by looming unknowns in the future to the detriment of their serving the needs of the day.
“You have to always plan for the future, but you take one day at a time. Don’t let the stuff three weeks down the road overwhelm you — you’re not there yet. No matter what we say or what’s in our business plan, we never know what’s around the corner. Never. So focus on the day and be a 10 that day. Don’t let what’s going to happen three weeks or a month from now influence you too much, because by then it will probably change anyhow.”
Steve also cautioned aspiring student entrepreneurs to think carefully as they take their first steps towards venture creation. He explained how the decisions founders make in the first six months can affect them the rest of their lives, alluding to entrepreneurs who find they regret giving up ownership stake in the early developmental stages of their businesses. Partners, as he puts it, are appealing in part because they can help shoulder the burden of fear that comes with being self-employed.
“In the beginning, treat the ownership piece very delicately. Now, I know what you want to do: you want people to join you because you’re scared. Well, if you’re going to start a business, get used to being scared. Be very careful about having people join you in the beginning. Unless that person has some intellectual capital — I’m talking brain power capital — that can help you with your business, I’d be very careful.”
For the former co-captain of the UW basketball team where he joined as a walk on and played for four years while achieving Academic All-Big Ten his graduating year, and self-described “short white dude who liked to shoot a lot,” Steve looks just as much at home at the helm of Fairway as he did at the Field House in his days on campus.