A Conversation with Scott Gesell, CEO of Gateway First Bank

Scott Gesell was recently appointed as CEO of Gateway First Bank, Tulsa, Okla. He has been an integral part of Gateway First Bank’s leadership since 2013. During his time at Gateway, he played a leading role in the merger of a 100-year-old community bank with a 20-year-old mortgage company to become Gateway First Bank. Now, as CEO, Gesell is poised to lead the company through the COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting customers, employees and the industry in ways unforeseen. Under his leadership, the Gateway team has shown remarkable commitment and amazing resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. While moving over 1,400 employees to work from home, the company continues to see record-breaking volume. Gateway is on pace to fund more $10 billion in mortgages this year.

MBA NEWSLINK: It had already been an interesting year for you before the coronavirus pandemic hit. How did Gateway’s 2019 merger with Farmers Exchange Bank change your operations and your overall business strategy?

Scott Gesell

SCOTT GESELL: Because Gateway was the first mortgage company to acquire and merge with a bank in a very long time, we were in unchartered territory. The biggest challenges were bringing together two companies with different business focuses and strategies and transforming the independent mortgage operations to fit in the banking environment.

The merger forced us to evaluate both companies’ existing strategies. From a mortgage perspective, it did not change our business strategy as much as our business approach. Gateway’s independent mortgage operations had to be adapted to fit the risk and control profiles of a banking operation, so the strategy incorporated additional regulatory, compliance, and risk and control requirements. On the banking side, our main business strategy is to enhance what we already have in place by expanding bank operations and products. We already have great relationships in communities through our mortgage centers, so there is a fantastic opportunity to grow Gateway’s banking footprint. We also need to continue to focus growth for all elements of the business to adapting to the opportunities and needs of a digital banking environment to better serve and grow our customer base.

Though it was quite an undertaking, acquiring Farmers Exchange positioned Gateway very well going into the COVID-19 crisis. Prior to the merger, our funding sources were primarily expensive short-term mortgage warehouse facilities. As a bank, Gateway has improved funding diversity with greater stability and more favorable borrowing costs. Additionally, Gateway is well positioned to provide mortgage product solutions to the banking customers in and around the Oklahoma area, in addition to our previously existing mortgage branch network with over 150 offices in 40 states. When the pandemic hit, several of our competitors had issues with their warehouse banks allowing them to continue to grow the volume of loans funded. Fortunately, as a bank, Gateway was able to take advantage of additional funding sources, which allows the company to continue to meet its customers’ needs consistently through these uncertain economic times.

NEWSLINK: How did Gateway adapt its approach to business and customers once the coronavirus pandemic hit?

GESELL: Like most companies, Gateway had a business continuity and business interruption plans already developed and thoroughly tested. However, we never anticipated implementing those plans within two primary areas of operation – our corporate headquarters in Tulsa and a large production office in Dallas. Gateway’s planning accounted for one of those two being out of commission, but not necessarily both. Our IT department has truly outdone themselves to ensure everything was basically seamless. Honestly, I do not feel we missed a single beat.

Early in the process, we established a working group of senior managers to monitor information and help us identify issues, challenges, and opportunities.  We had routine status calls and put together action plans to address issues as they were identified.

Fortunately, working from home has been a smooth transition for Gateway. In less than two weeks, we went from having 40 people working remotely to more than 1,400. This was possible because of a strategic decision made about four years ago to equip all employees with company laptops. As our team members switched to remote work, they already had the equipment needed for home and were comfortable using the necessary programs on their devices.  Likewise, our Human Resources and Facilities teams worked tirelessly to help the team transition and continue to focus on the next steps in the process. Our team members were absolutely outstanding throughout the process, always making the necessary adjustments to ensure we served the needs of our customers.

Since the pandemic, Gateway team members have faced new, unique challenges but never fail to step up and maintain our strong commitment to our customers and our communities. We have seen an increased number of homeowners refinancing and taking advantage of lower interest rates. Even with the increase in volume, our team continues to maintain impressive turn times. With their hard work, Gateway was able to break records in April, May and June, reaching over $1 billion in residential mortgage loans originated each month.

NEWSLINK: What technological changes have you made recently to adapt to changing market conditions?

GESELL: Upgrading our technology platforms has always been a top priority at Gateway, but the demand for expanded technology has erupted over the last five months. Prior to the crisis, Gateway was working on e-closing initiatives. Those were fast-tracked as the communities we serve enacted shelter-in-place orders. We recognize the importance of offering a streamlined customer experience and constantly strive to improve our technology so that we can meet our customers’ changing needs.

Internally, Gateway adapted existing technology to improve planning and communication. We enhanced our security measures and made upgrades to ensure the IT processes and systems could support the influx of employees working from home. Gateway also implemented new ways to engage with our team members remotely, such as an employee-only Facebook page purely meant for fun and connecting with one another while out of the office. Because not everyone uses the same social media resources, we also enhanced Gateway’s intranet communications and started sending companywide “Breaktime” videos each week to encourage employees to pause their work for a couple of minutes and have a laugh and connect with other teammates and their stories.  Our Human Resources team has been in constant communication with our managers and other team members to keep them advised of next steps and to address issues as they have arisen.  Our Facilities team has ensured our offices are regularly cleaned and sanitized and have made improvements that have allowed us to continue to offer services to our customers in our branch lobbies.

NEWSLINK: Does Gateway have plans to be a 50-state operation?

GESELL: Today, we’re a 40-state operation on the mortgage production side of Gateway, and I expect our mortgage footprint will continue to grow nationwide. We will focus our banking activities on Oklahoma and the contiguous states but will look for opportunities to cross-market products and services where appropriate. We are currently working to build out our digital banking processes to increase our customer offerings and experience.

NEWSLINK: Where do you see Gateway in a year? Five years?

GESELL: In one year, I expect to see a stronger banking element of the business emerge. As we continue to grow our banking business, Gateway will rely more heavily on available technology and implement advancements to support that new growth. I see our mortgage business continuing its current path of strong annual production, and enhanced delivery and servicing capabilities.

Five years from now, Gateway will have a more fully diversified portfolio of banking and mortgage business activities. We will have grown our commercial and consumer banking businesses, so they are a more substantial portion of our total business. Overall, I am very excited about the opportunities that Gateway has before us that will create an exciting future.

(Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect policy of the Mortgage Bankers Association, nor do they connote an MBA endorsement of a specific company, product or service. MBA NewsLink welcomes your submissions. Inquiries can be sent to Mike Sorohan, editor, at msorohan@mba.org; or Michael Tucker, editorial manager, at mtucker@mba.org.)