mPowering You: MBA Leaders Take the Stage

(l-r: Kristy Fercho; Susan Stewart; Debra Still, CMB; Regina Lowrie, CMB; and Laura Escobar at the mPowering You Summit in San Diego Oct. 16.)

SAN DIEGO–mPowering You: MBA’s Summit for Women in Real Estate Finance, put together a unique and powerful panel—the only four women in MBA’s 108-year history to serve as Chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

On stage stood Regina Lowrie, CMB, 2006 MBA Chairman and President & CEO of DYTRIX Inc.; Debra Still, CMB, 2013 MBA Chairman, President & CEO of Pulte Financial Services and Chairman of the MBA Open Doors Foundation; Susan Stewart, 2021 MBA Chairman and CEO of SWBC Mortgage; and Kristy Fercho, 2022 MBA Chairman and Executive Vice President & Head of Home Lending with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.

Over the course of an hour, they discussed their successes, as well as challenges they have faced along the way.

“It’s been a journey, not a sprint,” Lowrie said. “Success did not come overnight; it took a lot of hard work and changes in direction.”

“I was always cognizant of my role at any given time,” Still said. “I’ve always allowed myself to take some risk and I know if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have become CEO of Pulte.”

“I automatically expected to work hard, and I learned that was how to get ahead,” Stewart said. “I wanted to grow the company and make it a good place to work.”

“I worked my ass off,” Fercho said (to sustained laughter). “Through moving forward and having lots of people who supported me, who gave me the opportunities to do more and being available to create the opportunity. When someone asked for something, I always raised my hand.”

“You never said ‘no,’” Lowrie said.

The pandemic changed everyone’s approach. “I hated not being in the office,” Stewart said. “I missed the daily interactions. But every day was an opportunity to be grateful; sometimes it takes something rough to get you there—and COVID was rough—but it gave me the perspective for gratitude.”

“We changed our entire culture,” Still said. “It didn’t really hit me for about 12 months, but when it did, it hit me hard—I needed to get out; I needed to travel; I needed to be in the office. I learned that wellness is not just about work—it’s about life.”

“I like to look at whether the glass is half-full or half-empty,” Lowrie said. “I try to focus on the positives, whether that is at work or with family.”

“I lived 15 minutes from the office and found it difficult to work from home,” Fercho said. “There wasn’t time to think for yourself…it’s important to do things that make you happy—or me, that’s being with my family and connecting with people.”

For Lowrie, Still and Stewart, taking on the MBA chairmanship presented unique challenges.

“The call [to be Chairman] was unexpected,” Lowrie said. “And the expectations were so high—to be the first in anything. My biggest fear was, ‘I couldn’t let you—the women—down.’ The 92 men who served as Chairman before me never had those expectations placed on them.”

“Dodd-Frank had just been passed when I was asked to be on the ladder, and being the only residential person on the ladder, a lot of the burdens fell on me,” Still said. “I had to make sure we acknowledged the sins of the past and moved the industry forward. I thought it was a hokey message in a way, but it resonated with a lot of people.”

Still said she was already used to being the only woman in the room. “The real challenge was that it was two full-time jobs,” she said.

“It’s a personal worry—can I do two jobs; can I be there for my family?” Stewart said. “The biggest challenge was that you represent MBA and it’s not so much about ‘you’ as it was representing the industry—it keeps you a little anxious and on your toes.”

For Fercho, who became Chairman this week, the challenges are similar. “The ‘first’ is note about you—it is about how you are going to do,” she said. “This is about all the others who come after me. I wanted to diversify our industry—and if you can see it, you can believe it.”

“But there’s always something exceptional about the person being the ‘first,’” Stewart said. “You’re here because of who you are.”

“I wasn’t even thinking about breaking the ‘glass ceiling,’” Lowrie said. “Every one of you could do the same thing.”

They shared particular challenges. “In the 1990s I was asked to serve on the MBA Board,” Lowrie said. “I had formed my own company three years before and I was serving on a Board with 45 CEOs of large mortgage companies—and none of the things they were talking about had anything to do with how to help mortgage bankers like me. There were a lot of things I didn’t understand at the first meeting, but I realized that I could bring something to the table.”

“In my career, I spent 15 years in human resources, so when I moved into mortgage I had a lot of questions,” Fercho said. “And the reality was, they didn’t know the answers, either.”

“I was motivated at a very early age to ask questions,” Still said. “Bill Pulte, the founder, said I was going to go places because I wasn’t afraid to raise my hand.”

All of them noted they had to make compromises. “I was a single mom trying to run a company during a refi boom and I felt so guilty,” Lowrie said. “I wish someone had told me, ‘don’t feel guilty.’ It’s not the quantity of the time, it’s the quality. Don’t feel guilty—you can make up those moments.”

“I feel like I almost did it all—if I gave up anything, it was my personal time and vacations,” Still said. “I don’t fee like I gave up much.

“There’s no such thing as a work-life balance,” Stewart said. “Giving up the guilt save you some energy. I don’t feel like I gave up anything; sometimes I wish I had done more. I really like what I do.”

Do they have superpowers?

“My superpower is speaking truth to power,” Fercho said. “I am always willing to say what I felt. My parents always believed in speaking the truth and I have never been afraid to speak my mind. And now, as CEO, I seek those people.”

“I have a problem looking back,” Stewart said. “I’m always ‘next-next-next: What are we going to do next?’ Hard things are always behind me and I don’t waste time thinking about it.”

“I’m very curious, and I love learning,” Still said. “I love every component of what brings life to this business.”

“I’m able to see the big picture and make things happen,” Lowrie said. “But I am driven by ‘if it’s not broke, break it.’ I’ve looked at this industry—where we’ve come from and what we need to do to go forward, and I get frustrated by people in the industry who won’t get out of the way.”