When Robby Aurora, Josh Higgelke and Joe Jacobs launched Mortgage Connection in May of 2018, their collective vision was to build a brokerage firm committed to all of its stakeholders; one that is not only profit focused, but focused on the greater good. A firm that creates better work environments, empowers and builds up all, and helps to make positive impacts for those directly and indirectly connected to it.
Thanks to the hard work and commitment of the partners and their team, at just three-and-a-half years old, Mortgage Connection embodies that vision is every way possible. Its three pillars of Culture, Collaboration and Community have fostered a strong connection to its employees and team, clients, shareholders and the community, and provided the foundation for a rich and unique culture.
“Awesome attracts awesome when it comes to the reason for our growth,” Aurora says proudly. “It really has been just trying to do the right thing when it comes to brokering mortgages. Having the best and brightest mortgage brokers in the industry allows us to do that and to be impactful within our community efforts as well.”
The three men, while relatively young (Aurora is 33, Jacobs is 37 and Higgelke is 40), have a combined total of 43 years of experience in the industry. They met several years ago while working at the same brokerage house. They decided strike out together in order to do things differently, in a bid to fortify the independent mortgage broker position vis-a-vis the ‘Big Five’ banks, who enjoy approximately 75 per cent of the Canadian residential mortgage market share.
“We felt that, as brokers, we have better solutions for consumers to help them save money throughout the life of their mortgage, but getting this message across as individuals is quite tough,” Aurora explains. “We wanted to come together with a collaborative effort to get this message out to the consumer. Together, as the best and brightest, with a collective vision when it comes to marketing, we can earn our consumer’s choice.”
Marketing a single brand benefits all the brokers within the organization. “We’re all working together to build it up, get the Google reviews, get out there in front of the public,” Higgelke continues. “When potential clients come through we share them evenly throughout the team so everybody benefits from those efforts – this is not common in our industry.”
Mortgage Connection’s brokers connect their consumers with the appropriate lender. “That could be a big bank, a credit union or a non-bank lender,” Jacobs says. “It’s really about the power of choice and making sure our consumers are fully educated on it.”
The approach has been a major success: today the brokerage has 70 individuals including brokers, staff, underwriters and administrators. It completes over 3,000 transactions annually and by the end of this year will have transacted just over a billion dollars in mortgage originations in 2021. Steep growth when compared to the first year in business – 2018 – when it did just under 400 million.
“The growth has been pretty substantial,” Jacobs acknowledges. “And with where we’re going, we’ll probably be closer to a billion and a half dollars by the end of 2022.” He says it’s a combination of a few things: “We’ve grown in the number of brokers. We’ve attracted some of the top mortgage professionals, especially in the Calgary and Alberta markets.”
“Many of our agents are also having significant growth in their numbers,” Higgelke adds. “Many are having record years with the hot real estate market that we’re seeing now. We’re very fortunate that our industry is one that’s been busy through these tough times.”
Part of the partners’ commitment to their team is to stay active and engaged as mortgage brokers, beyond their roles as managing partners. This ensures they remain in touch with what’s going on in their industry. “There was a loss of leadership in the industry,” Higgelke explains. “If you own the brokerage but you’re not doing the mortgages, you may not know what’s going on. How can one help your brokers if you don’t know what’s going? Part of our commitment to our brokers is that we would stay active, engaged and current, so that we’re relevant and we know how to get deals done.”
“Everybody wants to help each other,” Aurora continues, referring to the organization’s culture. “Our brokers are always sharing ideas and where to best place a particular mortgage. There’s a lot of collaboration. We’re a tremendous group of about 70 friends where everyone likes spending time together, sharing ideas and getting involved in the community together.”
A focus on internal growth, through the efforts of a team dedicated to this responsibility, is also key. “[Operations lead] Tara Beattie is hyper-focused on our internal team, making sure they have all the tools and ability to grow,” Jacobs says. “So that we don’t just have the best, we remain the best. It’s allowed for significant growth and attracted great people to us, because most brokerages don’t offer that kind of internal support.”
While the majority of Mortgage Connection’s business is prime residential financing, it does have substantial private financing, construction and commercial mortgage divisions. Aurora heads up the commercial division, which has become a comfortable niche market for the firm.
Mortgage Connection’s residential mortgage consumers run the gamut. “Whether you’re a first-time buyer, a seasoned real estate investor, someone that doesn’t have perfect credit or someone that has A+ credit, we’re going to have a solution for you,” Jacobs says. “Our average-sized mortgage is around $350,000, though again there are no parameters.”
Calgary focused, the firm has expanded into other regions, particularly B.C. and Ontario. “Thunder Bay is probably our biggest Ontario market,” Jacobs says. “Josh [Higgelke] is actually from there. We have a fantastic broker and lead there who’s really doing a remarkable job in a market that was very underserved in this industry.”
The growth strategy is to emulate what has been accomplished in Calgary in smaller, underserved markets. “Thunder Bay is a prime example of that,” Higgelke explains. “We’ve been able to provide the perks from the volumes we do in Calgary to a broker in a smaller market: preferential treatment from some of the banks with dedicated underwriting, better pricing, better interest rates. It makes our brokers in Thunder Bay very competitive.”
A major factor in developing the brokerage’s strong culture and in attracting new talent has been its Connected to the Community Fund: a portion of the broker commission from every single mortgage transacted – that’s over 3,000 this year – is mandated into a community fund. This fund is then given back to the community, in a variety of ways, at the direction of the entire organization.
“That’s $150,000 a year that Mortgage Connection and the brokers are contributing back into the community,” Jacobs marvels, “that’s a lot of money. And when we get together and talk about what we want to do with those funds, it’s incredible. It’s not just the brokers that get involved, it’s the entire team and their families. It’s been huge for our culture and we’re pretty proud of it.”
Since 2018, Mortgage Connection has donated significant funds, ranging in values from $1,000 to $25,000, to 13 different charitable organizations (the latter amount was given to each of the Small + Mighty Project Inc., the Salvation Army – Day of a Thousand Lunches, and Field of Crosses).
“We don’t direct anything from the top down, that’s not our leadership style,” Jacobs says. “Our team comes together to decide what we’re interested in.” Such was the case with their contribution to Small + Mighty Project, an organization that helps families in the neonatal intensive care units in Calgary and across Canada.
The $25,000 donation by Mortgage Connection was life-changing for the charity which, thanks to the funds, was able to formalize its charitable status and do a lot more work across Canada. “Our people really realized the impact that our fund could have as a group,” Jacobs continues. “As an individual, are you going to make that difference? Probably not. But collectively, even if you just contributed a small amount, you have a major impact.”
Another cause the Mortgage Connection team supports is Sheriff King Home, a domestic violence shelter in Calgary. The team purchases Christmas gifts (based on lists given to them by the mothers at the shelter during Christmas) for the families staying there. “So the mom can provide a Christmas morning for her kids,” Jacobs says. “The shelter staff called us after to say they had nothing for the moms before we became involved. We provided a full Christmas for every family. We just thought we were doing something good.”
A connection with George Brookman – the well-known Calgary businessman and philanthropist – has lead to other significant contributions. “We view him as a bit of a mentor and feel blessed that we connected with him,” Jacobs says. “He led us to the Field of Crosses and the Day of a Thousand Lunches. There wasn’t a single person in our team who wasn’t 100 per cent in. It was -30 degrees and we were all out there, with the kids, putting flags on the crosses. Everybody shows up, everybody’s all in. When you’re doing good it feels good and breeds the culture.”
Seeing the effect COVID has had on so many families, the organization is now putting together a community COVID relief fund. “To provide a helping hand for about 20 families. It’s around a $50,000 giveaway,” says Aurora. “We’re searching for the families now.”
Looking to the future, the partners are optimistic about Calgary’s housing market, given it’s relative affordability compared to other major Canadian centres. “An interesting trend we’ve seen this year is migration from those larger centres to Calgary, because of affordability,” Higgelke explains. “And with the ability to now work remotely, a move to Calgary is more feasible.”
They expect a continued cooling of the hot real estate market, though note a robust market remains across the country, particularly in Calgary which is fairly balanced. “The power of really low interest rates is real,” Jacobs points out. “And COVID has highlighted the importance of home. So I don’t think we’re going to see a significant change in our market.”
Beyond Calgary, they will continue to aim to grow in other centres through organic growth. “We’re looking for brokers who want to be leaders within those centres,” Aurora explains. “In order to be impactful in a centre, you need to have a decent amount of brokers and volume there. So we’re looking for partners who can be leaders that provide that same sort of community impact, and the same culture that we have here in Calgary.”
Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Kelowna are all future locales for expansion.
With its unique culture, Mortgage Connection will continue to have a significant positive impact on its consumers, team, and larger community. It is the type of business that Calgary needs.