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Nationstar's New Alter Ego

Company brands itself as Mr. Cooper

April 4, 2016

By JILL COWAN The Dallas Morning News (Tribune News Service)

COPPELL, Texas-- Inside the airy lobby, long robin's egg blue banners bear encouragement to be, "Challengers. Champions. Cheerleaders."

In a stairwell nearby, employees bustle past while Kevin Dahlstrom points out a soaring, crayon-box bright mural of an open hand.

It was painted by the Spanish artist Adrian Torres as part of an artists in residence program -- a concept he "shamelessly stole" from Facebook, Dahlstrom notes.

Visitors may not realize this is the nerve center of Nationstar Mortgage LLC, one of the country's biggest non-bank mortgage servicers. And odds are that even if they do, their feelings about an institution like Nationstar -- vaguely bankish, closely associated with the mortgage crisis that shattered the economy -- won't be positive.

But will they like Mr. Cooper?

Not Mr. Cooper, as in, "Hangin' with ..." or the guy in "High Noon."

It's "Mr. Cooper," as in Nationstar's exhaustively researched, head-turning-by-design new identity.

Executives at Nationstar have spent more than a year and roughly $5 million on the branding overhaul in hopes that consumers will see the new name as an extension of the company's new ethos: Personable, customer-focused and easily navigable online.

"If there's any industry that's sort of old school and old fashioned, it's mortgage ... so we're trying to think of ourselves more as a consumer product company that embraces technology," Dahlstrom, Nationstar's boyish chief marketing officer, said during a recent interview at the firm's year-old headquarters in Coppell's Cypress Waters development.

Personal Connection
Shortly after Dahlstrom came aboard, he said, the company did research that found that for consumers who had actually had good experiences getting a mortgage, it was because of "one person, one mortgage broker, who held the customer's hand through the whole process."

The idea behind "Mr. Cooper," he said, "is what if we had an entire company that represented that personal connection?"

The re-branding comes as the company, which grew into a niche borne of the massive rise in distressed mortgages, adapts to a shifting industry.

During the height of the recession, non-bank mortgage servicers like Nationstar took on lots of troubled mortgages from banks.

Those companies then serviced the mortgages -- meaning that they process payments and call borrowers when they fall behind. It's a labor-intensive aspect of the home loan industry, which became more so as the number of troubled mortgages began to rise.

"With the housing crisis, as more and more loans became delinquent and went into foreclosure, more and more time had to be spent with borrowers," said Lynn Fisher, the Mortgage Bankers Association's vice president of research and economics. "The sheer volume of phone calls and contact with customers accelerated very fast."

Now, though, as the housing market recovers, those types of mortgages have declined.

In the fourth-quarter 2015, the rate of seriously delinquent loans (meaning they're 90 days or more past due or in the process of foreclosure) was at its lowest point since the third quarter of 2007, according to MBA data.

On the other hand, though, Fisher said the rise of non-bank mortgage servicers has also drawn more regulatory scrutiny, which has increased noticing and other requirements.

That, she said, has actually created more "specialization," which has meant it's more often cost effective for lenders to sell mortgages to servicers who can more easily comply with new regulations.

"The whole story here, to me, is about this transition to a world in which there were a lot of delinquent loans to not a lot of delinquent loans," Fisher said. "But there's also this world where there's kind of an increased ... contact with the customer."

Looking to Grow
Ultimately, it's an environment in which Nationstar is looking for new ways to grow, said chief executive Jay Bray. That will include a focus on giving loans and trying to draw new borrowers directly.

Bray rejects the connection between the firm and the foreclosure crisis, adding that roughly nine out of 10 Nationstar customers are current on their mortgages now.

"That's a misconception -- a lot of people think we just service delinquent loans," he said. "We viewed ourselves as a solution to the crisis."

Bray said making existing customers happy is a top priority. So building a recognizable digital-savvy brand that will attract customers for life is a logical step forward.

"Truly, nobody in the mortgage business is delivering a great customer experience," he said. "If we can do that, it'll go viral -- people will tell their friends."

Dahlstrom said the company has proudly taken cues from tech giants, which often tout employee culture as part of their success.

A major part of the re-branding will be a revamped website and investment in user-friendly mobile apps.

"Millennials will be the next big housing boom and we all know how millennials like to interact," Dahlstrom said.

And, he said, Nationstar's lack of name recognition, even among its customers, presented an opportunity to draw the "Mr. Cooper" brand on a blank slate.

Already, Dahlstrom said, the makeover narrative has helped recruit college-educated workers who may have multiple prospects in North Texas's fast-growing job market.

The company has about 4,000 employees in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and about 7,000 overall.

"We're competing for knowledge workers with every other company in the area and I can tell you definitively the new brand has made a huge difference," he said.

So Will It Work?
Ben Jenkins, co-owner of the local brand strategy and design company Onefastbuffalo, said that he respects the risk -- though it's tough to find a balance between being clear and being memorable.

"People, their natural inclination is to try to fit in, and Nationstar, it's like could you come up with a more fit-in name?" he said. "What I do like is that memorability is one of the hardest things to achieve, and I haven't forgotten (Mr. Cooper) since you told it to me."

Dahlstrom said the company tested out several names besides Mr. Cooper -- some had trademark issues, while others were too forgettable. "Mr. Cooper" also fit other considerations, such as the double-o look of the name and its ease of pronunciation.

Nevertheless, he wouldn't disclose the top-ranking alternative.

"It was a distant second," he said.

e-mail writer: [email protected]

Nationstar profile

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