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The O’Leary Mortgage Story – Excess Drama

MortgagesPressure from a vocal group of mortgage brokers has contributed to the cancellation of Kevin O’Leary’s keynote address at this weekend’s annual CAAMP Forum.

O’Leary took the news in stride. “Who knew the mortgage industry could be this exciting!” he told us today.

But this news was a major disappointment to those who paid CAAMP to hear Kevin speak. And more than that, it showed the hazard of misinformation and reflected an unproductive attitude among certain industry participants.

What happened

The atrocity in question, is that O’Leary’s new mortgage company:

  • bypasses mortgage brokers
  • trivializes brokers, according to critics
  • sells only one product, and
  • uses a broker-friendly servicing company to pull it off.

There’s also controversy surrounding Dominion Lending Centres pulling its sponsorship of O’Leary—a conflict that (in our humble view) could have, and should have, been avoided.

To many, myself included, it was disappointing to read some of the broker comments about O’Leary Mortgages. I have expressed my reverence for this industry many times, and I believe in good brokers as much as anyone, but it is self-deceiving to think that a full-service broker model is the only fit for mortgage consumers.

Moreover, it is wrong to shun a new mortgage competitor based on misinformation (more on that below). In fact, it’s outright dangerous.

Instead, we need to learn from new competitors (it’s the “keep your enemies closer” idea). Apart from the formidable banks and credit union competitors, the next decade will spawn all sorts of non-broker models. Direct-to-consumer (DTC) lenders, in particular, will see rapid growth.

(In a way, brokers were the original direct-to-consumer model. With respect to O’Leary Mortgages, it is starting as a DTC mortgage company. It’s been very clear, however, that the next step is then to distribute through brokers, once its systems and methodology are battle-tested.)

Tomorrow’s new business models will likely undercut most banks and brokers and cause an industry outcry like we’ve never seen before. But this will happen with or without controversy, and with or without Kevin O’Leary.

The good news is that consumers win in the end–so long as (a) they are properly educated, and (b) they are sold suitable products.

The Wrong Target

Paradigm Quest, one of Canada’s most respected mortgage outsourcing companies, has taken heat over servicing O’Leary Mortgages—and unjustly so. We hear it’s even had threats of business retaliation, which is repugnant given Paradigm’s steadfast support of our channel over the years. It makes you question whether critics even realize that it already services their competitors (through its myriad of white-label agreements).

kathy_gregoryParadigm has gone to bat and backed brokers since its inception. Founder Kathy Gregory said her company has no contract with O’Leary at this point. “He contacted us to provide outsourcing for his mortgage manufacturing business plans,” she said.

“Our understanding is that Mr. O’Leary does in fact have a registered brokerage and has a longer term view of expanding his business within the residential mortgage market. He is moving towards becoming a lender and partnering with broker industry distribution. This initial launch is phase one of a much broader view of supporting the mortgage industry. Our role is simply to provide our platform of mortgage servicing for his mortgage entry strategy.”

And contrary to some claims, she clarified that, “We are not funding O’Leary mortgages,” but rather, Paradigm is providing its outsourcing expertise.

But even if Paradigm were funding a DTC model like O’Leary’s, it would in no way be an affront to brokers. It would be a necessary progression for a company that must grow and diversify from the broker industry to survive. In our view, it has no choice but to service new entrants if it hopes to: (a) attain scale efficiencies, (b) help brokers compete with banks and their enormous balance sheets, and (c) provide competitive funding costs to brokerages, agents and its correspondent lenders.

The Broker Benefit

CBC NEWS RENEWAL“Mr. O’Leary is a very high profile individual and my personal view is he brings valuable attention and incremental exposure to the broker industry as a whole,” Gregory said.

Indeed, it seems like every other month there’s a new development that questions the broker channel’s viability. Meanwhile, we struggle with the fact that 60% of consumers don’t have a good understanding of what mortgage brokers do, according to Maritz. It was therefore refreshing to hear a celebrity proposing to boost consumer awareness of brokers (whether it’s the “right” celebrity is secondary and not our decision to make).

The reality is O’Leary is entering the market as a mortgage brokerage (here’s his FSCO link). For the ultimate capitalist to adopt a brokerage model, in some ways, validates the model. His choice to start with a different business plan than the typical broker is peripheral.

It’s interesting that so many have already judged that plan–especially since so many questions remain unanswered. For example:

  • Is O’Leary really doing customers a disservice, as some claim, by selling only a 5-year fixed (which more than two-thirds of borrowers are choosing anyway)? Certainly a 5-year term isn’t right for everyone, but could it be right for his target market?  No one can answer that yet because we don’t have enough product details or know how O’Leary Mortgages will qualify borrowers.
  • How much guidance will customers of O’Leary Mortgages receive? Some charge that his call centre reps won’t provide adequate advice. But no one except O’Leary’s team has enough information to make that judgment. According to O’Leary: “When people call O’Leary Mortgages they’re going to speak with someone very knowledgeable about the (O’Leary) mortgage plan, about the application process, about the attributes of the mortgage, and the terms and features. That’s where we’ll add our value.”
  • Will he sell through brokers? Some don’t believe that O’Leary will distribute through brokers. But despite his polarizing and antagonistic TV personality, there’s no justification for depriving him the benefit of the doubt in this case. He’s gone on record with the intention of distributing through brokers and he should be given a chance. With the threat of lenders exiting our market, new non-bank broker lenders with their own funding sources are few and far between.

Should you trust him?

“You don’t have to like me to trust me,” O’Leary says.

He cited an analogy of an elderly lady who phoned him on a call-in radio show in Montreal. She said, “You know Mr. O’Leary, I watch you on TV and I think you’re a bastard. But I own three of your mutual funds because I know you’re going to make me money.”

“And that I think sums it up,” he says. “I’m trying to do what’s right for consumers and force them to look at the mortgage business the way they should…I’m going to make them realize what they’re getting themselves into and how they’re going to get themselves out of it…”

He adds that, “The analogy is the mutual fund industry. It doesn’t matter what you think about Kevin O’Leary. What matters is the performance of the funds you invest in….Whether you like me on Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank, or not, has nothing to do with ultimately why you put money in harm’s way. You need a return.”

“Same thing in the mortgage business,” he says. “When you get a mortgage you need a plan. You need a strategy and you have to understand that this is not just a one-time event. You’re going to live with this thing long-term.”

(For those who are wondering about O’Leary’s fund performance, he states that 12 of his 19 funds are in the top quartile. We didn’t have time to verify that, but his Canadian bond fund is in the top 10 out of 670 funds.)

The catalyst of Gary Mauris

Gary-MaurisMonday’s CMT post from DLC’s Gary Mauris (whom I respect and consider a friend) seemed to prompt much of the controversy.

To this, O’Leary says, “Dominion posted something without ever talking to me. I’ve never talked to any of the representatives from there. I don’t know why they would post something like that.”

Mauris told us he tried to contact O’Leary but had not reached him by the time he made the aforementioned post.

Regardless, in speaking with O’Leary, it was clear that there had been a major misunderstanding. “I’m
not a competitor. That characterization is incorrect,” he stated. “It’s my hope to maximize
the distribution of the brand, including working in partnership with agents and
brokers.”

“I’ve
been doing this for years in the mutual fund business…My customers at O’Leary
Funds are advisers, just like the broker. It’s the same model. This is not
something new to me.”

“And certainly, [Mr. Mauris] is making a huge mistake in assuming I’m
a competitor. I’ve never talked to him so I don’t know where he would have come
up with that. But I’m happy to be coming into the market and I hope
to be working with him at some point.”

Does this not-so-warm broker welcome leave a bad taste in O’Leary’s mouth? “Absolutely not,” he says.

The CAAMP Angle

CAAMPCAAMP states that O’Leary’s address was cancelled because it has a policy not to compensate or use industry participants as keynote speakers. When I heard that, the needle on my spin detector went off the chart, but I don’t blame CAAMP. It was in a tough spot and it was clearly pressured by certain industry participants to abort O’Leary’s keynote address.

The thing is, it has been known for weeks that O’Leary was starting his own mortgage company. The first public announcement (that we know of) was back in May. And O’Leary reportedly had discussions with CAAMP about his mortgage launch 3+ weeks ago. But this controversy is coming up only now, just days before his scheduled event.

There was apparently nothing in CAAMP’s agreement prohibiting him from being in the industry and speaking. Had O’Leary Mortgages not been publicized until next week, I suspect O’Leary’s speech would have happened as planned.

Yet, “Rather than adding to the controversy,” O’Leary says, “I told the
speaking agency that CAAMP had hired, that I was happy to bow out without any
financial penalty to CAAMP, and that is what happened.”

And one last point: It appears O’Leary had no intention to use CAAMP as a platform to “roll out,” discuss or promote O’Leary Mortgages, as many have wrongly charged. And he explained this to CAAMP organizers some weeks before this incident. His presentation covered economic trends, television production, and capital fund flows, followed by a question and answer period with the audience. It was also one of the rare times that he would have joined Amanda Lang (his CBC co-host and CAAMP’s MC) outside the CBC set.

“My
only regret is that the CAAMP attendees will be fully exposed to Amanda Lang, who is the Master of Ceremonies on Monday,” quips O’Leary. “Amanda is the most attractive communist
on television but without me there to defend and honour capitalism (as I do
everyday on the CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange) I fear irreparable damage could be
done.”

In Sum

This story is not a defence of Kevin O’Leary. This far-too-long essay is more a commentary about maintaining an open-mind. Replace Kevin’s name with any other law-abiding Canadian, high profile or not, and this story would be the same.

Our greatest concern is this: Certain industry participants appear intensely averse to change. Many are so protective of their turf that they will refuse to acknowledge alternative distribution models and new forms of competition…until it’s too late.

The outrage expressed by some brokers over BMO’s 2.99% deal last winter was further evidence of this mindset. Threatened by the competition, a small minority chose to sell inappropriate products and crudely vilify BMO without acknowledging any of that promotion’s merits.

Strong competitors warrant respect, not contempt. And there shouldn’t be a double standard. I sometimes wonder how many in our industry boycotted Canadian Tire when it sidestepped brokers to enter the mortgage market. Probably not many.

Fortunately, the harsh comments on this topic (posted on MortgageBrokerNews.ca and here) do not reflect the brokerage industry as a whole. Numerous brokers have embraced competition in their social media responses. These are brokers who believe that what’s best for consumers is best for them. They are professionals who know that game-changing competition is coming, who realize that fighting it is futile and who know that the time to adapt is now.


Full disclosure: This debate is of a special and personal significance. While we never promote our brokerage on this website–it is important to disclose that we (Melanie, I and others) are launching a new, yet unrelated, virtual brokerage model in the new year.


O’Leary in Vancouver: If you want to see Kevin this weekend, he’ll speak in front of 450 people at the Young Realty Academy. Time: 1:30 p.m., Saturday Nov. 24. Location: Pan Pacific Hotel.

CMT readers have been offered free tickets but there are very few left. More info…


Rob McLister, CMT