How I built a talent-first mortgage bank to win the hearts of employees and veterans

Bill Lyons, EO San Diego, is founder and CEO of Griffin Funding, a regional boutique mortgage bank that helps veterans, active-duty military and the self-employed achieve and maintain the American dream of homeownership. Griffin Funding ranked among the highest-scoring businesses on Inc. Magazine’s annual list of Best Workplaces for 2021 and was listed as No. 2,471 on the 2021 Inc. 5000 list of North America’s fastest-growing privately held companies. We asked Bill how he built such a unique mortgage banking business. Here’s what he shared.

Your company focuses on serving veterans through both its home mortgage products and community impact. What led you to this niche?

In 2013, when I started the company, I wanted to focus on a niche instead of being all things to all people. I wanted the company to be different. When you operate in a niche, you can specialize in it and become experts in it.

I chose VA loans because it allowed us to specialize and help active-duty military and veterans—who have served our country—achieve and maintain the American dream of homeownership. VA loans are a type of mortgage offered through the US Department of Veterans Affairs program. Having expertise in VA loans allows our loan officers to be advisors and consultants rather than salespeople just selling a mortgage. Most mortgage companies don’t know all of the ins and outs of VA loans and what you can and cannot do. Focusing on VA loans allows us to provide the most value to our clients.

Because we work so closely with veterans, getting involved in a great program like Shelter to Soldier was a no-brainer. Shelter to Soldier is a non-profit that brings combat veterans together with rescue dogs—essentially helping two lives recover and move forward together. We’ve seen the positive impact that offering the right loan that fits veterans’ needs makes on these heroes who have done so much for our country. When we learned about a non-profit that connects rescue dogs with veterans, we wanted to be a part of it and further our positive impact on the local veteran community.

We’re also focusing on creating a veteran outreach coordinator position to help offer support services to veterans, and hiring more veterans.

What was your journey toward hiring a COO, and how has it impacted you personally and professionally?

In mid-2019, we hired Evan Kidwell, initially as Vice President of Strategy. I knew if we wanted to scale and grow, we needed someone like Evan to help take us to the next level.

Once Evan joined us, we focused on hiring the talent that we needed in order to grow. Evan developed a three-part hiring process to ensure that we identify the right talent fit for our culture. As a result, business took off like gangbusters.

Evan has helped me grow both personally and professionally. We share the same business values and the same mission, which ultimately allows us to achieve success as a company. In Entrepreneur Operating System (EOS) terms, there is no doubt that I am the visionary, and Evan is clearly the integrator.

What would you share with other entrepreneurs contemplating bringing on a second-in-command?

Hiring the right second-in-command has been a game-changer for me. I’ve struggled for my whole entire career trying to find the right person. Failing and learning, failing and learning—then finally finding the right person.

The first thing to look for is someone who knows that they are a second-in-command and is self-aware of their strengths. Axl wouldn’t be Axl without Slash, and Guns N’Roses wouldn’t be Guns N’Roses without Slash. Everyone wants to be a visionary and an idea guy, but there just aren’t enough executors out there.

Finding the right second-in-command who wants to be second-in-command and wants to be the best second-in-command throughout their career by constantly improving and growing was key for me.

Tell us about being named to Inc. Magazine’s List of Best Workplaces for 2021.

Being a talent-first company, we focus on team first. Rather than hiring managers and bosses, we see it as hiring leaders who can be a resource to our team. We care about our team members and ensure everyone is cross-trained so when people have emergencies or just want to take a vacation, they don’t feel like they’re letting the team down. 

It’s all about talent acquisition and talent management. This focus cultivates the assets that make our company strong, which I would list as:

  • Human capital is our number one asset.
  • Loyal raving fan clientele is our number two asset.
  • Our Brand is our number three asset.

During the pandemic, our company focused on taking care of the team. We knew if we took care of our team, they, in turn, would take care of our clients with 5-star service. We promoted “self-care” by hiring a performance coach and giving everyone free access to the Peloton App.

We knew if we were going to thrive, we had to get people connected, conscious and full of compassion. We learned a lot, and we are a better company today because of it.

How do your company’s core values inform your business decisions?

Care is one of our top values in the company. When you care about each other as teammates, it shows and leads to a positive culture that attracts more top talent. When you care about clients, it shows—and it leads to 5-star reviews, repeat business and referrals.

Most people leave companies because they don’t like their boss, disagree with the leader’s vision, and/or feel unappreciated. We are all busy and have a lot going on. I’ve found that a handwritten note or thoughtful thank-you can go a long way—not just with our teammates but also with clients, family and friends. It lets them know that you are thinking about them and that you genuinely care.

How will what you learned during the pandemic impact your entrepreneurial journey?

I never knew exactly why I went through what I went through during The Great Recession of 2008 until the pandemic hit. As soon as it hit, I felt a level of certainty that I’ve never had before. It allowed me to step up into the leader that I’ve been training my whole life to become.

I was able to help other entrepreneurs in my local EO chapter who have never gone through a crisis or a downturn before. I was blessed to be in a position to contribute to my local community of entrepreneurs. I learned how to be a better leader, how to best support and guide the team, and how to successfully support a fully remote team and eventually a hybrid workforce across multiple states. I could not be a captain without a great commander and helmsman like Evan to steer the ship.

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