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Jim VanSteenhouse: Attracting Talent and Enforcing Culture at InterLinc Mortgage

Thought Leader Debrief

Jim VanSteenhouse is the CEO of InterLinc Mortgage, one of the fastest-growing mortgage companies in the Southeast. At InterLinc, VanSteenhouse says that being “compliance-bulletproof” and recruiting the best talent are top priorities when it comes to driving business growth.

In 2004, VanSteenhouse was in a partnership that wasn’t going well. When the partnership dissolved and the InterLinc opportunity came about, VanSteenhouse thought that it was an opportune time to look at something outside his comfort zone. When he joined the company in 2004, there were four employees. Today, the company has 450 employees and operates in 22 states.

In 2008, VanSteenhouse purchased 49% of the company right at the beginning of the economic crash. “Then I doubled down and bought the other 51% in 2010, at the peak of the financial crash,” he says.

Competitive Edge

InterLinc’s size and talent give it its competitive edge. “We’re big enough to have everything a client needs, but small enough to care about what all clients want. That nimbleness allows us to metaphorically be a speedboat that can turn around quickly and react to different environments and different constraints that Washington may put upon us, versus the huge conglomerates that are more like a freighter and take 10 miles to slow down and 20 miles to turn around,” says VanSteenhouse.

VanSteenhouse also credits talent with giving them an edge. “The value that we bring our customers, pure and simple, is based on the talent that we bring to this organization,” VanSteenhouse says. Some companies make a quick hiring decision just to fill a vacancy, but that’s how mistakes are made. “Hiring mistakes are very easy to make, and they’re compounded when you feel the urgency to fill a position quickly,” he says.

InterLinc hires only the best and offers a warm touch to customers all the way through the mortgage process. “The way that we’ve grown our company is really geared toward that customer who wants a lot of high touch and communication, because this could be the largest single investment that they’ve ever made in their life,” VanSteenhouse says.

The Downturn

The downturn was VanSteenhouse’s entrance into the space. Others were bailing out of the industry, but he saw an opportunity. “People are always going to seek shelter, and if we could put together a professional organization that provided financing opportunities for individuals to purchase or refinance homes at a time when the industry was basically falling apart, we had the opportunity to do something really special,” he says.

It wasn’t easy, but having the hardships at the beginning of his tenure and dealing with all of the regulations that followed taught him some valuable lessons. “For me, it’s about being compliance-bulletproof,” says VanSteenhouse. It doesn’t matter if the current agenda is far left or far right, they have to be able to comply with both. “We just have to be able to navigate the road that’s given to us, and having to do that straight off the bat really gave us a firm foundation,” he says. Now they can deal with whatever comes their way, because nothing is as bad as what they’ve already been through.

Making a Great Hire

Great talent makes InterLinc great. “Be quick, but don’t hurry,” says VanSteenhouse about filling vacancies. “There’s a process.” The quick check of the resume and ticking off of boxes in a standard interview don’t do it for him. “It’s very difficult to have a long-lasting relationship with such a short, quote-unquote, ‘dating phase,’” he says.

InterLinc’s dating process starts with a phone call with VanSteenhouse, and then a phone call with the manager of the department responsible for the candidate. If both of those calls go well, VanSteenhouse will fly the candidate from anywhere in the country to the corporate office for a full day. “They can see our culture, see our environment, [and] see our people, because what you see here at our corporate office is what permeates throughout all of our offices across the country,” he says. Candidates can see where it starts and see if it’s something that they want to be a part of.

VanSteenhouse’s personal phone call comes as a surprise to many, but it matters for the candidate to understand what the company is all about, and nobody can explain it better than him. He also explains the culture and environment of InterLinc to the candidate and makes sure that they understand that those aren’t just buzzwords. He asks them to rate their skill at their job on a scale from 1 to 10. If they answer with anything less than 8, he thanks them for their time and invites them to give him a call when they’ve gained more experience. InterLinc doesn’t take less than an 8 from their employees. He explains the recruiting process that they’ll go through if they want to join the company. Then he tells them to go look in their favorite mirror and ask themselves if they see InterLinc as a company they’d like to retire at. “There’s a big difference between taking a job and taking a position with a company where you’re focused on your career,” VanSteenhouse says. InterLinc takes the latter.

Some CEOs would argue that they don’t have time to walk through all of that with each of their candidates. For VanSteenhouse, it’s about priorities. “We make time to make sure that I am able to get involved in the upfront process,” he says. “It takes 30 minutes out of my day to talk to a qualified individual, a gamebreaker, to come join this company.” How can anyone say that they don’t have 30 minutes to make sure that their candidate is a gamebreaker? “To me, that’s a priority,” says VanSteenhouse.

“We enjoy acquisitions. We’ve facilitated two asset purchases in the past 4½ years,” VanSteenhouse says. Several companies out there are interested in liquidating their balance sheets and becoming part of something bigger than themselves. “If the culture and the environment align, and they have a similar vision that flows into what InterLinc’s vision is on the whole, those are great opportunities to take.”

However, InterLinc is very cautious about not disrupting the culture and acquiring only companies that fit with their vision.

Coming Up in the Next 12 Months

Their number one priority is to be compliance-bulletproof. “We live in an environment that’s very heavily regulated, and the number one objective for every one of our senior managers is to be compliance-bulletproof. Do it the right way every single time,” says VanSteenhouse. Beyond that, they will continue to grow, maintaining their process and metric growth pattern without forsaking the culture and environment that they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

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