A Closer Look at NAN's CEO

Women With Vision Interview with NAN's CEO - Joni Pilgrim
A Laura Brandao interview - November/December 2021

NAN’s CEO, Joni Pilgrim had the honor to be interviewed by Laura Brandao from Women With Vision Magazine. In this interview Joni shared how NAN was started, the company’s growth and set backs, her vision, woman in mortgage & real estate, and how she sees the future of the appraisal industry, plus much more… 

When I was in high school, my dream was to own my own restaurant one day. I went to school at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and I graduated with a bachelor’s in business with a minor in hospitality management and started my hospitality career with the Longhorn Steakhouse group. They flew me out to Atlanta and I learned everything you could want to know about a cow.

More than you ever want to know about a cow!

I went through the management program with the Longhorn Steakhouse group and moved to the Tampa Bay Area where I managed three different restaurants. The hospitality business is rigorous and the schedule is a grind. You work 16- and 20-hour days, with no weekends or holidays off. I look at it as management bootcamp. It taught me how to manage, hire, and train, and most importantly, the value of communication. I looked at it as a great opportunity even though I worked really, really, hard and a lot, I also learned much.

I worked there for about five years in my early twenties and quickly learned it was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. At that time I needed to find my forever career and real estate had always intrigued me. I was on a mission to learn another business and in 2003 I noticed a classified advertisement for an appraiser who was looking for a sales associate. Keep in mind this is back in the day when loan officers could order appraisals directly with their local appraisers. I thought it sounded very interesting and decided I would like to learn more about the appraisal industry.

The funniest thing was the advertisement was for a cattle call interview at a Perkins Restaurant on Route 60 in Clearwater. It was a free-for-all. I was nervous because I had no real estate industry background, and none of my family were in real estate. My mom was a legal secretary and my dad was in construction. I had just purchased a home, and I had an appraisal done; that was the extent of my appraisal knowledge, but I was going to use it.

I showed up at Perkins on the day and time (between 10 AM and 2 PM) he was conducting interviews. I’m not kidding you, there were probably sixty people in the lobby with resumes in hand, ready to interview, and I thought to myself, I’m not going to get this job. I have no experience at all. I was already telling myself I wasn’t qualified, but it was time for me to have my five minutes at the table with him. I took a sip of water and he asked, “So tell me, have you ever sold anything before?”

I told him I really wanted this opportunity. This is something I could learn, have fun with, and sink my teeth into. He took my resume, told me it was nice to meet me, and off I went.

About a week later, I called him up, and I said, “Hey, I’m not sure if you made a decision.”

He asked, “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Joni.”

He said, “Oh Joni, I’m glad you called, you’re in the yes pile.” I thought oh that’s great news, then he said, “So are twenty other people.” I thought okay, I like my odds here.

Well, you went from sixty to twenty. So that’s great, right?

I thought it was great!

He continued, saying, “Give me another week, I’m still reviewing the resumes. I want to make a good decision.”

I said, “Okay. If there’s any other information you need give me a call anytime, I’m available. I’m very interested.”

Another week went by and I didn’t hear from him, so I called him up again. This is when I learned persistence pays off. I said, “Hey, did you make a decision yet?”

He asked, “What’s your name?”

“My name is Joni.”

He said, “Oh, Joni, yes I am glad you called. I can’t make up my mind. It’s between you and one other person. So, I’m going to hire you both, and I’m going to train you both, and it will be survival of the fittest. May the best person win at the end of the day? Right?”

I thought, oh my gosh. Yes, great. I’m going up against somebody who probably has all the experience in the world.

He continued, “Show up at my house at nine o’clock on Monday, be dressed, and ready for meetings. We’re going to hit the ground running. I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about sales.”

At the time I had to decide if I was even going to show up. I didn’t realize appraisers worked out of their homes but I figured it was a way into the real estate industry so I said, “YES!”

I showed up on my first day and sure enough, he had an office right in his living room. He had an office administrator, he was dressed in a suit and ready to go, and I was ready to go, too. He introduced me to the other person he hired.

He said, “All right guys, you’re going to be a sales team. I’m going to teach you everything you need to know, but I can only keep one of you. So, let’s work together and figure this whole plan out.”

I looked at this person, I shook her hand, and we hit it off immediately. She’s my business partner to this day.

We became best friends and business associates and we worked for him for about eleven months. We learned everything about what not to do.

Yes, he ended up keeping us both. We went out there and sold. We went to local loan officer offices and brought lunches and business cards. We told them we were a local appraiser and asked them to use our firm.

One of the first lessons I learned is as quickly as you can get the business in the door, you can lose it. There was no customer service happening internally. My clients were calling me saying, “Joni, I want to use you guys but nobody’s answering my calls. I don’t know what’s going on with my appraisal.”

All of this was new to me because I didn’t really know the business well, but I did know customer service. It was my thing. Customer service was in my blood. I knew what it meant. So we went back to the appraiser, and we tried to explain, “We don’t mind selling. We actually love being out there in the field selling, but we have to do something from a customer service standpoint. We have to have processes. We need people to answer the phone.”

He told us to come back in the office, and he gave us three months to fix it. We went back and worked in the office, we subscribed to a platform to put our orders in so we could manage milestones and know where these orders were happening and we were able to improve our communication and give our clients access and visibility into the system. We focused on great customer service and follow-up metrics.

We became good friends with one of our clients who had an appraisal management company. This was 2003 into 2004 and we were still learning and curious, so we asked, “What is your business model?”

“We go out to lenders and we market our appraisal services,” they explained, “but we’re national, not just a local firm. If somebody doesn’t have a relationship with their local appraiser and they have an order in an area where they don’t have a relationship, they send it to us and we facilitate it to one of our appraisers in that market.”

I thought, that’s genius. It was the best idea. The more I thought about it the more I loved the concept. We became good friends with the ladies who worked in their office and we liked the service and what they had to offer.

We were learning the inner workings of the industry at just the right time. Technology was starting to make a play in the industry and appraisers were really having to adapt to the demands of the industry. Everybody needed everything faster. Everybody needed answers now. It was like you could feel people wanting to have more control over the process and not less.

We went to the appraiser and said, “Listen. We need to adopt this technology. We need to start subscribing to these programs to give us more data and analytic tools to improve customer service.”

He was not hearing it; he was certain the industry was not going to change. He said, “It’s been this way forever; I’m not investing in the resources.”

After he turned us down, I talked to my partner, saying, ”We don’t need him. We can go out on our own.”

She was around twenty-two at the time and I was twenty-four. She questioned, “Do you think we can do this?”

“Absolutely! I know the best model for our clients and we can do it. We don’t have to be a licensed appraiser out in the field. We can be in the office creating good processes so lenders are happy with the service they’re receiving, and they’re getting appraisals all over the country and stellar service.”

The next day on our lunch break, we went to Bank of America and we asked if we could open up a business account. We had to deposit $50 each to open the account and we qualified for a $500-credit line on a credit card.

Now we are ready to go!

We met with people, we had faxed copies of metro cities, we used two handheld phones, and I had a computer I brought from my house. My partner had a computer and we carved out a section in her garage and we got busy. Initially, the plan was to only open up in the state of Florida because we knew the local loan officers had relationships with Clearwater appraisers where we lived. Then we started to think, what if we have an appraiser in Tallahassee, an appraiser in Saint Augustine, an appraiser in Miami, an appraiser in Gainesville? Our plan was to then go to those loan officers and tell them, we know you have your favorite appraisers but if you ever need an appraiser in one of these other markets, give us a call and we’ll facilitate the process for you.

Our original idea was to be a company of convenience. We were in the business of making connections so, we dialed down. We grabbed the yellow pages and called every single appraiser in the state of Florida and asked them if they would join our panel. For every one hundred no thank you we got a yes. As we gained an appraiser we’d color it on this little coloring sheet in the office until the whole sheet was filled with color, and then we went out and we started selling.

We landed our first order, and people liked what we were doing. We really didn’t have any plans to be outside of the state of Florida. We knew we needed a large lender to buy in and really give us a shot and put us on the map.

Lending Tree was the big lender back then, and they were out in California. We kept calling them; I mean every single day. Again, this goes back to being persistent. We just called and called them. I swear, I think what happened was, they were like just send them an order. We can’t take another call from these ladies.

They sent us eleven orders in one day, and we were like oh my gosh, and back then, the work was coming in via fax. When we walked into the garage that morning, there were papers all over the floor and they were actual appraisal orders. It was amazing. It was so cool. We worked from 8 A.M. until midnight because they were in California. So, we had to be there to answer the call.

One day one of their folks said they thought there were sixty people working in our office. They thought it was a huge outfit because we were always there. They asked if we had ever considered going outside of the state of Florida.

We asked if they had business for us outside of the state of Florida and they said, “Absolutely, we love your service. We would like to use you everywhere.”

Within two years, we were completely nationwide. We hired a couple of team members. We moved into our first office space and we were doing well just as the market crash was about to hit in 2008.

They weren’t known as AMCs then. They were known as appraisal companies but, the model was there. We were a company of convenience. It was like when you don’t have a relationship in any given market, call us; when you do, use your favorite appraisers. That’s fine. We were there to cover when they didn’t have a coverage appraiser. That was our model. And it worked, people really loved it.

We were getting our fair trade for making sure their licenses were up to date, and they had insurance coverage. We had their contact. We managed the entire process from beginning to end. It was a set it and forget it, kind of a thing. Then when the market crashed, everybody went oh my gosh. We have to use a third party, AMC. We didn’t advertise as an AMC back then because it wasn’t a thing, and our clients didn’t even know they could use us. Even though we could still do all the work and provide the same service, they started pulling business and going to AMCs with deep-marketing pockets, and could get into the guides and advertise themselves as AMC.

It really changed our model. I mean we went from a company of convenience to a company of compliance, like now we’re the firefly. Now, we have to understand regulations, Dodd-Frank, and appraiser independence. Our role changed, and our relationships with our clients and our appraisers changed. It was a scary time because many borrowers were upside down on their mortgages where they had just purchased a home, now they wanted to refinance their homes worth a hundred thousand dollars less than when they purchased it. It was tough. I mean 2008 to 2011, was not a great time to be AMC.

This has been a topic of conversation for 10-12 years now but when we saw the biggest boom in the mortgage industry in 2020 and a shortage of experienced and licensed appraisers, the discussion was a top priority. As we saw record numbers, we also experienced extended turn times and that’s a hard thing for our industry to really wrap their mind around; we don’t have the tolerance for extended turn times. Also, because the barrier to entry is so intense, it takes two years sometimes, depending on how much time this appraiser has to devote to the apprenticeship trainee process which, by the way, is unpaid.

You know, if you don’t get into it while you’re in college or during that period of your life where you don’t need a lot of money and you’re not trying to support a family, it’s a little bit easier. But deciding to go into the trainee program as a person who has a family to support is difficult. There aren’t enough appraisers in the industry in correlation with the demand for appraisals.

What we’ve been trying to do at Nationwide Appraisal Network (NAN) is work with our clients. We’ve made some good adoption, especially over the last six months when our clients are really feeling the crunch, which allows us to use appraisers in training to do the inspection. This lets us keep the appraiser in the office, reconciling those values. The trainees can do the appraisals fast. The certified appraisers are the ones who need to reconcile the value. It’s all along the same lines where they divide about value verifications that Fannie and Freddie are trying to put out there but, it’s an actual trainee appraiser who’s doing the inspection, trained trainees who have made it to a certain point in their education and their experience level where they’re going out there and they’re doing good inspections and the certified appraisers can depend on the information coming back from them and put their stamp on it and reconcile the value.

By using trainees, we can save five days off turn times for our clients, but you have to have the client adopt it. The lender has to be able to say, okay we’re comfortable with that from a risk standpoint but tell us what you’re doing to preserve the quality so we can use these appraisals to make good lending decisions because, at the end of the day this is really what it’s all about.

It takes a lot of communication and a lot of training, but we’ve adapted, and we’ve seen the pipeline unclog itself by using these trainees. So now, we’re giving more work to these trainees faster so they can become certified faster to solve a couple of problems.

I feel like we’re seeing more training appraisers now than we have in the past because there’s more awareness around the industry. I think your everyday borrower is savvier about real estate and the mortgage industry, more than they have ever been. The discussions are happening. The housing crash brought it all to life; before 2008 people didn’t really know it’s an appraiser profession. I think all of the events that have happened in the economy have really shown a bright light on the profession overall and it is a great profession. You can make a great living as an appraiser, and now since the appraisers have AMC as a client, we’re protected with appraiser independence. The way we talk about and engage with appraisals is better than it’s ever been. I think it’s more enticing and more exciting for somebody to make it into the profession because you’re not dealing with the old school like The Wild Wild West issues we used to deal with back in the day. The appraisers have protection and they can act independently and do their job as it was meant to be without undue influence and other issues.

From an entrepreneurial standpoint, you always have one hundred negatives for every yes and your goal is to hear the one yes. Every call you make doesn’t have to turn into a yes, so, when you make one hundred calls and you secure one client, that’s a success.

I think this mindset is hard for people to grasp. It’s a failure for most people when they can’t turn every conversation into a win, but they’re learning along the way. Every conversation is a learning experience. You’re taking something away you didn’t anticipate or you didn’t expect or you couldn’t plan for and you use what you learned in your next conversation to turn it around, and maybe you receive two positives on the next hundred calls, but it’s part of persistence which is key to procuring those wins. If you do nothing, you’ll receive nothing. So, you have to keep trudging through and then when you feel success from the first yes, you’re more motivated to go after the next one.

I also think a lot of what I hear when I’m hiring team members, training, talking to clients about appraisals, the industry or the market, they want to tap into the secret sauce. What do you see in the appraisal industry? People want to collaborate with passionate people. If you’re passionate about your business, you can feel it, you can see it, you can almost taste it and people want to work with like-minded people, especially other passionate people. They want to work with her because she’s not going to let anything happen to the business. That’s how much she loves it and that’s key. I think being passionate is key for longevity. If you’re not passionate about what you do, you’re not going to be around in all these roller-coaster ups and downs when the market crashes. Yes, we’re going to see all this stuff happening but we’re going to be there on the other end of it, ready to go. We might have a slowdown, we might have to pull back a little bit, and we might have to redirect our focus. There are all kinds of opportunities. You know the project we’ve wanted to tackle for two years and we haven’t gotten around to it because it’s been appraisals up to here, let’s focus on that. Then, when the market turns back around, we have something to give to our clients they can use right now.

And I think people like to see you succeed through the good and the bad. Ultimately, people want to see you succeed. Another big thing is you have to be quick and nimble. You have to make changes fast. I’ve always been cautious of growing to a size which doesn’t allow me to shift and pivot when the market demands. I’ve learned the hard way you have to pay attention to the forecast, you have to plan. Even if the forecasts don’t come to fruition, you have to know the possibility is there in the future. Planning, learning how to forecast, always looking ten steps ahead, being a visionary at the end of the day, and knowing what we can do different is key.

What are the pain points we can solve for our clients? One of the easiest activity business owners can provide in the world is customer service, and the amount of folks doing it right is minimal. There are always tweaks you can do in your everyday business, like answering the phone before that third ring, smile when you answer the phone, set a reminder to follow back up in an hour like you told them you would, say their name three times during the conversation so you remember them, make them feel special. You always want to leave them wanting more and happy.

First, passionate. NAN is my firstborn, it’s my baby. There’s not a conversation I have with anybody where they won’t feel that.

Second, I would say kind; it’s a people business and it’s not transactional and you can never forget it. People have lives outside of work and things happen to disrupt our lives sometimes. It’s important for us to be kind and empathetic and know at the end of the day these are people and you understand.

Being a woman in this industry for me has been a blessing because most people are surprised. What I love about this industry is the women executives in this industry really wrap their arms around other women, and I have learned so much from other women leaders. This is one of our secret sauces because everybody wants everyone to do well. The community of women leaders, are visionaries, pioneers, fearless, and just so proud. I mean, anytime I see these women winning awards, I cheer. It’s one for me and our team.

I think it’s extremely valuable because there are many possibilities in the mortgage and real estate industry right now. If you want it, go for it, and I love the fact we’ve all paved the way and shown this isn’t just the boys’ club, this is the girls’ club too, and I love it. Anytime I see one of the women leaders in this industry featured or talking about something, it’s always relevant. It’s always thoughtful.

They’re putting out game-changing stuff and you know there’s vulnerability tied to it. To step out and discuss issues to make changes, we’re kind of taking a risk, and I think we hesitate a little bit more to put ourselves out there. However, it’s important we put ourselves out there and those doing so should be applauded. This is pioneer stuff here and I love it.

I am a softball coach for my daughter’s softball team.

I see a lot more executive positions being filled by women with ideas who can communicate, who are passionate about the industry, who are fearless and can make those changes and speak their minds and really help continue to mold the industry and do something the general public can depend on. I feel there’s an element of trust involved when you have a woman at the wheel. I think there’s an element of trust involved when you see a woman at the executive level making the decisions, communicating, and making sure people are doing things the right way.

Communications are happening, customer service is there, coming up with new ideas. I hope we see more of this and I think we will. And I think Women With Vision, promoting this, really shining a light on women in the industry who are doing this already only further opens the door up to the possibilities.

Broaden your network and don’t be afraid to become involved in the industry. Being involved is key. You learn so much from other people and joining different associations and groups advocating for the things you’re interested in doing in your future. Sometimes, you learn how not to do things and sometimes you learn from the best. You identify those mentors.

Find a mentor who you can really bounce ideas off of, watch how they participate in a room, how they communicate, and how they interact with others.

Be genuine; don’t be afraid to fail. There’s no such thing, everything’s fixable. The moment when things didn’t work out is just a redirect on how it will work out, so never be afraid to fail.

Write articles, write blogs, put your voice out there, and be heard. Be a resource. Eventually, you want people to look at you as a resource where they come to you. Sometimes, they come to you with a secret thought and you’re like oh, I didn’t know it was a problem. Let me try and figure out a way to fix it. So, I would just say stay involved in the industry. We need thinkers, we need communicators, we need leaders, and don’t get in your head, and believe in yourself because when you start believing yourself, other people will believe in you too.

I think if I could go back to myself when I was having babies and in their early infancy, I sacrificed for the sake of my business because it was just me and Cari. I wasn’t employed; I was working for myself and it was either sink or swim. I wish I could go back and enjoy the time; however, it’s in the past and with technology being the way it is today with the acceptance of computer programs, and the adoption and acceptance of working from home, I think it’s so much more doable now than it’s ever been to do it all and have it all. It’s not easy and nothing good ever comes easy anyway, but to know you’re not alone and there are millions of women all over the world who are homemakers, mothers, and businesswomen.

It teaches you how to multi-task if nothing else in time management, but embrace it, don’t be afraid of it, and use the resources you have because you can have it all.

There’s an element of discipline behind that and your job is ten times harder than your male power part; you know sitting right next to you because you are a mom and you’re going to have to take some time off, but I just think we’re in a different time period. We’re in a different world now.

Don’t overthink it. Embrace it all. Use the tools you have; you can’t have it all. And know when it feels hard, it’s because it is. It’s hard. This is not easy. It is not easy to have it all, but it’s so sweet at the end of the day when you can look back and go man I did okay.

Yes, you did and that’s a great recommendation. You have to celebrate those little wins because do you know what, sometimes that little win was just, hey the baby got a bath, and the baby went to sleep, and I was able to catch up on a few things. That’s a win; a win doesn’t have to be I got Lending Tree. That’s a great win but sometimes, it’s just the baby took a bath and went to sleep on time. That could be it.

A hundred percent; women are so hard on themselves, if it’s not done picture perfect. It’s not how I intended this day to look. This is not the result I came in looking for. Who cares? Maybe it’s just we showed up today and we did it and tomorrow’s a new day. Let it go.

Read the latest edition of Women With Vision Magazine and learn more about other amazing women making strides in the business industry.