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Face-to-face with who's who in title insurance

Although automation is simplifying the business of title insurance, the relationships - face-to-face contact between the underwriter and the client - is as complicated and important as ever.

These relationships are where most business originates. By continuing to build upon them, both the client and the title executive can draw a sense of trust and comfort doing business.

With this in mind, National Real Estate Investors' Who's Who in Title insurance can, perhaps, help foster some of these relationships by providing potential title insurance clients with a look at the title companies and the people they will be working with.

Clients may see some common ground on which to initiate a more profitable business relationship if they can understand where these individuals got their start.

Automation may perfect the electronic signature, but the handshake will remain a critical part of any business deal, particularly in the title insurance industry.

Attorneys' Title Insurance Fund Inc. 6445 Corporate Center Blvd. Orlando, Fla. 32822 Phone: (800) 336-3863 Fax: (407) 438-4562 Website: Ratings: Demotech, Inc. (A'), Duff & Phelps (A-), LACE (A). 1997 Revenues: $184,033,746

Experiencing a company both as a client and as a member of the management team presents a tremendous opportunity to develop insight into the company.

R. Norwood Gay III, senior vice president/legal services & general counsel for Orlando, Fla.-based Attorneys' Title Insurance Fund Inc. (The Fund), received just such an opportunity when he joined the company in 1991.

Gay, an attorney, had been in private practice in Sarasota, Fla., and was an agent with The Fund for 20 years prior to joining the company. In addition, he had served on the board of one of The Fund's information subsidiaries.

"I was very familiar with the company, and due to my experience working with them, I was a big fan," says Gay.

In his position as The Fund's general counsel, Gay operates in several capacities, first and foremost as the firm's in-house lawyer. "It is not that I do all of the legal work the company requires, but I do see that we hire the necessary outside specialist when the need arises and I provide the general day-to-day guidance."

He also is head of The Fund's legal services department and is in charge of meshing the legal and technology issues of the title business, which are fueling the industry's growth.

"Title insurance has grown incredibly in the 27 years that I have been involved," Gay says. He stresses that there has been more change in the last three to five years than in the previous 20.

Technology has made a real impact on the title industry, particularly because the business got such a late start in automation. "We are among the last industry groups to get heavily involved in technology," explains Gay. "The whole business of real estate is so localized with each state and each county doing things differently it has been difficult to make the process uniform. If there is one thing that computer technology hates it is uniqueness."

Besides technology, the title industry could be in store for other changes as well. Gay says Congress has called for new hearings to discuss alterations to the Real Estate Settlement Procedure Act (RESPA), which has been in place since 1974.

Both the Federal Reserve and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have made suggestions and recommendations for change, but it is up to Congress to enact them.

"There could be some significant changes that impact how we deliver our services," says Gay. And if the changes come, he will be the point man in making them work best for clients.

Chicago Title Insurance Co. 171 North Clark St. Chicago, Ill. 60601-3294 Phone: (312) 223-2000 Fax: (312) 223-2600 Website: Ratings: Demotech (A"), Duff & Phelps (A), LACE (A+), Moody's (A3), Standard & Poor's (A). 1997 Revenues: $971,537,827

Like so many of the leaders in the title insurance business, Edson N. Burton Jr. got an early start working for the family business, Burton Abstract and Title Co., in Michigan.

With his career choice made early, all that was left was college. He attended Michigan State University for his undergraduate degree and Northwestern University for his MBA. Burton continued to work for the family business while in school, but moved to the title business on a national scale in 1974 joining Ticor Title Insurance Co.

Burton left Ticor in 1984 to join Safeco Title Insurance Co., which was later acquired by Chicago Title.

Burton says most of his career has been working with national commercial customers. These firms need specialized assistance in handling large multi-property transactions, which are often scattered all over the country.

"We design our national offices to provide one-stop service for our clients," he says. But in addition, he stresses the importance of understanding the business side of the equation and how each client's business operates.

The need for speed in the title business has increased the role of technology in the industry, and part of Burton's present position is helping to incorporate that technology into the company's structure.

Burton believes that Chicago Title's success is attributable to the firm's extensive network of offices which allows them to assist clients more quickly.

And he believes the company's financial strength is another issue. "Our balance sheet is unsurpassed and that is becoming more of an issue, particularly with the major players," says Burton.

Fidelity National Title 17911 Von Karman Ave., Suite 510 Irvine, Calif. 92714-6253 Phone: (714) 622-5000 Fax: (610) 971-9365 Website: Ratings: Demotech (A), other rating updates pending 1997 Revenue: $746 million

The title insurance business is a multi-layered industry with many different levels of responsibility and know-how required to understand and meet the clients' needs.

At Irvine, Calif.-based Fidelity National Title, James E. Kilgallon, senior vice president/director of national title services is one of those who understands the client's needs. Working out of the company's Philadelphia office, Kilgallon handles Fidelity's national commercial business.

With 30 years of experience in the Philadelphia market, Kilgallon joined Fidelity in May. He began his title insurance career as a courthouse title researcher and over the years added title examiner, title officer, title plant manager and sales and production positions to his resume.

In 1989, he moved from the local side of title insurance to handling business with a more national perspective. But his past experience has remained a valuable resource. "It has given me the ability to understand more clearly issues such as pricing, deal structure, underwriting and risk analysis," he explains.

In his current position at Fidelity, Kilgallon is in charge of the growing commercial segment of the title business, "a more profitable but equally more competitive side of the business," he explains.

Responding to this competitive challenge, so far in 1998 Kilgallon has expanded Fidelity's number of national commercial offices from three to eight. He has an additional three offices planned for 1999.

On a broader scale, the company is growing in all areas. Most of the growth is due to Fidelity's acquisition of Alamo Title Insurance Co., which made Fidelity the second largest underwriter in Texas. "We already had a presence in the state, but the acquisition has made us a major player," says Kilgallon.

On a national basis the firm is the fourth largest. In addition to Alamo Title, the company is comprised of Fidelity National Title Insurance Co. (California) and Fidelity National Title Insurance Co. of New York.

Kilgallon says service, particularly the quality of the title evidence provided, the speed of the transaction and the ability to underwrite specific risk, are the characteristics clients look for in a title company.

These are some of the characteristics he saw in Fidelity. "It is a very entrepreneurial company known for seizing the opportunity at hand," says Kilgallon. "And that is what attracted me to the company."

First American Title Insurance Co. 114 East Fifth Street Santa Ana, Calif. 92701 Phone: (714) 558-3211 Fax: (714) 836-1841 Website: Ratings: A.M. Best (A), Demotech (A'), Duff & Phelps (A), Moody's (A3) 1997 Revenues: (First American Financial Corp.): $1,887,461,000 When Gary Kermott was playing little league baseball in his hometown of Santa Ana, Calif., he didn't pay much attention to the fact that the local company that sponsored the league schedule was Orange County Title Insurance Co.

But times do change and fate delivers some interesting twists. Today, Orange County Title is known as First American Title Insurance Co. and former little leaguer Gary Kermott's the company's executive vice president and COO.

Kermott's interest in First American began in law school at Western State University in Fullerton, Calif. One of his professors was Oscar Beasley, chief title counsel for First American Title Insurance Co.

Through this connection, Kermott began clerking in First American's legal department and his knowledge of title insurance began to grow. After graduating in 1985 and passing the bar, he became the firm's attorney handling legal work and some underwriting.

From that point he held a number of jobs for the company including associate regional counsel in Phoenix, manager of the Tucson, Ariz., office, state manager of Arizona and regional vice president for Arizona and Utah.

In 1996, Kermott returned home to First American's headquarters as executive vice president and California state manager. In January, he was named COO.

Kermott believes his varied experience, particularly in underwriting and in handling claims, helps him to better understand the big picture.

"It has provided a broad understanding of the business," he says. "It has helped me understand the business, the risks involved and how to overcome them."

While the company stresses best practices in the operation of its offices, Kermott insists that First American is a decentralized firm that offers its local managers a good deal of autonomy.

Kermott does see the irony that automation is helping to promote more attentive service and better relationships with clients, but he stresses the key is how technology is used.

"We are not looking at automation as a way of replacing contact with customers," he says. "Automation is simply a way to improve our productivity. You still need that local contact that initiates the business with the customer, but now some of the backroom functions can be streamlined."

LandAmerica P.O. Box 27567 Richmond, Va. 2336 Phone: (800) 446-7086 Fax: (804) 267-8850 Website: Ratings: Demotech (A", Duff & Phelps (A), LACE Financial (A+), Standard& Poors (A). 1997 Revenues: $639,099,000 (Includes only Lawyers Title revenues)

Very few executives, especially with the largest title insurance companies in the country, get their start as a clerk typist as did Jan Alpert, president of Richmond, Va.-based LandAmerica Financial Group Inc. Although most of them start much further up the management ladder, certainly all of them have to pay their dues. Alpert is one that has certainly paid hers.

Initially attracted to the title industry by the excitement of the real estate closing process, Alpert joined the Los Angeles office of what was then Lawyers Title in 1969. And with nothing but a typewriter and a willingness to learn, she began absorbing the title business.

Her talents and knowledge did not go unnoticed and she began her ascent through the corporate ranks, soon reaching the level of closer, the part of the business that had attracted her in the first place.

Alpert continued as a closer and moved into national title service spending 18-years in the various facets of that area of business.

Alpert was a political science undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara because "women didn't major in business in 1964," she explains. But even with her growing business experience, Alpert soon found that advancing to management was limited due to her lack of business education.

In 1974, Alpert earned an MBA from the University of Connecticut. "It was an important time in my career because I could never have done the job that I do now without that additional education," she says.

MBA in hand, Alpert continued to rise within the company. In 1978 she transferred to Lawyers Title's Richmond headquarters as assistant vice president and assistant director of the national division. Further advancement followed in the late 1980s, and in 1993, 24 years removed from her position as clerk typist, she was named president and COO.

Earlier this year, the firm acquired Commonwealth Land Title and Transnation. Alpert retained her position as president with the merged entity, LandAmerica Financial Group Inc. But the change was not business as usual for Alpert.

"We became a title industry leader overnight and, even though I had five years' experience as president, the company was now twice the size," she says. Always a people person, Alpert could not conceive of heading a company of strangers.

To correct that Alpert says she has traveled more this year than ever before, specifically, to meet the new employees. But the pace of the title industry is also requiring more from everyone.

"I have spent 29 years in the industry and nothing much changed in the first 25, but the last four have been amazing," she says. "The role of technology and the Internet in the business is tremendous. The whole process has gotten so much faster."

She stresses, however, that automation does not eliminate the need to interact with clients. "You still spend time cultivating relationships and giving clients the personal touch," she explains. "But computers have simplified the work process so you have more time with the client."

Republic Title of Texas Inc. 300 Crescent Court, Suite 100, Dallas, Texas 75201 Phone: (214) 855-8888 Fax: (214) 855-8848 Website address: 1997 Revenue: $22,318,438

For Bill Kramer, the road to the title insurance industry was through Yale University and the University of Texas law school. Not an easy path, but a path that prepared him for the future.

After obtaining his law degree, Kramer went to work for a local law firm in his hometown of Dallas. He spent five years with the firm, mostly handling real estate work, when an opportunity came along that intrigued him.

The year was 1972, and Kramer bought into a small title insurance firm, Plano Title, in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas. "It was a good business in a growing community and, for me, it was a chance to be a bigger fish, although in a smaller pond," says Kramer.

But that pond wasn't destined to remain small. Title insurance companies need population growth to be successful and Plano was experiencing a whirlwind of growth.

From a population of about 18,000 in 1972, Plano has grown to approximately 150,000 today. "As the city grew our title business grew as well," says Kramer.

As the company got larger, Kramer began to focus more on commercial transactions, which fit in well as the area became more of an urban center.

Whether the business is residential or commercial, a title company's ability to provide good service is the key to continued success. Kramer says speed in processing the title searches is among the most important traits clients are looking for in a title insurer.

Kramer says his firm sets an automatic deadline of five working days for residential work and seven days for commercial work. The company's speed can be attributed to Kramer's early belief in the computer as a valuable tool.

Republic has a completely linked computer network and is currently working on its e-mail capability to send commitments and title images directly to clients.

Along the way, Kramer bought out his partners then, in 1994, he sold the company to First American Title Insurance Group, Santa Ana, Calif. Republic Title continues to operate as a subsidiary of its California parent.

Kramer says the firm's success can be traced to staying in one location and its ability to hang onto its people. "We have been here a long time and people know us," he says. "And our main core of employees has remained the same. This cumulative knowledge is what's important. With experience and knowledge, you get better at what you do."

Safeco Land Title of Dallas 8080 N. Central Expressway Suite 500 & 120 Dallas, Texas 75204 Phone: (214) 360-3600; (214) 987-0800; (800) 729-3326. Fax: (214) 360-3694. Website: 1997 Revenues: $17.1 million

Growing up in the southwestern United States, Norma Lea Beasley became interested in the the oil and gas industry, which was driving the region's economy at the time.

But after gaining her law degree from the University of Arkansas and three years of graduate study on taxation and the oil and gas industry, she found that the oil and gas industry was closed to women.

Looking for another way to use her training, she took a job with a title insurance company and worked her way up to the head of the legal department.

Then in 1962, Beasley and a friend, Imogene Walker, founded Abstract Record Services. Although busy teaching real estate and law classes at Southern Methodist University at the time, Beasley was successful in acquiring a string of title insurance firms.

In 1978, while discussing the possibility of doing some work for Safeco Title's Dallas office, Beasley convinced Safeco's chairman to sell her the office.

Today, Beasley's title operation includes 10 companies and more than 300 employees.

While the company has thrived, its success has not been gained at the expense of Beasley's sense of fairplay or commitment to her employees. During the difficult real estate period of the late 1980s the company depleted its large capital reserve and even went into the red. But Beasley did not close any offices or lay off any employees.

This commitment to her associates is based upon her understanding that the success of the company is the result of their business relationships and efforts. Not surprisingly, the company's strength has returned.

Beasley has also never forgotten that many business opportunities were closed to her because she was a woman. In addition to co-authoring a book on the best strategies for women in business, Beasley has also provided opportunities for women in the title industry. "Of our 10 companies, four of the presidents are women," she says.

As with many other firms, Safeco Land Title of Dallas is moving toward more advanced computer operations featuring quicker communication via e-mail and the Internet.

Although computers make the real estate business more efficient, Beasley sees the industry as a people-oriented business and feels the relationships will always be important. "The people we have and their knowledge and know-how are the company," she says.

Stewart Title Guaranty Co. 1980 Post Oak Blvd., Suite 800 Houston, Texas 77056 Phone: (800) Stewart Fax: (713) 552-9523 Website address: Ratings: Demotech (A"), Duff & Phelps (A+), LACE (A+)

Stewart Title Guaranty Co. is a family business in the truest sense. Descendants of the founders of the company, which began in 1893, get an early start at learning the title business.

Stewart Morris Jr. is the third generation of his family to work at the company. His grandfather started there in 1897.

And at age 10, just as his father had, Morris, began spending his summers working at the firm. "We are drafted into service at that age," he says.

Morris got his undergraduate degree from Rice University in Houston and his MBA from the University of Texas. He spent several years working at every job the title operation had to offer to get a broad knowledge of the business.

In 1975, he began his first full-time position with the company and was responsible for computer and mapping operations. With the importance of computer technology today, Morris realizes that his first position was important to his understanding of the future of the title industry.

"I understood the technology side of everything we were doing," he says. "I worked to help create the computer systems that we used then, and I have been responsible for all of the computer systems that we have employed since."

Morris says that, currently, Stewart Title and the title insurance industry in general, is at a very opportunistic period. "We are shifting gears in how we conduct business," he explains. "We are moving toward single-seat technology, where one person can handle a complete file from their computer screen."

He stresses that the real advantages are the increased productivity for each person and the faster turnaround time such an operation offers clients. "We can deliver the documents to the client faster and at an overall lower cost to the company and the client."

Morris says this computer network is in operation at 12 of the company's offices and that another 46 offices will be linked to the system by the end of 1999.

The second part of the computer equation involves connectivity to clients and "electronic commerce."

The perfect system will eventually allow clients to order service documentation that they need from Stewart Title from a desktop computer without ever having to call. "We cut out the telephone tag with clients, and that alone streamlines the time involved in the process," Morris says, adding that the concept of electronic signatures still needs to be perfected to complete the operation.

The most important thing is the clients get to look at the documents prior to the closing. "If someone is seeing the documentation for the first time at closing there is a great deal more pressure to make sure everything is as it should be," says Morris. "If they have had several days to verify and correct the documents, the process is much more enjoyable for all concerned."

Ticor Title Insurance Co. 245 S. Los Robles Pasadena, Calif. 91101 Phone: (626) 432-7600 Fax: (626) 432-7115 Website: Ratings: Demotech (A'), Duff & Phelps (A), LACE (A+), Moody's (A3), Standard & Poor's (A). 1997 Revenues: $191,016,671 Not wanting to practice trial law after graduation from Depaul University's law school, Joseph Bonita needed a job. He joined Chicago Title Co. in 1968 as a title examiner and his career has since led to his position as vice president and chief underwriting counsel for Ticor Title Insurance Co. He has held this position since 1990.

"Basically I and others establish the policies regarding what the company will insure and under what terms," says Bonita.

After joining the company, Bonita quickly made the rounds of its western offices. In 1983, he became vice president and associate title counsel with Ticor Title Insurance Co. (then a separate company from Chicago Title) in Denver. Four years later, he was transferred to Los Angeles with the promotion to senior vice president and senior title counsel, and in 1989 he was appointed chief underwriting counsel for the firm.

In 1991, Chicago Title and Trust acquired Ticor Title and Bonita returned to Chicago as chief underwriting counsel for Ticor.

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