Mortgage Bankers Association (The MBA) is a 2,400-member trade association for the real estate finance industry, which includes both the residential single-family lender side and the commercial multifamily side. The organization’s members range from small community banks and credit unions to the largest lenders in the country, and it also has vendors for the industry including technology, law firms, and the big consulting companies who work with banks and mortgage lenders. The organization provides four main services. First, it provides advocacy for the community it serves in the lending space. Second, it organizes around 20 conferences for the industry, across a range of disciplines. Third, the organization provides industry education. Fourth, the MBA has a research in economics arm that focuses on data collection, analysis, reporting, and forecasting.
Peter Grace is the CIO and Senior Vice President of Strategy and Member Services. In this role, he has the traditional CIO responsibilities, but he has leveraged his background as consultant and as a process expert to branch into new areas of value to the MBA and to its customers, as he tells CIO Insight contributor, Peter High.
Peter High: When you joined the MBA, the organization had gone roughly five years without a CIO. Interestingly, they chose someone who had not been a CIO. What about your background suggested that you were the right choice?
Peter Grace: I studied mechanical engineering as an undergrad, and I have been involved in tech throughout my career. I started my career at Anderson Consulting. This was back when they put you through programmer training. I was trained as a COBOL programmer right out of college. I programmed my first couple of years at Anderson/Accenture, then I moved into process and strategy work. I never quite shook my technology chops from those early days though. Technology was a thread in all of the work I did at Accenture.
After graduate school I worked for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Similar to what happened here, my role ended up growing to include the IT department. When I went to Housing and Urban Development (HUD), we set up a new strategic management office. At HUD, I was not wholly in tech, but I worked closely with the CIO. Coming here, initially my position was strategy focused, but then our CEO recognized we had a gap on the technology side and he knew enough about my background to know I could step into that, as well. It was a rebuilding process for the MBA at that time. Our first step on the technology side was building our internal infrastructure and stabilizing our ecosystem.
High: How long did that take?
Grace: The building and stabilization was two to three years. We focused a lot initially on
desktop and network infrastructure. We moved all of our servers into the cloud because we run an almost completely virtual server and desktop environment. Being that virtualized enables us to work with a smaller staff. The key was getting out of the server business, as many organizations have done or are struggling to do. I do not want to be worried about what the latest hardware need is. Those early years we were also working on our process infrastructure, which included simple things like how you submit a tech request for assistance, whether it is for one of our applications or a desktop. Processes had to be put in place to create transparency and clarity.
High: If the first three years were about stabilization and establishing standards, presumably in the most recent two years of your tenure, you have been able to focus more on the strategic side and adding value. What are some of the strategic uses of technology that are now blossoming?
Grace: You hit it on the head. That was the pivot. We are in the middle of contract negotiation to move off our current association management system, which is like a CRM for associations.
In our education arm, we recently invested in a content management system, and now we are looking at moving to a new learning management system.
On the Marketing and external presence side, we worked with our Marketing team to revamp our web presence. That was a significant deal that coincided with the rebranding of the MBA itself. We have introduced more mobile capabilities for our conferences and for our advocacy efforts. For instance, we developed a mobile app that allows people to take action on pending legislation.
We have gotten into data and analytics and begun to embrace concepts around big data. We invested in Salesforce’s artificial intelligence platform, Einstein. We created a member engagement index that looks at a host of ways members can be involved in the MBA. Through some weighting and scoring, we come up with a number based on that particular company’s activities over the past period. It is not the score in and of itself we are looking at, but more where a company stacks with their peers. It is a tool that tells us what is going on. For example, we can use the score to anticipate who might be at risk. That tells us whom we may want to focus on and do more proactive outreach for. It is a great example of technology and strategy and some of the organizational changes we have made in the member services space all coming together.
High: How do you think about strategy? Is it largely at an enterprise level or does it cascade to the different business portions of the organization you described?
Grace: When I joined the MBA, in 2012, they had recently completed a strategic planning exercise with a consultant and created a five-year road map. It was not terribly prescriptive. We took that plan and evolved it year over year. Annually, we engaged a pretty significant portion of the organization, typically in one or two-day off-site events, to look at the broad framework of the five-year strategic plan. We did environmental scans of the marketplace and explored what was going on from a regulatory perspective; all of the classic stuff. It also involved a lot of discussion and brainstorming.
Over the years, I have learned that for strategy, less is more, particularly for an organization of our size. The more we can focus on a few things and do them well, and then move on to the next thing, the better it is for employees and the organization. When you create a five-year plan, you do not know exactly what is going to come out the back end. That was a classic example of evolving initiatives within a broader set of priorities the leadership team and the board set out for the organization.
We have a fairly broad based process for engagement and a lot of board engagement too. We just did another five-year plan. It is a broad outline more than a prescriptive set of initiatives. From a program management perspective, I have to think about how to manage those initiatives. I have also learned that, particularly in a smaller organization, there is not much appetite for a lot of reporting or structure around status updates. In response to this, we have come up with a few simpler ways to gauge and report on progress that are fairly light touch but still do the job.
High: Are there other topics you would like to shine a light on?
Grace: Like every other organization, and certainly among our members, cyber security is a massive topic. We have a Vice President for Industry Technology that I work closely with. Our members are trying to navigate what is going on in the fintech space and the RegTech space. Our role as a facilitator of information is increasing. The MBA works as a clearinghouse of information and connects with our members to help them navigate these areas.
High: In relation to some of the innovation topics you talked about, like fintech innovation, how do you educate yourself and make sure that your team remains current so that you know who is who, what is what, and are well situated to provide advice?
Grace: There is no shortage of information on what is going on in the fintech space. My team and I take part in conferences and as many events as we can. There are a couple of folks on my team, more on the membership side, who are passionate about this area. They talk to members and people on all sides of the issues, and then we make sure the information flows through the team.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book is Implementing World Class IT Strategy. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. He speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.