A family-run business for more than 115 years, Idaho-based First American Title Company (not to be confused with First American Title Insurance Company out of California) operates as three subsidiaries — in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — under the umbrella holding company Title Financial Corp (TFC), which was founded in 2003 as a vehicle for further expansion.
The original business, which was founded by William Herman Stufflebeam in 1905 with just four employees, grew to become one of the largest regional title companies in the Intermountain West. After Herman’s death in 1942, his wife Ruth took over the business until she retired in 1969, and her only son, Dwain, took the helm until his retirement in 2012. At that point, his son Quinn Stufflebeam became the Idaho subsidiary president and subsequently CEO of TFC. Under Quinn’s leadership, TFC broadened its footprint into Wyoming and has continued to expand.
In this Q&A, Idaho Business Review chatted with Quinn about what First American Title Company and TFC are looking like today and what the future holds for the residential real estate market. This content has been edited for clarity and length.
Did you always know you were going to go into the family business? Are other family members currently working alongside you?
I worked in the business since I can remember. I went to school, did some internships and worked at other places and experienced other things, but at the end of the day, this is what I really envisioned myself doing. It’s a great industry, we have great people and it just felt right. I have two brothers and a sister. Some of them were active in the past. Today, other than my sister-in-law, I’m really the only person who is active in the business.
I know people often confuse California-based First American Title Insurance Company with your Idaho-based business First American Title Company. Can you explain the difference and the relationship between the two?
They are a publicly traded company out of Santa Ana, California, and they are also an underwriter. While we have the same name, we are a totally different company, so it can be confusing. We have a relationship with them, and they have agreed to let us use their name.
But it’s not a franchise. We are an agency that just happened to be the First American brand.
Can you explain the business side of what a title and escrow company does?
We basically facilitate real estate transactions; we help the buyer and the seller after they’ve signed their purchase and sale agreements; or if someone refinances their home, they will come to a title company like ours to help facilitate the closing. If it is real property, we will do the work on it — that includes commercial, industrial, agricultural and residential. We do it all.
So, we facilitate that process — the seller receiving the money and the buyer getting their deed — as a neutral third party in that transaction so they know that we’re looking out for the best interest of both parties. And that’s the critical role we play as an escrow company and as a title company. That’s the research piece that ultimately gets backed by a guarantee. People want to know if they own this property, and they want to make sure that someone’s willing to back that research.
Would you expand a bit more on what sort of research you provide?
We spend a lot of time researching the property to determine who owns it and what things can affect the property, whether that’s an easement that runs across it like a power line, a road or perhaps a back field where a neighbor can access the property. So, we inform the potential property owners and the existing property owners (through an owner’s policy) of the details of who owns the property, what’s on the land and the things that affect it. And then, when you’re dealing with lenders, they want to know in the event that they have to foreclose if they are in a first lien position, so they don’t have to fight anyone else; or if they are in a second position behind another mortgage, they want to know who is first. So, we also ensure the lenders know who owns the property and what issues there might be if they were to have to move forward on a foreclosure.
On the residential side, what do you like most about working with clients?
Those clients are our neighbors and the people we deal with every day. We see them at work and walking their dogs; those are the people we build relationships with. And I don’t mean as a business, I mean on a personal level.
On the residential side, people are buying homes to build memories. It may be to have a place their kids or grandkids can come back and visit, so it can be much more meaningful than say a sterile business transaction on the commercial side can be. It’s great to be able to see someone get into their home for the first time or to be able to buy their dream home and see the expression of happiness when that closes, and they sign all the documents and are handed their key.
And it’s really a culmination of a lot of people’s hard work that happens at the closing table; the realtor has been working hard to help them find or sell their house, and the lender has been working hard to make sure they qualify for the loan and have all the documentation they need to issue the loan. And so, it’s amazing to be able to experience that.
What are your thoughts on the current residential real estate market and where it’s headed?
We had a historic housing market that was really started by the pandemic, and we had a lot of influx from the West Coast into Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. As we see inflation go up, that usually indicates rising interest rates, and that will significantly slow the housing market, because as interest rates rise, your purchase power gets eroded. People look at what they can afford for their monthly payment, which goes toward interest payments and principal, as well as the purchase price. But if the interest component starts to go up, that means something has to go down. And that’s usually the purchase price. So, we’ll see a slowdown in the market, I think. To what extent I don’t know. Hopefully, it doesn’t look like 2008, when the brakes came on and property value started to decline. I don’t think we’ll see that because it’s not the same scenario. Will property values decline? I highly doubt it, but they probably won’t go up, or they’ll go up at a lower rate. So, that’s kind of where I see it. With people not being able to afford as much as they used to, there’ll be fewer people bidding on properties, which then means that properties go up in value slower.
How has the pandemic changed how you conduct business today?
Like the rest of the world, it definitely sped up our desire to work remotely. And it has increased our desire to find technologies that help us to be able to work from anywhere. As an indirect result of this (influx of) remote working, I can hire someone in a different state — then my labor pool increases dramatically, and it’s more of a challenge to find qualified employees.
Is there something you accomplished this past year that you are particularly proud of?
The biggest thing is we were able to retain as many of our employees as we did. They bore an incredible amount of stress as the customers needed to get things done in an expedient manner. And our people, most of them stuck with us. They were incredibly busy and sacrificed a lot of their time to get things done. And that’s probably one of the things I’m proudest of, is our people and their ability to handle what they did.
In all this time you’ve been working since you can remember, have you ever seen the market as busy as it has been this past year?
No, not even in the heydays of 2006-07. You know, we were incredibly busy then. But this is above and beyond that, by another 15%. I’ve never seen it like this. I’ll be honest, I hope to not again.
Yes, business is good, but it’s unsustainable. Our employees have been run ragged. Everyone is backed up, with too much on their plate and can’t get stuff out the door fast enough. The COVID economy is just the reality of where we’re at.
What did you do to show your employees how valued they were during the pandemic?
Other than being flexible — they wanted to work from home — by giving them that ability as best we could, at the end of the day, we just tried to show them that we cared by acknowledging and, obviously, sharing in the profitability that we were seeing more so than we’d ever done. But honestly, they stayed and did what they did because of their co-workers and the culture within the offices. Our culture, as cliché as it may sound, is based around the family. And those people fought for each other like it was a warzone. Because it was hectic and crazy with all of the things that we’re trying to get done. And they did it for each other. They wanted to be there for each other.
Aside from a family-feel culture at First American Title Company, what other company values do you hold up for employees and customers?
I don’t think people fully understand the title and escrow industry, and so the value isn’t necessarily apparent. A lot of times people wonder why they are paying the fees; they think, “You guys just push a button, spit out some paper, shoot out a report and we’re done.” The process seems so easy so they don’t understand what the big deal was. That’s the point. We want to make it look as simple as pushing a button, but the reality is that hundreds of hours went into it. Our people are passionate about providing quality products, and there’s an incredible amount of time, effort and care that goes into providing our services.
The focus that we teach our people is we want customers to not see that effort. We want to make it look easy. When you watch an Olympic athlete, for example, they make the most complex maneuvers look not-so-hard, until you sit back and really think about everything that went into it.
Now, we might not all be athletes, but we want to have that Olympic mentality in our professionalism — and at the end of the day, we try to make it look easy.