Nashville-based Churchill Mortgage was recently named a “Top Workplace” for the eighth consecutive year by local newspaper The Tennessean.

Before big-city mortgage pro’s start smirking at the level of illustriousness tied to being a top employer in a city with a population of roughly 700,000, it’s important to note that Churchill is not some Podunk lender trying to please a tiny workforce. The 28-year old company does business in 46 states and has a workforce of 600 employees. It closed almost half a billion in loans in June alone.

When a company that successful gets lauded for its hiring practices, it’s worth taking a look at how they do things.

According to Churchill founder and CEO Mike Hardwick, who has also founded two banks and a condo conversion company, the key to success – in any industry – is the people a company is able to attract and retains.

“You’re only as good as the people you bring in to help grow your business,” he says. “Keeping good people and recruiting others is tied to how you choose to treat those employees.”

Hardwick says Churchill runs according to a circular philosophy: The company treats its employees well, the employees treat their clients well, and the clients treat the company well. But the first step is one that must be taken by the company itself.

“It really begins with us as leaders,” Hardwick says. “We believe we should be more concerned about our people and how we treat them than we are about profits, because if we do a good job there, the profits will take care of themselves. They always have.”


Hardwick’s hiring, recruiting, and interview practices were heavily influenced by Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Ideal Team Player. The book says that regardless of what position is being hired for, from janitor to executive, companies should be looking for the same three qualities:

  • Intelligence. Not IQ, but intelligence related to the job. Has the applicant displayed in her career an ability to do the job she’s being interviewed for?

“For example, if you’re hiring a janitor, does that person have on his or her resume a background of having been a janitor at other locations?” Hardwick says. “And when you checked their references at those locations, did they come back with glowing recommendations?”

  • Hunger. Does the applicant display a sincere desire to learn and improve month after month, year after year? Will the person you’re hiring be willing to put in the kind of work needed to keep increasing their loan volume?
  • Humility. A new hire needs to display an attitude that blends confidence with an understanding that they’re still one member of a team, and that their success doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Finding people with these three qualities has proven to be a reliable determinant of whether or not workers will coalesce with the Churchill way of doing business.

“Usually they do,” says Hardwick.

Driving staff loyalty

Churchill has a number of strategies around compensation, bonuses and employee feedback for keeping its staff happy and productive.

Determining fair compensation for a company’s employees is a must. Hardwick says Churchill’s HR team researches the mortgage industry to determine the low, medium, and high salary ranges for each position. But they don’t stop there: HR then dives deeper to learn how much of that compensation is salary versus bonus and what kinds of bonuses are being awarded to employees.

“We’re constantly researching our industry to make sure we’re in that top half at least,” Hardwick says. “We try to pay a fair, market-based salary, but we always try, if at all possible, to have an objective incentive bonus plan built-in that helps employees see that if they’re doing their job with excellence, they can earn quite a bit more than just their salary.”

Bonuses at Churchill fall into two categories – objective, meaning more traditional bonuses tied to an employee’s monthly performance, and subjective. Subjective bonuses refer to the unscheduled, often surprising rewards given to workers who have exceeded expectations. During the company’s insane June, for example, its underwriters were asked to work a seven-day week. Hardwick says the team reached the company’s BHAG – that’s a ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’ – for the week and were all given $1,000 each.

“We didn’t have to pay it, but we did it,” he says.

One of the most innovative components of Churchill’s staff-retention strategies was put in place about seven years ago, when Hardwick decided to give 49 percent of his company to his staff in the form of company shares. Full-time employees who have been with Churchill for at least 12 months are automatically given stock in the company.

“If you meet those two criteria, then every year that you’re here we give you – you don’t purchase – additional shares of stock in our company,” says Hardwick.

But compensation isn’t everything. Communication counts, too. Both employee and employer must be held accountable for their performances. Surveys like the one conducted by The Tennessean allow for anonymous feedback from staff, feedback Hardwick takes seriously.

“No company is perfect. If we get negative feedback in a comment from an employee, we don’t dismiss it,” he says, adding that the company analyzes all negative feedback to determine if it has in any way dropped the ball.

Feedback around staff performance comes in constantly. Churchill sends a survey to every client who closes a loan with the company; in June, they received 2,000 of them. Churchill uses the information gathered to shape their annual one-on-one employee reviews, where underperforming originators are given a written set of suggestions that they are encouraged to respond to, turning the evaluation process into a conversation.

“We believe you cannot over-communicate,” Hardwick says.

In today’s highly competitive mortgage market, being a thoughtful, generous employer can be a competitive advantage like no other. Is there anything more powerful than a motivated staff that feels appreciated? Anyone nickel-and-diming their employees better hope not.