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16 | M R EP O RT COVER STORY S tephen Covey, American educator, businessman, keynote speaker, and author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, once said, "Every human has four endowments—self- awareness, conscience, independent will, and creative imagination." Susan B. Anthony, American social reformer and women's rights activist who played a piv- otal role in the women's suffrage movement, once commented that "Independence is happiness." The freedom to be indepen- dent and practice the entrepre- neurial spirit runs deeply in Steve Jacobson, Founder and CEO of Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation, a Madison, Wisconsin-based mortgage lender founded in 1996. Jacobson recently sat down with MReport for a sprawling interview looking back over his career, his priorities at Fairway, and why that indepen- dent mindset is at heart of it all. An Employee-First Mindset F airway Independent Mortgage Corporation, the firm Jacobson founded 25+ years ago, today continues its tradition of exercising its independence, having never gone public. In the years since those origins, Fairway has grown to employ more than 10,000 team members nationwide, across 700 branch and satellite locations. "We like the freedom of doing what we love," Jacobson said. "We never know what's around the corner … none of us do in life. We must take life one day at a time and never know what that next step may be." Unlike many other companies operating in the mortgage space, Fairway is privately held and is an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) firm. ESOPs are an employee benefit plan that give workers ownership interest in the company; this interest takes the form of shares of stock. This allows Fairway to truly put em- ployees first, which goes hand-in- hand with the company's positive and inviting company culture. "People have asked, why don't you go public? Many of our competitors have," Jacobson said. "There's no right or wrong, and we're surely not judging anyone that does; we just have had a dif- ferent view." Fairway—which closed in excess of $71 billion in 2021—was recently named the number one "Workplace in the USA 2021" by Energage, a cloud-based employee engagement platform that caters to businesses across various indus- try verticals. And even with the pandemic playing a role on both sides of the industry, the customer base, and those who serve them, Fairway has been able to continue operations and the recruitment of staff who align with Fairway's goals and values. "We want humble, hungry, and smart people who have humility about them," said Jacobson on the recruitment of Fairway employ- ees. "You're not going to recruit everybody, and you're not going to keep everybody. You have to know, when you have 10,000+ people, it's impossible to keep everybody and recruit everybody you see … you must pick your spots." When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, Jacobson and the Fairway Independent team acted im- mediately, swiftly implementing a work-from-home. While each industry organization is approach- ing the ongoing challenges of the pandemic in different ways, Fairway is erring on the side of being mindful of team member needs and comfort levels. Julie Fry, Fairway's Chief Human Resources Officer, said, "We've continued to assure our teammates that the decision to return to the office is theirs and theirs alone." With the continued rollout of vaccinations and the nation im- proving its grip on the pandemic, more than 80% of Fairway's staff currently continues to work from home. In an effort to prioritize its employees' safety and health, Fairway made pro-grade exercise The Discipline of Consistency Steve Jacobson, Founder and CEO of Fairway Independent Mortgage, details his company's employee-first mentality, and how an independent mindset has fostered its success. By Eric C. Peck

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