First Class Mortgage, a small venture that began with just two employees, has defied the odds and emerged as a leading player in the industry. I sat down with co-owners Dan Van Winkle and Greg Dean and discussed how they crafted a dedicated team committed to setting new standards.
“Since joining Dan and Greg, everyone at First Class Mortgage has been wonderful to work with. I’ve learned a lot as I’ve grown professionally with them. When you first enter the business world at 21, you don’t have much credibility in your resume. They’ve helped me build confidence in my mortgage skills, as well as finance in general.”– Dawn Johnson, Mortgage Consultant
Opening in 2003, First Class Mortgage operated as a mortgage broker for nearly the first decade of business before transitioning to becoming a true mortgage banker using their own funds. After making that transition, they can now operate as both mortgage brokers and bankers, maximizing a customer’s options for products and services.
“The driving force behind becoming a mortgage banker was that it allowed us to offer more products to our borrowers, as well as more flexibility from using our own money versus someone else’s finances,” Van Winkle said.
According to Van Winkle and Dean, it was the same line of work with slightly different mechanics. While there were some substantial changes surrounding new guidelines and rules for them to follow, it allowed for more growth and success as a team.
One year into business, the duo found enough growth and stability to bring another employee onto their team, Dawn Johnson. Johnson began working with First Class Mortgage at 21 years old, managing her time with them, class, and homework, as well as her personal life.
“Dawn is the first employee we hired, and she’s been with us nearly the entire time. Since hiring her, we’ve grown and added some special people that we’re grateful to have on our team. The majority of our employees have been with us long-term, which I credit as a truly significant part of our success. As customers get used to working with us, they know who to call and feel comfortable with our team members,” Van Winkle said.
With a small team of passionate individuals, the company went in facing a struggling economy and a highly competitive market. However, their dedication and customer-oriented approach set them apart, laying the foundation for their future growth.
As they made an impact and cemented themselves further into the Fargo-Moorhead mortgage industry, they found themselves with the opportunity to further expand their team, along with their reach. What began as a small team of two, then three slowly grew to 35 dedicated employees. As their team grew, their dedication and care for the team never waned. “We have a fun, laid-back office where we all get along. We’ve grown up together through becoming parents, going to graduation ceremonies, and so much more,” Dean said.
“We’re a big believer in putting family first. Work will always be there. If you have a sporting event, choir concert, or whatever else it may be, we want them to be able to go out and have fun. People already spend a lot of time at their office, so we want to make sure that family comes first in ours,” Van Winkle said.
They expanded not only in the size of their team, but also in their reach and impact on other states. When they first began, Van Winkle and Dean were only licensed in North Dakota and Minnesota. Since then, the team has added South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona over the years. Now, they’re looking into expanding to Florida next.
“There have been so many changes in the mortgage industry, from constantly-changing guidelines and technology to historical moments, such as the 2008 recession. With constantly changing rules and regulations, our tagline is ‘Our expertise, your peace of mind.’ We believe that a customer shouldn’t have to do the work. If they have questions, they can call us and our experts are happy to help, no matter their situation. We’ll listen, ask questions, and find them the perfect product for a solution.”– Dan Van Winkle, Co-Owner of First Class Mortgage
As First Class Mortgage grew, their dedication to providing outstanding service became their defining quality. Focused on being open, and communicative, and developing strong client relationships, they earned a reputation for excellence in the mortgage industry. Through referrals and positive feedback, the company expanded its customer base, establishing itself as a trusted and dependable mortgage provider.
“Since starting, we’ve always focused on and taken care of the purchase market. We know that if you take care of the homebuyer, they’ll call back for your service when it comes time to refinance. We’ve always followed the model of doing the right thing for the customer and always being there for them, from the application to after their closing. If any customer ever has questions, they can always walk in here and get it taken care of. Dan and I have been here since day one, and we’ll be here to service those clients for as long as we can,” Dean said.
Their care and attentiveness to their industry reputation goes beyond their customer-oriented approach with a strong focus on industry-backed credibility and experience. First Class Mortgage continues to learn and grow with consistent continued education through online classes, webinars, and national conventions. Two years ago, Van Winkle and Dean became certified mortgage advisors, which is an advanced designation for mortgage professionals.
“We are always continuing to learn, understand, and improve the processes within First Class Mortgage. Before we opened, we had a company do a survey on what Fargo-Moorhead residents needed from a mortgage company. One of the main takeaways was that there was very little communication with the agents. We focus on the purchase market with agents, along with the purchase itself, and make it run efficiently. One of our most significant factors of success has stemmed from how we differentiate ourselves from others, which is through communication,” Van Winkle said.
Every week, the team at First Class Mortgage is one of the few lenders that send out status reports to agents and customers on purchase transactions to keep them informed at all times. This way, they never have to check on the progress of their application, as they already get status updates.
Furthermore, they’ve always looked at customers as “borrowers for life,” according to Van Winkle. They aim to educate customers, help them understand the processes, and listen to their goals and needs. With word of mouth playing such a crucial role in their industry, they know that one experience can help or hinder their reputation across the community.
“Word of mouth is a large factor in this business, and no plan is ever one-size-fits-all. We try to tailor-make the loan product based on a customer’s wants and needs. At the end of the day, we feel that if we do what’s right for the borrower, they’ll reach out to us with any questions they may have or refer other customers. Rather than spend money on advertising or marketing, we spend money on caring for our borrowers. If you do that, at the end of the day, the borrowers will take care of you,” Van Winkle said.
Despite First Class Mortgage’s growing success and reputation, the company still holds the same values as it did at the beginning. Van Winkle and Dean continue to work on getting to know the people around them on a personal level.
“We’ve been to Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Florida, and other places to meet account executives to see where the process takes place. We enjoy getting to know the underwriters personally. You can pick up the phone and talk to them, but you’re not going to get to actually know them as well. We’ve had a group from Chicago fly out just to see our office and hang out with us because we have a great personal relationship with them,” Dean said.
The First Class Mortgage team regularly involves themselves with charitable organizations and causes, such as Giving Hearts Day and Realtor Ring Day!
“I love working with Dan at First Class Mortgage! My clients have received exceptional service across the boards. Whether they are purchasing for the 1st time or the 10th time, I know they will receive the same great care and quality service each and every time. The best thing is that I never have to worry about my clients and their experience with First Class. They are the real deal!”– Jenny Schuster, Park Co., Realtors
“I’ve done quite a few mortgages with First Class Mortgage over the last 17 years. It’s easy to go back to them again and again because they’ll jump any hoops needed to get their clients the best deal and educate them on what a mortgage is all about. The entire First Class Mortgage team works as much as they need to get the best deal for any client.”– Rob Lee
Outside of working relationships and maintaining their care for the customer, First Class Mortgage understands the importance of engaging with the local community and making meaningful contributions to improve the Fargo-Moorhead area. First Class Mortgage often works with local charities such as Make-A-Wish North Dakota. Their involvement has impacted countless lives across the community and created a significant positive impact on our community members.
“In addition, each year around the holidays, we buy presents for families in need as a team. We like to give locally so that we know where it’s going and it’s directly supporting our community. We break into two groups, each group buys gifts for those in need, and then we share why we got each gift and deliver them. It’s a fun bonding experience and a great way to give back to our wonderful community,” Van Winkle said.
Did You Know?
The team at First Class Mortgage is celebrating their 20th anniversary this summer!
Giving back to the community is one of the few ways that Van Winkle, Dean, and the rest of the First Class Mortgage team can thank the Fargo-Moorhead community for helping them find success and growth over the last 20 years.
“One of the keys to our success that we always credit has been the growth of the Fargo-Moorhead community. We’ve always been very active with the Realty Association, and they’ve always been great to us in return. We live and work in such a great, growing community and this area has expanded in so many directions over the last 20 years and isn’t slowing down. Fargo-Moorhead is big enough to be a notable business community, but yet small enough to remain locally owned and community-oriented,” Van Winkle said.
From its modest start in 2003 to its growth into a respected company figure in Fargo today, First Class Mortgage’s story showcases the importance of persistence, outstanding customer service, and community involvement. By staying true to their principles and adjusting to industry developments, the company has achieved impressive progress. As they keep serving Fargo residents and extending their influence, First Class Mortgage remains dedicated to providing exceptional service and upholding its status as a local mortgage industry leader.