Industry Watch

The closer: Cindy Koebele

Real estate closer TitleSmart fuels fast growth with full service

Founded just prior to housing bubble burst, company led by Cindy Koebele survived and now thrives in Twin Cities area

By Erica Rivera
Friday, November 21, 2014

Most people’s reference point for title companies is summed up as “that time I nervously signed a stack of papers at a conference table while buying a house.” But the job of a “closer” is far more complex than collating paperwork.
Cindy Koebele should know. Her company, TitleSmart averaged 4,400 closings annually in 2012 and 2013. Now with seven locations throughout the metro, Koebele expects closings to reach 5,500 this year.
Koebele’s career in real estate began unexpectedly. After two terms at Northwestern University, she moved back home to White Bear Lake and decided to get a full-time job instead of finishing school. Her mother, a mortgage officer at the time, mentioned that a title company was hiring. Koebele interviewed and started manning the front desk a day later, earning about $1,000 a month. 
She stayed in the real estate industry for the next two decades, gravitating toward positions in title companies. After five years as the vice president of one such company, she decided it was time to open her own business. She teamed up with her sister, Angela Shackle, who was a closer and branch manager. 
“We really believed in creating and maintaining a level of service that we didn’t see being offered on a consistent level by any of the title companies we interacted with,” Koebele says. “We’ve built our business on the idea that even though the title insurance process can be legalistic and transaction-focused, we will never forget that the most important aspect is the people and how they feel when they’re working with us.”
The title company enters a real estate transaction after a binding purchase agreement has been signed by both buyer and seller. It completes a title search and transfer and handles the distribution of funds at closing, which can include collecting and cutting checks for the buyer, seller, their respective mortgage companies, and the real estate agent’s commissions. It also ensures fees due to the county are paid, establishes escrow accounts, and records the documents from the transaction with the county. Finally, it issues an insurance policy underwritten to guarantee the title of the property.
While there are cases where closings take place in an attorney’s office or at home — what are known as “kitchen table closings”—these can be troublesome because underwriters are not involved, potentially resulting in legal issues down the line.
“Cindy has that sixth sense when there’s a red flag or something’s not feeling right on a file,” says Judy Craig, an agent with Edina Realty who closes transactions with TitleSmart at least twice a month. “She has that radar. She knows how to make sure there are no problems on a file and when there is one, she knows what to do about it.”
Dealing with all the minutiae of buying or selling property can be anxiety-provoking, especially when buyers and sellers have been scrambling to pack up and move. An effective closer smoothes the transition and exercises a laser-like attention to detail on the closing documents.
“Buying a house is the American dream,” Koebele says. “We want to make it fun and exciting. From our staff members to our office spaces, we cater to whatever they need.”
A staff of about 40 makes the thousands of annual closings at TitleSmart possible. “Our hiring and incentive strategy focuses on getting the best people working here,” Koebele says. “They’re longtime closers with a book of business that want to work with a company where the owners are on hand and have a lot of marketing systems in place so they can provide really good service to our customers.” 
TitleSmart’s closers work on 100 percent commission, which fosters an entrepreneurial office culture. “When they do well, it trickles down and the company does well,” Koebele says.
Currently, all but one of TitleSmart’s employees are female, which Koebele claims is coincidental. “Women prefer the field,” she says.  “They’re good at dealing with the stress levels at closing. We want to hire more men on our staff; they just don’t apply.”
Founded in 2007, TitleSmart faced its biggest challenge in its first year. “We expected to be busier than we were,” Koebele explains. “We didn’t realize the housing bubble was about to burst. It was absolutely the worst time.” Salary reductions and borrowing more capital for the business became necessary. “There were a few months there where I thought, ‘This might not work.’ But we always seemed to have just the right amount of what we needed. The next year got a little bit busier, and the year after that, 2009, things just took off.”
TitleSmart was recently named to the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States.
Koebele credits her company’s success to a sharp and consistent focus, upbeat staff, and off-site closing flexibility. “We’re always on the lookout for innovative ways to make our closings stand out in the most positive way,” she says. To make the closing process as painless as possible, TitleSmart incorporates personal touches, such as serving clients gourmet coffee and warm cookies and giving away branded trinkets, including pizza cutters, mugs, and pens.
“I walk into other companies sometimes and they don’t even have coffee made,” she says. 
Going the extra mile is the standard operating procedure at TitleSmart, as is being available and accommodating. “One of the biggest things that sets us apart is our response time,” Koebele says. “When people email or call, they’ll get us or they’ll get a quick response back,” whether it’s during business hours, on a Friday night, or an early Sunday morning. “We make sure that we are on top of things.”
Koebele nurtures relationships not only with buyers and sellers, but also with real estate agents, loan officers, and other professionals in the industry. “We work on those relationships daily,” she says.
TitleSmart maintains an active presence on social media, appears and advertises on the WCCO Real Estate Radio Hour, and participates in community causes like a 5K run to benefit ALS research. It also recently hosted an annual event where more than 500 customers and vendors convened on a riverboat in Stillwater for dinner, drinks, and DJ tunes. 
“There is a sense of gratitude in their business,” says Craig. “There are times when life is really busy, like at the end of the month, and other title companies make you feel like you’re adding to their burden. Cindy might be super busy, but she’s always appreciative and never makes me feel like a number.”
That dedication to individualized service has paid off in customer loyalty. As Koebele says, “We built this business one customer at a time.”