Stewart’s Iain Bryant discusses the challenges facing the title industry

By Real Estate News

Like many in title, Iain Bryant, the newly appointed president of Stewart Title’s agency division, found his way into the industry through family. Bryant’s father founded A.S.K. Services, a title production business, in 1990, and after growing up surrounded by the title industry, Bryant said he was determined to never be part of the industry.

“My dad also had a rule for all of his children that once you graduated, you couldn’t come back and work in the business until you’d done something else,” Bryant said.

This, combined with Bryant’s desire to stay out of title insurance, led him to medical device sales and eventually to Gartner, a technology consulting company. But in 2013, Bryant’s father called and asked him to join the family business. After eventually buying his father out of the business with his brother, the family firm was eventually acquired by Stewart in 2021, leading Bryant to his current role at the firm.

Although Bryant is excited for the new challenges ahead as the head of Stewart’s agency division, he is well aware that it is a difficult time for the title industry. HousingWire recently caught up with Bryant to discuss some of those challenges and everything going on at Stewart Title.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brooklee Han: You’ve recently taken over Stewart’s agency division. What are some of your main goals for this division?

Iain Bryant: It is not really a course change for us. Much of where our focus was is where it will continue to be. I feel very privileged to walk into a really great leadership and a great set of agency sales folks all across the country, so I can’t say right out of the gate there is any real change other than continuing the momentum that we already have.

I think some of the defining reasons why Stewart has made progress over the last few years — we have signed a ton of new agents not just in my area, but all across the country — is because Stewart is an underwriter who cares, and has capabilities and resources. We have the integrations. We have the reserves. We have the strength and quality of underwriting, and we pair that with a size of entity that is still agile and that can still move quickly based on what our agents are telling us.

I think the intent of our organization from the top down, starting with our CEO, is building a business off the independent agent model, where you listen, you build the capabilities they need, and you deploy with an intent for shared economics — that is what we are pursuing with the agent group. There are other underwriters that have that intent, that are entrepreneurial and agile, but they don’t have the reserves or the integrations and so, marrying those two things together, I think has given agents a unique option in this space and that is why we have seen really significant growth.

BH: With everything going on in the real estate brokerage space, a lot of company leaders are having similar conversations about what they are offering their agents and franchisees in terms of support and resources, so it is interesting to hear that a similar trend is occurring in the title space.

Bryant: The way that the underwriter-agent relationship has functioned in the past, and it has been the same for about 50 years, I think, is going to look a lot different in the next five years. That is because our clients’ world is changing. There is what is happening upstream with the National Association of Realtors and the commission lawsuits, but there is also the fact that the market’s dropping. There are economic pressures like we haven’t seen and fraud is on the rise, putting an incredible amount of pressure on independent agents, and of course the talent drain, and I don’t think we have ever seen a convergence of forces like this before in the industry.

But this creates an opportunity for partners to show up in new ways and I think if we can do this like we should, and really listen to our agent and are cognizant of their changing world and provide solutions that help them, then we or the underwriter who does, will win.

BH: What are some of the solutions you are currently looking into, to help agents with?

Bryant: One of my greatest fears is that sometimes you see people enter roles like mine and they enter with an eagerness to listen, a willingness to change and a desire to win, but over time they become farther and farther removed from their clients .And what eventually happens is they end up managing outside in instead of inside out and that is when companies start the slow descent into irrelevance. That is my fear for myself, so to guard against that I think it is so vital that I am out in front of agents, listening to our sales reps and absorbing what is going on in the street because that needs to inform our strategy.

As an example, one of the other executives here, who is basically the division’s CFO, was part of a program where we would help agents with acquisitions and it became apparent during some of those conversations that when our CFO would get In front of these agents, the level of conversation began to be at a depth and disclosure that we had not experienced before and we started really understanding what agents are wondering about — things like variable pay ratios as it related to their sales people, or how much labor costs they are carrying versus the rest of the industry.

We turned around from some of these conversations and he built out a suite of services that we now offer our agents called the financial advisory program and they can use that to compare their financials to the greater market and other benchmarks. Very tangible insights emerge from those engagements and that is real value for them. Of course, marketing and SEO coaching is important, but at the end of the day, when I was running my business, I want to know what lever I need to turn and how I am performing against the industry and against the benchmarking data.

That is just  one example of a capability we brought to agents and ultimately I want to do more of that. How do we take this 7,000 person organization that is Stewart Title and equip a two-person independent agent shop with the same capabilities?

BH: Stewart has been focused on growing market share. How do advancements like this one help the company move closer to its growth goals?

Bryant: The challenge for organic growth in the underwriter space is an ongoing one across the industry. If you look at the trend lines of what underwriters do as a whole, the only way they sustainably grow and gain market share has historically been via acquisition. Very few underwriters at a national scale have ever achieved sustainable growth nationwide — it is a mature industry, and it is hard to do.

But title is a local business. At Stewart I think our success or failure as it relates to growing agency comes down to our ability to tailor our approaches and strategies per market. What makes Stewart look like a great agency partner in Indiana is going to share some qualities of what we do in Florida, but there are going to be a lot of nuances in how we approach the agent’s business and how we create value there.

Our ability to customize on a per state or a per agent basis and deliver our products, services and resources is going to dictate whether or not we are going to grow in those markets. That being said, we are starting to see significant pockets of growth in our agency division in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Texas. That growth is always tied back to our understanding of the markets and the agents and our ability to bring our capabilities to bear in a unique way.

BH: It has been a rather newsy time for the title industry as of late. What do you feel are some of the biggest storylines?

Bryant: That the entities that are going to feel the most impact from a lot of these items are independent title agents, whether it is things like attorney opinion letters, title waiver programs — there is a lot going on as it relates to what we need to be doing as an industry to advocate both for ourselves and our independent agents. Stewart and many others are actively engaged in discussions in D.C. because those are really important for our survival.

But at the end of the day, I try to think about this from the standpoint of an independent agent. I think what is going to be important is for them to look at their operating models and look at how they are engaging with their clients and begin to understand their client and what they want from the transaction, and also what the consumer wants and needs. And then how as a title agent they can equip real estate brokers and agents with materials to better show their value to the consumer and better educate them.