An interview with Curt Altig, Founder and CEO of Builders Capital
By Theresa Torseth, Founder/Managing Partner, Human Securities Executive Search
Curt Altig started Builders Capital in 2009 with a goal of creating a niche for builders and real estate investors to meet the growing need for private, and perhaps more flexible, financing options. The company today is focused on mortgage banking, building, construction lending, sales and accounting, and it is proud to serve the Pacific Northwest region ,where companies such as Nike, Amazon and Starbucks were founded and still call home.
In our third installment of The Human Factor, where we have people-centric discussion with real estate industry leaders, we explore the values, culture and ideas that shape companies and their successes, and we try to identify those attributes that will contribute to their legacy.
Curt, we’re used to thinking of Builders Capital as a non-bank lender to commercial real estate home builders, but today the conversation really is about the human factors that make your company successful. Let’s talk a little bit about when you were first starting Builders Capital. It was a risky time to start a business as both banking and real estate were in the deepest recession of your lifetime. What were the core values or cultural elements that you consciously built into your organization?
I came out of a corporate environment and had a large team, but I had a relatively small management group of about 15 to 20 people. We had worked worked well as a small team, so I came into my own startup with a very clear vision as to what I wanted. I knew that a lot of unexpected things were going to happen in the beginning, and so we needed to have people who were flexible and adventurous.
I looked at things that happened unexpectedly with curiosity instead of fear. Honesty, integrity and work ethic. To me those are values, but they’re also prerequisites for a new hire. Given that I could only hire a few people at the start, I asked myself, ‘What characteristics do I want to see?’ Making character a priority actually led to a fair amount of training people up in the business. There are two or three people who are still with the organization today who were chosen specifically for their attitude and demeanor. They didn’t really have any pre-formed expectations, so when things didn’t go as planned—which often happens in a small business startup—they were curious and willing. That quality turned out to be more important than I probably even recognized at the time.
“I looked at things that happened unexpectedly with curiosity instead of fear.”
So, when looking at hiring people and weighing the scale between skill and character, how do you balance it?
You know, I’ve hired people on and off for almost 25 years now. It is true in the corporate environment, and it is true here: the foundation of the character, attitude and personality are much more highly weighted than the skill. You can develop the skill from just raw talent into something that’s totally new or hone and perfect a set of skills to give specific application to an industry. I absolutely lean on the character side. Outside of the specialties that we rely on a fair amount like CPAs and lawyers, most of the rest of the required skills can be trained and developed.
‘Hire character, train skill.’ That’s one of the items of our manifesto. You are continuing to grow. As you’re interviewing people, what’s the one trait or characteristic that you find most often lacking in people, and you’d like to see more of it?
There are two traits that are most difficult to assess upfront. One is resilience; how quickly they recover from a mistake or how they preform under duress. What I have found is that there is a direct connection to how protracted the negative outcome is with the quickness we are able to assess the problem, determine what’s gone wrong and recover. We succeed or we fail as a group.
The second trait is interpersonal communication. I think people’s ability to interpersonally communicate effectively is an increasing challenge as the organization grows. It’s critical in an organization like ours to create a culture where face-to-face communication is the best form for anything that has meaning beyond the transfer of information. There is a growing tendency to want to handle sensitive information or a delicate conversation over technology.
We’re spending a lot more time on personal communication now than at any stage of my career. One reason is smart phones that are sitting in front of us right now. The constant use of this technology to replace personal interaction can create a communication problem within an organization, even one of our size.
You’ve been able to form a pretty tight group here in the Seattle office, but now not all people on your team are working from that office. How do you envision keeping the interpersonal communication open with your people who have only remote access?
Interestingly enough, I think that as much as technology is part of the problem here, it is also part of the solution. We have begun to test and utilize some of the technology to try to incorporate as much nonverbal and verbal communication as possible. For instance, we’ll have a meeting over Skype or similar technology. We can be in a room, have a screen up on the wall, add two or three people to the meeting and utilize technology to benefit our organization. With that technology available to us, I still think making sure that when we have something serious to talk about, we have the courage and the respect for one another to do that face-to-face.
As you interview more and more, what’s one of your favorite questions that you like to ask about a person’s character during an interview?
I have found that there is a set of situational type questions that cause someone to think a little bit deeper than, “What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve ever had?” I usually ask for a story about a circumstance in which they were challenged when they had leadership or involvement with a group. It’s difficult to create a made-up scenario that really puts someone under pressure, but it’s better than not approaching those topics. When you start asking questions like that, you get more than the easy ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Did they feel the need to defend their actions or did they move forward with the team and fix it? That is very indicative of how they will show up when they’re not in that interview environment. In a small team, you really have to nip that defensive quality in the bud.
It’s that unwillingness to be humble and accept that you rise and fall together that’s unacceptable. It’s a collective effort.
Then you’re looking to weed out the person who says, ‘I take credit’ for successes or ‘I assign blame’ for failures?
Right. It’s that unwillingness to be humble and accept that you rise and fall together that’s unacceptable. It’s a collective effort. We look to hire people who understand and live by that.
Well you’ve chosen well thus far and have built a good team around you. Here’s to your continued success!
About the Author
Clients repeatedly turn to Theresa Torseth for her rigorous hiring process, revealing interviewing and astute assessment of the nuances of people. By applying these attributes to both the candidates and her clients, she gets to know the organizations she works with—the organizational structure, product delivery and the specific weave of the human interactions. In the end, it’s her genuine curiosity and caring that make a difference.
Theresa has led over 250 mid to executive searches in commercial real estate, manufacturing, consumer brands and not-for-profit leadership. Over 90 percent of searches come from referrals or repeat clients.