Brian Hale, MetLife Bank's president of mortgage banking, says he wants to make the lender a "material competitor" to the top four. He has his work cut out for him.

After all, MetLife ranks 15th among home loan originators, with a 1% share, in a market where the top four write more than half of all the business.

But Hale says MetLife has an advantage, at least when it comes to recruitment: considerably less baggage.

Unlike many of the large banks, MetLife has not been severely tarred by the mortgage crisis or saddled with the legacy loans that have prolonged financial woes for some companies.

"To some degree part of our value proposition to people who come to work for us is, we're not them," said Hale, 65, a 30-year mortgage industry veteran and the former president of the consumer markets division at Countrywide Financial Corp. (an archetypal crisis casualty). "When I interview senior executives today who come from the majors, many are interested in joining an organization that is building for the future as opposed to seeing that the next three to five years are dealing with the past."

MetLife Bank, a unit of the New York insurance company MetLife Inc., has catapulted from relative obscurity in banking to become the seventh-largest depository and a contender in mortgages.

In 2008 it acquired a coast-to-coast mortgage operation from First Horizon National Corp. and a reverse mortgage lender from EverBank Financial Corp. Last year it bought the servicing portfolio of the failed AmTrust Bank.

MetLife originated $5.5 billion in mortgages in the third quarter, the most recent period for which data is available, according to National Mortgage News. It was the 10th-largest servicer, with a $117 billion portfolio.

Since joining MetLife last year, Hale, who works out of Dallas, has been recruiting executives and a sales force from all the major banks, which he says has been relatively easy because of the tough economy. "We have been overwhelmed by the number of people who want to join our organization in large markets," he said.

"Many of these organizations have taken a lot of shots," Hale said, referring not just to the steady drumbeat of bad news about banks and mortgage servicers but also to their financial troubles. "We don't generally have that issue."

MetLife hasn't fully escaped the embarrassments that have bedeviled the megaservicers. In the fall it joined other top lenders in freezing foreclosures after it discovered "irregularities" in its processes.

Though executives from Countrywide often are tainted by the association, Hale said he has no intent of taking the type of risks that wiped out or hobbled so many competitors. He said he spends "a lot of time" talking with Duane Elmer, the bank's new chief risk officer, a former senior vice president of credit risk management at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.

"One of the things we don't desire to be is an outlier. Because if you look at the history of the business, many have staked out a position and gotten run over from behind," Hale said.

At Countrywide, Hale was in charge of the sales force that worked with real estate agents and home builders to drive new mortgage business.

When asked how MetLife would capture market share, Hale replied, with John Houseman-style sarcasm: "By selling. It's an interesting strategy."

"We are where I started 30 years ago, with vanilla product. The concept of a sales force that calls on Realtors and builders is back in vogue."

To that end MetLife is focused in the top 45 key markets in the U.S.

"If you're really smart in this business, you operate where the most loans are done and where many homes are sold every day. We're making sure we're in those key markets," Hale said.

MetLife recently started a warehouse lending and correspondent division and is maintaining a dominant position in reverse mortgages, competing against Bank of America Corp. (which acquired Hale's former employer, Countrywide, at a discount in 2008) and Wells Fargo & Co.

"We want to continue to grow the bank. Not just in terms of the depository base, but in other business beyond mortgages," Hale said.

For example, chances might come up in construction lending.

"We see opportunities in being smart in timing a return to those businesses … not in creating adverse selection," Hale said. "We don't think we're smarter than anybody else."

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