Stewart Information’s Eppinger to capitalize on century-old title insurance brand


One of Houston’s oldest companies is hoping for a revival.

After a shaky few years that included a failed merger, tangles with activist investors and a board reshuffling, a new CEO at title giant Stewart Information Services Corp. has been focused on growing the business through acquisitions and extracting value from the 127-year-old brand.

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The latest acquisition, announced last month, was a portfolio of 57 title offices the company owned by ET Investments. Stewart paid $105 million for t4he offices, a deal that will grow its presence in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.

Through subsidiary Stewart Title Co., the company provides title insurance and real estate services to homebuyers and sellers, real estate agents, lenders, builders and others in the real estate industry.

Frederick Eppinger, a Stewart director since 2016, took over a year ago following his retirement as chief executive of Massachusetts-based Hanover Insurance Group, a struggling company he expanded geographically and helped rebuild into a $5 billion business.

Eppinger spoke with the Chronicle about the real estate market, the pandemic and Stewart’s plans for growth.

Q: Why did you want to take over Stewart?

A: I consider myself as someone who builds. I took Hanover from $1 billion to $5 billion and made it a much more significant company. When I was asked to do this, I saw a lot of similarities. It’s kind of why I joined the board. I’ve been interested in the company a long time. I saw a strong brand but one that had been under invested in for quite a while.

Q: What did you want to accomplish in the first year as CEO?

A: The company had been distracted. It was really important to set a direction and get us focused and fired up about the future. We did something I call the 100-day plan, which was to look at everything top to bottom and say where do we need to invest, where do we need to focus so we can create a future for another 127 years. A lot of it was getting people to focus on building our people, product and competitive position and think about investing in growth. What we’ve done from the get-go is to really try to win in every market we’re in and position ourselves to be strong and resilient.

Q: You got here and six months later we were in the midst of a global pandemic. What has that meant for the company?

A: We were in a really busy quarter and all of a sudden the world shut down. In three days we moved 75 percent of our people (to work-from-home) in the busiest period we ever had and didn’t miss a beat. We got up and running because we were cleared essential and ended up having the best first quarter we ever had and closed the most business we ever closed.

I’ll never forget what happened in those three or four weeks. The company did a good job; they came together. What’s weird about it, if you asked me back then what was going to happen to the real estate market, I thought for sure it would freeze up.

Q: And now we know that didn’t happen. It was an unexpected byproduct, wasn’t it?

A: Usually the correlation between unemployment and housing, there’s something to that, and the commercial market dried up. A logical person would say we were going into a winter period.

People were saying things are really going to slow down. What’s remarkable is, the opposite happened. Across the board, across the country, our volume exploded. The demand and the workload increased tremendously. So you went through period of fear, to transition, to “Oh my God we’re all really busy.”

Q: What’s your work-from-home plan for Stewart?

A: We can have people do closings remotely, but a lot of people want to do them in person, so we have half the people in the office one day, half the other. And we have all these partitions so we can do closings. If people feel like they need to come in, they can come in, but we have not pushed people to come in at the home office or in other offices.

Q: How long do you see that happening?

A: I’m letting the year unfold, because I do worry a little about what happens in the fall. And so many of our people, their children are doing remote learning, which is a complication for a lot of families so we’ve kind of held in this position for a while. As far as the future-future? I think there is tremendous value, particularly in a service business, where a lot of your growth and development comes from working with colleagues and learning. There’s a lot of value of in-person. I think there will be more jobs that will be more flexible about people being remote, but I don’t think it’s all going to go remote. I think you will find more of a balance going forward.

Q: The residential market is still booming, but hotels, shopping centers and other commercial properties are struggling. What is your view on commercial real estate?

A: Commercial is down worldwide. If you’re going to build an enormous project in New York, you’re going to think twice right now. They still don’t have retail open, restaurants open inside, there are no tourists. So there’s a bunch of geographies or categories that are materially down and being rethought. That said, there are a bunch of things starting to percolate and come back a little bit. Texas has not been as bad as a lot of other places in the country. The coasts have been quite challenged.

I’m very bullish on commercial long term. It’s a big part of what we’re going to do both here and internationally, but it is down.

Q: Putting the pandemic aside, you talk a lot about growth and you have made acquisitions of late. Are you looking at expanding into any new business lines?

A: We went to the capital markets and raised $100 million a few weeks ago. We believe we have a pipeline of significant opportunity for the company to invest in. We’ve done four acquisitions since I got here.

We have the opportunity to grow in our agency business in some attractive geographies. We believe there are 30 or so (Metropolitan Statistical Areas) where we can materially increase share and be better for it.

There’s some service businesses we’ve always been in. Our appraisal business is an example of that and you’ll see that business grow substantially.

Q: Innovation seems to be the buzzword of the day. How is Stewart’s innovating?

A: What is happening with technology and the digitization in so many industries is the ability to create a better customer experience. You will see us make strategic partnerships, acquisitions, maybe even outright ownership of some technology assets that allow us to do that. We’re going to announce a strategic partnership with somebody that helps and protects our customers from wire fraud. That’s one of things that keeps me up at night.

Q: Do you think the way people close on properties now is forever changed?

A: We’ve seen some uptick in remote online notary use. It’s not been as prevalent as I expected. The transaction is going to evolve and it’s going to get faster, more consistent and better every day. We’ve just introduced a really interesting product which makes for quicker title searches. That turnaround speed is a great enhancement for customers.

I think you’re going to see this march toward better customer experiences through technology. I’m not sure you’re going to see a revolution. People don’t close that often. It’s complicated because of all the regulations, rules and compliance. If you’re a real estate professional you’re going to want that to go beautifully well for your clients. People want that closing done closely to where they live. They want it convenient. So will that go away completely? No. I don’t see it for a very, very long time.

Q: You’ve recently launched a new brand campaign called “Stewart Reframed.” What are your goals in that?

A: Essentially we’re reintroducing ourselves to the market. We wanted to make sure people understood that we were going to be very responsive, very focused on our future and their future and that we’re not distracted, we’re focused. We did a refreshing of our brand. I think of it as another way to continue a dialogue with the markets and our customers and make sure they know who we are and where we’re going and what we’re becoming.

I feel like our people are very much present. They are very focused on the company and growing the company and are proud of the company. And it’s being demonstrated in a way that a lot of our our partners and customers are recognizing, which makes me feel good.

Our marketing group did a great job with a logo and refreshing everything and we upgraded our website — some of this stuff we put off for he last couple, three, four years that we should have been investing more in.

Q: After being here a year, how do you like Houston?

A: It’s very different. The company I ran in Massachusetts was about 40 minutes outside of Boston. It’s a pretty big town for New England but it’s nothing like Houston. We were the biggest company in the town I was in. Here you’re just a piece of a much bigger economic landscape.

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