In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we reached out to several prominent Hispanic leaders in the housing and mortgage industry to celebrate their success, learn from their experience and gain insight into the challenges facing the mortgage industry. Today, we’re happy to share this interview with Eddy Perez, CEO & Co-founder of Equity Prime Mortgage.
Eddy shares his father’s dangerous escape from Cuba, the importance of mental health and his deathbed promise to leave the world a better place.
Your family immigrated to the United States from Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power. Can you share a bit about their experience and what the U.S. meant to them?
My dad had a wild story about leaving Cuba: He was on the Cuban national baseball team and had an intestinal infection. But, instead of believing he was sick, the government thought he was starting a coup because that's the kind of paranoia that existed in Cuba. They sent one of his childhood friends to kill him, but come to find out, he was extremely sick. That's when my father pretty much determined that if you don't have a country, you don't have anything. So, over a 3-4 month period, he watched and saw that the military off Guantanamo Bay wasn’t doing a good job of watching the rowboats, so he and 6 others stole a rowboat and rowed to freedom. They spent 3 days at sea and landed in Miami the day before Thanksgiving in 1964. My father was homeless his first week in this country.
For my mother, it was different because my grandfather had a pretty good net worth in Cuba, but he lost it all when it was seized. What he had left, he traded for tobacco and sugar because back then, you could trade with some of the communists. So, he traded to get my mom on a cruise ship to Spain. She had to legally emigrate because she had lost her refugee status. She spent 3 ½ years in Spain before a family in Atlanta sponsored her to come to the U.S. My father eventually met my mom in Atlanta.
Did they have the impression that they were just going to be here for a bit, and eventually things were going to go back to the way they were? Or, was it “we're in the U.S., this is it… know we're going to settle in for the long haul and this is home now permanently?”
They knew there was no hope that Cuba was going to be restored, especially after the Bay of Pigs. When Russia got involved, they knew it would potentially create a world war, like it pretty much did. With the Cuban missile crisis, they knew that America was going to be their home for the future and they had to make a life out of it.
You mentioned your father was homeless, at first. How did he go from being homeless to meeting your mom?
One thing my father always said – and it's true – is that Americans are pretty kind. Fellow Americans gave my dad food and helped him out while he slept on the beaches.
What a lot of people don't realize is that back then Miami was not what it is today, especially with so many Cubans and Latinos. It was more of a Jewish town, so he received a lot of kindness from the Jewish community. That's how he got a job on his second or third day in this country. He slept on benches and when he got a job that paid him daily, he was able to rent a place daily. And then, he got an apartment a month later. He did it the old-fashioned way – by his bootstraps.
My father was a tough man and was motivated. He was the first one to get out and felt like he had to get the rest of his family out. He had a lot of determination to have a better life. Even though he was on the Cuban national baseball team, which probably would have generated a decent life for him, he didn't think it was going to be good for his family overall. I commend him on his courage and boldness. He would humbly say, “Yes, it was November, but it was still 70 degrees in Miami. It wasn’t that cold.”
Were you aware of this history when you were growing up?
I knew it early on. I also knew my uncle survived a firing squad every night for a year and a half. They were not shy about it. But they also said, “Look at what this country provided us!” Because by then, they were all homeowners and had their own businesses…you know, regular middle class. They said there was so much opportunity in this country if you're just willing to take it. Yes, you're going to make mistakes, things won’t always go your ways but at least you have a place to recover.
When I was about 15, I realized the gravity of the situation: that my dad stole a boat and rowed to freedom. I asked my father, “How did you do it?” And he said to me in Spanish, “Freedom is everything. Freedom of mind, freedom of spirit, freedom of how you act, freedom of how you want to live. There is nothing more quintessential to humans than freedom.”
At his funeral, some of the people who were on that rowboat came up to me and thanked me because they said he was the one who led the charge. As the old saying goes, it's the person that's willing to die that always wins, and my father was literally willing to die.
What were you like growing up? What sort of future did you envision for yourself? Who were some of your biggest influences?
I’ve always had a lot of energy. I like sports and I like to run. I've always liked having people around and meeting new people so I guess you could say I'm a big extrovert. I think amazing life is precious, and you only get so much time so you shouldn’t waste it being negative or letting other people drag you down.
I’ve always enjoyed learning and have been a curious person, but I wouldn’t say I was studious. Some subjects absolutely bored me because I had no interest in them. I was a fan of family background, history, social studies and even English. I was very, very good at math.
How did you get started in the mortgage business, and how did that lead to the founding of Equity Prime Mortgage?
I almost became a baseball player, until I got hurt. Once baseball ended, I started studying accounting in college because they tell you accounting is the language of business. But when I got there, I thought, “Oh, this is not for me, I’m not a bean counter. They’re not seeing the big picture.” So, I went to my counselor and he suggested finance. He said, “Something tells me you’ll be intrigued.” And sure enough, I liked learning about investing in stocks, how to grow a business, how to leverage debt, and how to make sure cash flows. I liked the essence of financing. Accounting may be the language of business, but finance is the strategy of business, the psychological evaluation of business. It plays more to my personality.
I got into finance and I did stocks first. Then after the dot-com crash somebody said I should try mortgages, which is real estate finance. It interested me. And my father was a contractor, who worked for builders putting up residential homes so residential finance seemed very natural. When I was 5 years old, I would go to the construction site just to have time with him. He helped me get builder accounts. I came in on the origination side.
It was very natural to help build the homeownership dream, especially with me being 100% Latino. For Latinos, home is a central gathering place for family functions; somewhere you can go and do a lot of things. And now, homes are being revitalized because of the digital world. A lot of people are now working from home, so home is more of what I think Latinos understood early on.
In my career, I've heard some of the most fascinating stories just because I was willing to ask questions and be interested in other people. You need to ask people questions to really get to know them. At the end of the day, people just want to be heard, they want to be respected. If you lead with that level of respect, you’ll be shocked at what you get and how far your career will go.
Let's pivot back to another type of winning. Equity Prime Mortgage is doing very well. Was there ever a time when you were concerned about the future of the company? Or, did you pretty much open the doors and the money just came pouring in?
Definitely not the latter. There were a lot of scary times. We moved from being a broker to a banker. We felt it was about to become a very tumultuous market for the wholesale market because there were some big players trying to make brokers the scapegoats, which wasn’t true. Thank God for being young and naive: We thought it was going to be easier and we had the philosophy of “If we fail now it's better, because we can recover quicker.” But yeah, I'm very proud of what we've built here as an organization, very proud of the many leaders who have stepped up and really grown. I’m proud of how much we personally develop people, but it's come with a dear price. But it was worth it. I've seen the organization go from 2 to 500 employees. I've seen some people have marvelous careers, and I've seen people who have left here to take a job elsewhere yet leave with a fondness of their time here. That's really the essence of leadership. You take an oath with the belief that you have the responsibility to make other people better by making them uncomfortable and challenging them out of their comfort zone into their opportunity zone.
Through the years, I’ve learned how important it is to build culture at an organization and to build vision, and to talk about it and to always be upfront and radically transparent.
As you added more people, did you get the sense that the stakes were increasing with each person because they have a family and are using this job to put a roof over their heads? Did the consequences of failure shift from being, “Hey, I failed” to all of a sudden, “Oh, my goodness, there are 500 families sitting on the other end of things?”
Yes, I've always taken that responsibility extremely seriously. I've always had the ability to do what's for the greater good because that's a belief system of mine. My parents raised me to understand and overcome adversity; to keep “tracking” and try doing everything I can.
By the same token, a lot of leaders make a mistake of saying, “Okay, if I don't make this move or let this person go, how many other people am I letting down? Sometimes you have to do what's in the best interest of the overall good. But you just have to be very transparent and you have to explain the why.
That goes back to my days of playing baseball and having your teammates rely on you. You need to look in the mirror and see what you can be doing better.
We don't have a mission statement, we have just a mission: To empower people; to lift them up. That's the great thing that we get to do through homeownership. We get to lift so many people up and help them create wealth. We give them somewhere to go. If they've had a bad day, it’s somewhere they can unwind.
You need 4 things: water, food, shelter and love. And only in homeownership do you get all 4 under one roof. Having a roof over your head is very, very important and that's what we get to do as an industry, not just in homeownership but even on the commercial and multifamily side. People still get to experience it. It's the reason why our industry exists. And in that grand scheme of things, it’s really why I tell people I don't feel like I work every day, I feel like I'm back to playing sports – it's just financial sports because you're still growing in your power and you are, to a degree, entertaining and telling people what's possible.
Question: Let’s pivot a bit to health and wellness. Anyone who follows you on LinkedIn can’t help but notice that you care about the wellbeing of the people that work at EPM, as evidenced by your onsite fitness facilities and even the ability to engage in e-sports. Tell us why this is important to you, and the impact it’s had on EPM employees.
Mental health is really important to me. I think people don’t talk about it; it’s taboo. Unfortunately, I experienced a lot of it.
In my family, my father’s youngest sister was schizophrenic and bipolar, and my dad had to help take care of my cousins. Now, later now in life, I came to the realization that – although it wasn't diagnosed – my mother had anxiety and depression; she never got over losing Cuba. After my father's and my uncle’s deaths (they both died within a 4-month period), I experienced some anxiety or post-traumatic stress so I believe mental health is really important.
I personally was able to break through it with a regimen of what I call mental fitness, which includes mental health, mental wellness, and mental strengthening.
My father dad died of heart failure because he didn't take care of his health. I made a vow to him literally on his deathbed. He was the patriarch and he said that now I’d have to lead the whole family, that they were counting on me. And I’m like, “Dude, I'm not ready.” I was only 31 at the time and I had a newborn daughter. But he was like, “You’re ready.”
My father had a mental vision, and he said just listen to me. “Son, when your time expires on this world, ask yourself what you did for your fellow man. Did you leave this world a better place?” I couldn't say yes to that at 31 but today, I could. It just became part of my mission. Growing people actually gives you inner peace. I think we're in the personal development business and we just happen to do it through mortgages.
Stress as a form of anxiety; I don't think a lot of people know that. And I think anxiety is the greatest challenge in this country. It needs to be addressed but nobody wants to talk about it because it's almost like it's cool, like “Oh, it's just my anxiety.” Well, if that's habitual, what can we work on to make it better? We need to provide an ecosystem where people feel it's safe to speak up and provide them with different avenues.
In addition to having responsibility for the people at EPM, you also have a family of your own. How do you balance the demands of running a company with being there for your family, and what sort of things do you enjoy doing to stay connected?
I'm a guy that always loved the office but one thing I’ve been doing is working from home every Wednesday so I can grow mentally. I also work from home one additional morning or afternoon – and it’s helped. I get up early and work out most days, but I get back home in time to take the kids and relieve my wife because she’s done it for so many years. And now that we have a child in high school, middle school and elementary, there are 3 different schools involved.
I’ve found that if you give your kids 30 minutes a day of your undivided attention, you'd be shocked at how important that time is and how to maximize it.
Early on, if there was any event, I had to be there because I felt like I needed to get my face out there for the sake of the organization. Now, I have more balance and I can give the opportunity to other leaders in the company and they are extremely appreciative of the experience.
I'm taking better care of my health when it comes to sleep, diet and water intake so my energy levels are higher. These are all crucial when it comes to living your best life – it's not just working hard. You can put in 12 hours a day and feel like garbage, but if you put in 10 hours, you're at optimal levels and you'll get so much further.
I’m a big believer in reading books. It's very powerful and, in my sense, very therapeutic. Reading helps me grow, helps me learn – that's part of the mental strengthening, part of the mental fitness that I mentioned earlier. It helps me get even further. You just have to allocate your energy at the proper times.
I'm a lucky man and being Latino holds a special place in my heart. I think a lot of people don’t understand how appreciative and patriotic Latinos are because they all came from some sort of repressive government. I'm not going to tell you that America is perfect, but when you start looking at where all of us came from, you can see why we’re grateful for this opportunity and just want to put our heads down and work.
The opinions and insights expressed in this Q&A are solely those of its interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of either Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corporation or any of its parent, affiliates, or subsidiaries (collectively, “MGIC”). Neither MGIC nor any of its officers, directors, employees or agents makes any representations or warranties of any kind regarding the soundness, reliability, accuracy or completeness of any opinion, insight, recommendation, data, or other information contained in this blog, or its suitability for any intended purpose."