As president of American Financial Resources, Laura Brandao is the magnetic leader who helped launch a needed networking organization for women in the mortgage industry, while cementing AFR as one of the nation’s leading specialty lenders. A skilled executive, Laura seamlessly rolls out new products based on market demand, and is a well-regarded champion for brokers, builders and other partners, frequently asked to share her infectious passion for bringing more families home.
“Nobody gets into the mortgage business on purpose,” jests Laura. It’s an inside joke in the industry, that happens to be totally true! Everyone has a story. “The industry pulls you in, or, you accidentally fall in,” she says.
“Regardless of your particular path, each work experience, each position, each lesson learned can prepare you for leadership.”
Phone Skills that Launched a Career
Laura’s story starts when she was a young mom. She wanted to work, but she also wanted to stay home with her young son. Looking for something that she could do in the evenings once her husband got home from work, Laura found a telemarketing job. She started out conducting surveys, and quickly proved to her supervisors that she could sell anything. Working the phones every night after dinner, Laura sold everything from Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias to Prodigy subscriptions and Tony Robbins’ books. She even found success raising funds for Consumer Reports. But the account that put Laura on a path to a career in the mortgage industry was Champion Mortgage. You may recall their slogan, “when your bank says no, Champion says yes.”
Laura relished the opportunity to provide value to homeowners every time she picked up the phone, and in most cases, save them a lot of money! Turns out she had a knack for explaining the beneﬁts of reﬁnancing, during a time when homeowners carrying interest rates as high as 15% where able to bring them down to about 6% with a simple reﬁ. Laura quickly moved up to management, where she was so successful hiring and teaching others about mortgages that by the time she had her second son, she was running the entire call center. She recalls fondly how she led her team from the trenches, on the ﬂoor racing among her rows of telemarketers to answer questions. Laura managed 200 people on the phone every night from 6-9pm, selling REFIs.
After a few years running the call center, her boys were out of diapers and Laura was ready to make the leap to working fulltime, during daytime hours. Naturally, she went to work for a mortgage company. She quickly recognized that the company did not have a strong operations team, so she took it upon herself to learn everything she could about how to process loans. Laura became Chief Operating Oﬃcer of thPeople’s Mortgage a few years shy of her 30 birthday.
Detours Can Provide Personal Growth
Although she had achieved spectacular success at a young age, Laura had a goal of becoming an entrepreneur. “I knew I wanted to run my own business, but I had no idea what type of business or in what industry,” she admits.
While she was trying to ﬁgure it out, Laura jumped out of the mortgage business entirely, and went to work for a wire/cable company to run their sales department. “I did well, but it was boring; there was no challenge,” she recalls.
One Sunday, Laura was compelled to look in the want ads. She saw that a mortgage company she had applied to previously, and turned down their job oﬀer, was looking for a telemarketing supervisor. She had no interest in the position, but wanted to call the owner to reconnect.
“I was not available, and had no idea why I wanted to talk to him, but when I get a feeling in my gut, I have learned to listen!” Laura shares.
So, Laura scheduled a meeting. She entered the owner’s oﬃce, not really sure why she was there, and then decided on the spot what kind of company she wanted to run. “I just started a marketing consulting company,” she heard herself say, “I can set up your telemarketing department for you, train them, and leave you with a playbook.”
Laura was back to training telemarketers at night as a marketing consultant. After implementing a new CRM at the cable company, her day job, she was hired by the CRM owners to do their marketing, as well.
“Sometimes, you have to build your own doors to be able to walk through them,” quips Laura.
A Business Built Out of Ashes
In 2007, Laura was oﬀered a position to launch a wholesale division at American Financial Resources (AFR). Given nothing more than a phone, a computer and a desk, Laura took on the challenge to build a mortgage business while the housing market was crashing. The reputation of lenders was suﬀering, people were losing their jobs, yet Laura decided to seize the opportunity to work with trustworthy mortgage brokers to help provide home ﬁnancing to families. Laura ran toward the ﬁre and AFR Wholesale was born.
Laura became an AFR partner in 2009, followed by her ascension to Executive Vice President, then Chief Operations Oﬃcer, and she now serves the company as President. Laura is proud that AFR has grown into a national leader in specialized programs during her tenure, and even more proud of how the industry worked together to meet the challenges of an unprecedented year, and continues to work to become more inclusive and committed to training the next generation of mortgage professionals.
Leading Through Challenges
Throughout her career, Laura has faced numerous challenges that either required her to pivot or simply ﬁgure out how to get through. Building the wholesale business at AFR was certainly among her greatest challenges.
“We had to decide who we were going to become,” she recalls. AFR Wholesale initially only oﬀered FHA loans, and grew into the specialty lender it is today, after some trial and error. “We learned that you can’t be everything to everyone.”
AFR tried adding various programs as it grew in its early years. “You have to go through the journey, and sometimes you have to make mistakes to learn.” By 2012, AFR ﬁnetuned its focus on renovation, manufactured housing, onetime close construction and government lending. “We learned who we were and what we wanted to be the best at,” Laura recalls. “We succeeded by specializing in specialized lending.”
“At AFR we have always been single-mindedly focused on helping our customers achieve their goals, while we never lose sight of ours…bringing families home.”
A challenge Laura faced more recently was addressing a downturn in proﬁtability due to margin compression. The ﬁnancial environment forced her to ﬁgure out how to gather more clients and more business, to achieve the same level of proﬁt. Fortunately, Laura had the foresight to support the Association of Independent Mortgage Experts (AIME) in the organization’s infancy. The number of independent mortgage brokers was growing, and gobbling up market share from traditional bank lenders. AFR was able to signiﬁcantly grow its community of client partners, thanks to connections made through AIME’s growing network.
In fact, after presenting at an AIME event, and hearing from a number of attendees about how great it was to see a woman in a leadership position, Laura recognized the need for an aﬃnity group for women and approached AIME. The organization fully supported the idea, and dedicated resources to bring the concept to fruition, and the Women’s Mortgage Network was born. WMN grew from 50 women invited to a summit in March to a thriving group of more than 2,300 members…in just nine months…during a pandemic.
Connecting, educating, and empowering women across the industry, Laura has become a beacon of what is possible and an inspirational leader, evidenced by a myriad of industry awards and honors.
Laura is well known for her eﬀervescent positivity. So it comes as no surprise that she does not like to think of mistakes as failures. “You win or you learn,” she says. “Our lives are ﬁlled with learning opportunities which contribute to our success.”
When asked if she had any lessons learned that she would impart to her younger self, Laura espoused, “Everything you go through will teach you something. If things don’t go exactly as you planned, you will learn a lesson. So pay attention!”
She believes continuous learning is important for leaders. “Books, podcasts, webinars, listening to others within and outside your industry is invaluable,” she says. “As a leader, you also need to trust your instincts, which are empowered by your experience.”
Laura advises others to “Just do it! Don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by fear, or over-evaluate every decision, or internalize any negativity. Only you can limit yourself.”
Laura’s career exempliﬁes one of her favorite quotes: “The only person who can limit your possibilities is you.” A mantra from best-selling author Jon Gordon, which she echoes to next generation mentees, regularly.
Downtime and Work-Life Harmony
When asked if she has any guilty pleasures she uses to unwind, Laura admits, “I binge watch TED Talks!” If I have an extra hour in my day, I love to feed myself with inspiration from others.”
Laura also claims to be very regimented in her work hours. Her team knows she unplugs at 9pm, and you will not be able to reach her until morning. “It is important to keep certain hours and set boundaries, whatever they are,” she says.
Laura shares that her most cherished way to unwind is hiking with her husband. “We talk about everything – our family, business, our dreams and goals; and we take time to stop and enjoy nature. He takes pictures and I journal. The whole thing is an experience. It keeps us connected and grounded.”
With her husband’s support, Laura recently realized a decade-long personal goal of writing a book. Developed from her blog of the same title, her inaugural “Say Yes Everyday” release was just published earlier this year, and serves as a guidepost for anyone looking to challenge themselves to live a more positive life, open to new experiences.
Leadership and Legacy
The biggest thing that surprised Laura about being a business owner was how nothing surprised her. “Nothing I faced as a business owner was something that I wouldn’t have expected to deal with,” she says. “I never got caught up in titles, but when I became president, I learned that some people want to see that title in order to be taken seriously.”
“Now that I’m at a point in my career that I have a voice that people want to hear, and they are listening to me, I want to amplify others in the industry who may have never been asked to step into the spotlight,” says Laura.
For example, she created a Survive & Thrive group on Facebook at the beginning of the pandemic, and featured diﬀerent mortgage professionals each week to impart advice. The initiative has grown into a weekly “Thrive Thursday” power hour, and branched out far beyond the mortgage industry. Laura enjoys connecting guests, hearing them help each other with their businesses, and sharing their super powers.
Laura serves as Chair of the National Association of Minority Mortgage Bankers of America’s (NAMMBA) Visionary program, recruiting corporate partners for Mission 2025, launched to introduce, develop, and connect college talent to the industry. She also invites members of the Women’s Mortgage Network to participate in interviews and weekly “Growth Series” challenges.
“Helping others succeed, and highlighting their value feels like success to me,” Laura beams.
“Essentially, my goal is to train and empower the next generation of leaders in the mortgage business,” she says. “I want to leave the industry behind me better than when I arrived.”
Laura’s growing legions of fans might argue that she already has.