An unwavering commitment to service and an early diversification strategy has fueled a great success story for Joseph Willen and the Advantage Group.
It really shouldn’t be surprising that Joseph M. Willen, president and CEO of the Advantage Group, is an avid boater: he knows all about adapting to the currents, going with the flow, and navigating storms. That’s how a then 25-year-old could feel comfortable founding his own title insurance company in 1987, and then diversifying and growing it throughout major real estate cycles.
But the title industry wasn’t in his original plan.
“No one grows up and says, ‘I want to be in title insurance,’” Willen said.
Fresh out of college and looking for work while deciding on graduate school, he saw a newspaper ad for a sales job at a title insurance agency that offered the use of a company car. He asked his father, a New York state supreme court justice and attorney, about the industry, only to be told “It’s not a career, but maybe the attorneys you meet will convince you to go to law school.”
Willen got the job, and loved it from day one. It was his first job not on a boat. After being recruited by another title company in a very short time, he founded Advantage Title with just two employees in a small space in Huntington Village. Ironically, his father joined him for a year before returning to the practice of law. Now 90, his father still calls every day asking how many deals closed that day and how large.
Joseph Willen’s goal was and remains providing clients “a total commitment to service from everyone in the organization,” he said. “I wasn’t finding that at my previous companies. So I decided rather than go work for another title company, it was time to be entrepreneurial and start my own. I loved the idea of starting and building a company,” he recalled. “It was two months after Black Monday, 1987. Everyone thought I was crazy. But it was actually a good time to start because we weren’t in a frenetic market, so we were able to completely focus on building our customer service reputation from day one.”
All of his existing clients followed him—for one deal, out of personal loyalty. Future business would have to be earned, they warned him. So Willen and his newly formed team serviced the clients his way, they remained, and the company grew, expanding from local residential properties into a company that specializes in complex commercial transactions throughout the country.
The commitment at Advantage remains laser-focused on personal service, “technology, and a corporate culture that is necessary for the level of transactions we handle. However, the client contact with the staff, on the phone or in-person meetings, remains vital. Every little thing we can do to make our clients’ jobs easier, we will do,” he said. “You cannot work for this company if you don’t have top-notch customer service skills and have pride in your work. The pressure is on my staff to get things right because there’s so much at stake. And they know that I am a stickler for detail. Ask one of our original employees and you will be told that they had to get the staples properly placed on all title reports before they were delivered to the client. I drove them crazy. But that initial culture was of paramount importance to me, and that same attention to detail has remained a constant.
“Every company promises that they’re always available, that they have great talent, that they’re responsive,” Willen said. “We actually deliver on that promise. And it’s really difficult. I’ve invested a lot of money to get the best talent in the business and we retain them. Out of a staff of 80, almost 40 percent of our employees have been here for longer than 10 years, 20 of whom have been here for more than 15 years. That stability is important. Our staff knows our clients, and our clients know our staff. That familiarity and continuity is invaluable in this electronic world.”
Advantage has five in-house counsel, each with a specialty: national and international transactions, three focused primarily on New York deals, and unique for title companies, one counsel solely dedicated to foreclosures.
That combination of top-notch expertise recently helped Advantage serve as the sole title agent for a $750 million acquisition of a 790-megawatt combined cycle natural gas fired generation power plant and a 50-megawatt natural gas fired generation power plant by a private equity fund. “This complex transaction posed a myriad of complex environmental, regulatory, and title issues,” Willen explained, “and accomplishing it without co-insurers was a testament to our legal team’s superior capability, dependability, and unsurpassed skill.”
While it’s been a great 30-year run for Advantage thus far, like any business, there have been many challenges along the way, including the recession of 2008, when the title business was hit hard. Fortunately, in the 90s Willen had started Mortgage Advantage, a licensed mortgage broker offering residential and commercial financing. Advantage Foreclosure, which provides lenders and their law firms with the necessary information to commence their foreclosure actions; Advantage Legal, which offers court services and legal advertising; and Advantage Settlement, providing loan settlement and title services in New York State, were also added as affiliates of the Advantage Group.
This expansion proved prescient. Advantage’s foreclosure business grew rapidly, handling as many as 500 transactions weekly, and over the years it has become the leading foreclosure company in New York State. “Foreclosure and Legal created countercyclical revenue for us,” he said. “While the commercial and residential real estate market declined, those businesses thrived.”
“The recession taught me more about myself, my company, my ability to overcome adversity, and my ability to lead during difficult times,” he said. “We had experienced a lot of growth in those early years and I felt a tremendous responsibility to my employees. I had to personally assure our entire workforce that we would find a way to sustain ourselves. And we did.”
Today, the Advantage Group is headquartered in Melville, with satellite offices in Riverhead, New York City, and Pittsburgh. Advantage is also a very strong player in the Hamptons, and Willen expects to continue to grow there as well as in Manhattan, the boroughs, and nationally.
“The more major transactions we close, the more opportunities we’re seeing.” he said. “We have literally grown this business in the trenches as many professionals in the industry see the value we provide while working on transactions with us. Following countless successful closings we get calls from the other parties on the deal to work with us on their next transactions. At the end of the day, the title company is a significant cog in the wheel of each deal.”
But it’s not all business for Willen. Besides his passion for boating and golf, he and the Advantage Group are also heavily involved in supporting many local charitable organizations. Between financial contributions from the company to a very active team of employees who donate a great deal of their time and energy, giving back is a huge part of the culture at Advantage.
“We’re a very human company, we believe in taking care of our community, our employees, their families, and our clients.” Willen said. “I believe our culture has had a large impact on our growth from our earliest days. When I look back at the trajectory of Advantage in the past 30 years, it’s clear that this intense commitment to service that was my initial reason for starting my own business has never once waivered. And that commitment will continue to be our driving force in the years to come.”
201 Old Country Road, Suite 200
Melville, NY 11747