Name: Donna Fitzgerald Shuler
Alma Mater: University of the District of Columbia (formerly DC Teachers College)
Business Name & Description: Answer Title & Escrow LLC (Answer Title)
Answer Title – based in Washington, DC and serving Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia – is a full-service title and escrow company. We are a federal and local government contractor and trusted title and closing agent services provider for commercial and residential real property transactions. We also have experience as an acquisition consultant and closing agent for area commercial and affordable housing development teams. Our Answer Construction Management Services (ACMS) division offers site development and project management services with oversight of hiring compliance, project budgets, design/build, project closeout, and other construction management tasks with specific expertise in new building services, construction, and renovation.
What year did you found your company? 2004
Many do not know what title companies do or their role in real estate. Could you expound a bit on it? Before a property – commercial, residential, or otherwise – is sold or transferred, the title company makes sure that title is marketable and defect-free. The title company searches public records located in the local Recorder of Deeds and or courthouses to find the record owner of the property and identify any prior liens. They then conduct a title examination by taking the findings and making sure that no discrepancies are found (unsatisfied liens, taxes, judgments, rightful owner, etc.). If problems are found, the title company will try to rectify and clear them. Once everything is satisfied through the search and rightful ownership is identified, a commitment (to issue a title insurance policy) is prepared. The title company then coordinates the closing and:
- Prepares a settlement statement listing closing and title insurance costs
- Drafts deeds and all affidavits and other similar documents associated with the closing
- Collects all funds needed to pay settlement costs including paying off any pre-existing mortgages on the property
- Ensures that all documents are properly signed and notarized at closing
- Issues the title insurance policy
Title companies are an important part of individual property sales, land transfers for development projects, and any real estate transaction.
The title industry seems to have a lot of fixed and regulated revenues. Some would say marketing and in large part customer service are the things that set companies apart. Do you believe that those revenues should be deregulated? What separates Answer Title from the rest of your competition? Preventing fraud and predatory lending are hot-button issues. Regulation is necessary to ensure that consumers have control of the buying process. Rules such as RESPA call for consumers to have all available information about the cost of a settlement and protect them from unnecessarily high settlement charges. This prevents agents in the industry from using things like kickbacks and referral fees to manipulate the market.
Marketing is important but the most effective marketing in our industry is past performance and expertise. Answer Title relies heavily on its expertise and reputation. The success of a development project (or any transaction for that matter) has so many moving parts and jurisdictional issues that it hinges on the participation of an experienced title company with the highest levels of expertise and knowledge of the local market – those are the elements that set Answer Title apart. We understand complex titles, condemnations, eminent domain procedures, and other land transfer issues. We are also well versed in affordable housing and first-time homebuyer programs. Finally, we are an experienced government contractor who understands compliance and deadlines and we have a number of small business certifications. So we have the residential, commercial, and government sectors covered.
African American homeownership and land ownership seems to be heading back toward all-time lows and African American commercial real estate ownership is largely unknown. What do you believe a corporations like yours; African American banks, and other African American companies related to the real estate industry can do to reverse these trends? More community outreach starting when students are still in school. Banks and agents should use more images of African Americans in their marketing. Organizations like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae should formalize partnerships with agents in our communities.
African Americans in the real estate industry seem to be largely concentrated as real estate agents, but not in many other parts of the industry making it hard to begin to circulate capital even within the African American real estate ecosystem. What do you think this lack of ownership and occupational diversity in the industry is a result of? And what would it take to improve it?
- Segments of the industry are so closely linked that large players such as developers start their own ancillary firms – title and escrow, property management, etc. Similarly, government agencies and large corporations do not distinguish between large real estate developers and related services, entrusting the range of services that one large business/entity. This creates fewer opportunities. Nevertheless, organizations such as AAREP, NAREB, etc. provide valuable networking and business development opportunities for African Americans in the industry.
- We just have to continue identifying ways to participate across all occupations and identify connections. Bankers and lawyers (such as myself and my business partner) looking at opportunities in the title industry, for example.
What was the most exciting and/or fearful moment during your HBCUpreneur career? Answer Title has won awards and recognition at major events and I realized that I am still not comfortable speaking in front of large audiences – that is still a fearful moment. Becoming the first African American female CEO of a bank in the District of Columbia was exciting. Also, I am always excited at closing when we make people homeowners and hand them keys. I know how life-changing that experience is.
What made you want to start your own company? Having worked in banking with strict rules and guidelines, I knew that I could transfer my real estate skills to the title industry and have more control.
Who was the most influential person/people for you during your time in college? My father, William B. Fitzgerald, who started a DC-based bank in 1968 was influential during my time in college and my lifetime. He was a self-made man who owned a real estate company and wanted to meet the needs of his clients who had been unable to get mortgages and financing. As a young girl I watched his vision come to fruition and grow into the fourth largest minority-owned bank in the US – a bank that was featured in Black Enterprise in the 80s and 90s.
How do you handle complex problems? I believe in researching an issue and weighing my options. Also, it helps to have the input/perspective of a business partner.
What is something you wish you had known prior to starting your company? New businesses should place more emphasis on (and devote more capital to) marketing.
What do you believe HBCUs can do to spur more innovation and entrepreneurship while their students are in school either as undergraduate or graduate students? Specifically: initiatives such as campus-wide business plan competitions; on-campus business development centers and institutes that teach and develop the tools of business ownership; Entrepreneurship courses (such as Entrepreneurship undergrad course and Entrepreneurship MBA concentration at Howard University); host technology and other innovation industry events on campus specifically through local partnerships; invite alumni entrepreneurs to participate as speakers, mentors, program sponsors, etc.
Generally: In all classes, address the legacy of business ownership among HBCU graduates across all disciplines. Use examples of African American entrepreneurship whenever it relates to a particular topic. Expose students to the history of business ownership in their own communities.
How do you deal with rejection? I want to know why I was rejected and use that information to move forward.
When you have down time, how do you like to spend it? With family and golfing – or with a good book.
What was your most memorable HBCU memory? Having outstanding professors who were from the community and cared about the community made for many memorable experiences. Professors who were accessible and nurturing unlike at larger non-HBCUs were important to my success.
In leaving is there any advice you have for budding HBCUpreneurs?
Balance fearlessness with preparedness.
Also, not being successful in every endeavor only makes you wiser and stronger for the next venture so keep trying. Life is truly a journey – enjoy it.