I am scheduled to be President of the California Escrow Association (CEA) in 2019. It is an honor to have this opportunity to serve and I like to think that the members chose me because I will bring something substantive to the organization.
As I approach the beginning of my term I have to look back and measure how far I have come, especially as a Chinese American immigrant in this diverse country which took me in and nurtured me.
When I first started this career in 1977, I was new, I had no experience, and I was learning under the guidance of a Real Estate Broker. There were days when I desperately needed someone to talk to, someone to bounce escrow scenarios off of, someone to walk me through certain processes which didn’t make sense to my untutored mind. About two years into this new career a fellow escrow practitioner encouraged me to go to a regional escrow association meeting. When I arrived, much to my surprise, there was a whole room full of people just like me! Holy cow!
Where did CEA come from?
Around 1924, in the Los Angeles area, a few escrow practitioners got together to share stories, look at problems and compare the way they processed escrows. Soon this gathering evolved into an association of like minded people who gathered for informal discussions. More people in different areas met separately and 6 other different regional associations were thus formed. It took decades for this slow evolution, but the associations banded together to form the State organization. The California Escrow Association was formed in 1956. Today this trade organization is comprised of 28 regionals throughout the State, with about 1200 members.
Perhaps now is a good time to mention that there are two totally different definitions to the word “escrow” which causes masses of confusion with the general public. An “escrow account” or an impound account, is an account set up by a Lender to handle the funds deposited by a Borrower for the purposes of payment of future property taxes, insurance or mortgage insurance premiums by this Lender, usually as a condition for the giving the loan.
The second definition of the word “escrow” is an “escrow holder”or a settlement agent, or a stakeholder. This is a neutral third party who is the depository of funds and documents, which are held in trust pending the satisfaction of certain conditions contracted between parties. It is under this definition that California Escrow Officers operate.
In California, there were 4 different avenues through which an escrow company could be formed. It could be a department within a financial bank, a department within a title insurance company, a department attached to a real estate brokerage firm, or it could be an independently standing company/corporation set up solely to handle the escrow business and nothing else. Each different type of escrow department/company was regulated by a different government agency. For further information on these different types of companies you can refer to my article here.
In those early years our members mostly came from financial bank escrow departments and title insurance company escrow departments. Does anyone remember Glendale Federal Bank? Security Pacific National Bank? Title Insurance and Trust? Oh yes, the banks and TI (as Title Insurance and Trust was called) were the training grounds for the up and coming escrow officer. And train them well they did. In time bank escrow departments slowly petered out as banks concentrated more on other avenues of financial services.
CEA had a membership roster that was all inclusive. As long as you handled escrows, you were welcome. Members’ escrow affiliation could be from one of three (used to be four) groups: Independent Escrow, Title Industry or Real Estate Broker. The affiliations are porous; there is much interchange by members from one category to another through job changes. No matter what the affiliation, the one defining bond is that as part of this larger community we are all working to advance and enhance this industry so that we can leave it in a better place for the next generation.
Regional Associations – the backbone.
My regional association, the Escrow Associates of San Gabriel Valley (EASGV), was one of the first 6 that was formed in 1956. Like all non profit organizations it is managed by a volunteer Board of Directors. I remember I was so excited to join and they took advantage of this enthusiasm and put me to work almost immediately. That was over 30 years ago and I haven’t stopped.
The first and foremost focus of our trade organization is the education of our members. To that goal we put together monthly educational dinner meetings, workshops, all day mini-conferences, and even had our own monthly regional newspaper, printed just like a regular newspaper. No digital media at that time!
Through the years I have worked in every committee and every position several times over. I was President 3 times, in 1992, 2009, and 2014. EASGV commemorated my contributions by presenting me with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 which I will forever cherish. Escrow was my chosen career and it provided me with the unique opportunity to establish and flourish in my own business. Some time ago I put on my bio that, “Escrow provided me with a roof over my head, the ability to put two children through higher education (with no student loans), vacations (when I have time to take it) and those little odds and ends of life that are so important, like lots of shoes and quarterly hairdresser appointments .” When life is good you need to give back. Volunteering in EASGV was one way that I could give back to my chosen profession.
The regional associations elect representatives that participate at the state level – in the California Escrow Association. Like the regionals, the state organization is also run by a volunteer Board of Directors. It is a matter of choice for each one of us: do we stay at the regional level and contribute there? Or do we go on out of our community and contribute to the escrow industry as a whole? In time I made that latter decision.
The CEA Board of Directors.
As each regional association voted to send their representatives to form the Board of Directors at the state level, so these Directors would gather into committees set up to review and face industry challenges. Education, membership, legislation, national affairs, professional designation certification, governance, leadership, these are all specific areas that change and evolve from day to day. As the national climate evolves, so does our industry. As our industry rises to face the evolving challenges we transmit our position and changes to the regional associations and thus communicate them to all our members.
The Board of Directors meet face-to-face four times a year in different parts of the State. These meetings are supplemented by monthly conference call meetings as well as communication via email. Work is done continuously throughout the year.
A Director is encouraged to provide their insight by joining various committees. CEA members at large are also encouraged to join committees without needing to be a Director. A Director can be appointed to take on the position of committee chair and from that position they can further expand their work and choose to serve on the Executive Board.
The CEA Executive Board.
The Executive Board is responsible for the running of the organization. It is made up of the President, the President Elect, the Vice President, Secretary/Treasurer and Portfolio Chairs. Each position carries with it special duties and responsibilities to act as the liaison between the committees under their portfolio and the Executive Board. As the Directors who join the Executive Board have previously worked on some, if not all, of the individual committees, they are most likely familiar with the different aspects of the organization, the issues, and challenges.
The Executive Board and the Board of Directors at large would not function without the day-to-day management of the association, which falls on the shoulders of the association management company, a contracted third party entity. CEA has been extremely lucky in that we have had the same management company for decades. Familiarity makes the management much easier and it is a two-way street. This management company has seen Directors come and go, and seen individual Directors’ growth and development. Part of their responsibilities include the payment of association bills, up keep of our website, contracting for meeting locations, running of our yearly conference, financial reporting, establishment of a yearly budget, publication of our news magazine. These are just some of the internal and background work that are handled smoothly and efficiently by that team.
In addition, and of much importance, this management company also provides our organization with a separate lobbyist to overlook our interests in the State legislative forums.
The effect of government legislation.
One of the most important roles that CEA has for its members is legislative overview. It does not matter how well we do our jobs, we do not work in a vacuum. Our community, our industry, our world is affected by what is happening politically. Anything that happens will affects our industry in no small terms. Good laws, bad laws, laws that make no sense, those come out every year. We have to deal with it, the sooner the better.
Our lobbyist in the State legislative halls guide us on legislative bills that are churned out of Sacramento. Hundreds of bills come out each year and our Bill Review Committee members are each assigned many bills to review, comment and analyze as to the effect it might have on our desk. Bills that have immediate and/or long range impact will be assigned over to subcommittees so that a plan of action can be determined and our lobbyist instructed on how they will fight for us.
Our work is not static and it isn’t always sunshine and smooth sailing.
The focus for CEA is education.
As mentioned before, education is the main focus of our organization, which starts at the regional level and continues on to the State level. Seminars and webinars bring the education to the member. A 2-day annual Conference brings our members and others in the industry to a central location and allows for peer interaction and exchange of ideas. Educational topics cover not only escrow content but also run the gamut of life-style instruction, marketing at the escrow desk, to the newest legislative concerns. For instance, cybersecurity, fraud, notarial laws are all issues that our members deal with on a daily basis and so they are topics of interest at all times.
The Professional Designation Program.
When a person is properly educated there must be some sort of public accreditation to proclaim this fact. We all have high school diplomas, college degrees and, in the higher education, the ability to put this credentialing, whether it is CPA, MBA, MD, or Ph.D., behind our names.
Towards that end CEA developed a professional designation program which would credential those who passed certain tests with a certification of achievement. An Escrow Officer with the credentials listed behind his/her name is one who has many years of professional expertise under their belt and has passed a bevy of tests successfully. Such an achievement deserves to be commemorated and understood. Only then will the public understand that they are working with a person who is qualified over and beyond the qualifications of an escrow officer who does not have the accreditation.
The program started out in 1969 with two certifications, one of Certified Escrow Officer (CEO) and one of Certified Senior Escrow Officer (CSEO), which was the highest level test. To achieve the certification a person had to pass 3 parts to the test. The tests were designed and given by escrow professionals who already achieved their professional designations.
CEA went on to offer the tests for the specialty escrows – the Certified Bulk Sale Specialist test, the Certified Mobilehome Sale Specialist, and the Certified Escrow Instructor exam for those of who are interested in teaching our peers. There is a Certified Escrow Technician test that can be given for entry level escrow candidates.
To take the tests the participants have to meet minimum time in industry and position requirements. Once the certifications are obtained, there are also continuing education requirements to follow. Given how difficult the achievement is, it is rare that a person does not keep up with their continuing education and lets it lapse, as the certifications achieved will then be considered void.
I have written a longer article illuminating CEA’s Professional Designation program, outlining the “crucible” of tests. Please feel free to refer to that article for further details on this important contribution from CEA to our escrow industry.
The American Escrow Association.
What happens in D.C. and in the rest of the country will almost immediately impact the California Escrow Officer. Our national presence is established through membership in the American Escrow Association (AEA) which has, to this date, 10 member states. California is the largest with the most members. This membership is of particular importance today as technology has shrunk the world. AEA provides CEA with the necessary representation and lobbyist in our nation’s capital and gives our voice to national issues. In return, CEA provides AEA with our members’ expertise in their committees and through leadership in their Board.
It is also important to note that participation in AEA has widened the horizons of the California escrow practitioners. The role, responsibilities and definitions of the escrow officer is similar throughout the 50 states. However, the actual processing of escrow transactions differs from state to state. With that in mind it becomes an education as we learn how the process works in different parts of the country.
Every member of CEA is an automatic member of AEA and can join in the open meetings and participate in their annual Conference. We each have a vote, indirectly. Every year CEA and all the individual regional associations under formally elect AEA Directors to represent them and carry the members’ votes to the yearly business meeting. Every member of CEA is also encouraged to join individual AEA committees. Through the monthly committee calls they can hear first hand the issues being discussed.
The American Escrow Association also has an Executive Board manned by volunteers from member states and a management company that handles the internal running of the organization.
A worthwhile trade organization.
Every industry should have its own trade organization. There is “power in the pack”; and we know that “it takes a village”. CEA is the sum total of all its members. We give the Association its power and its direction. In turn, it gives them back to us, too. As a member I am proud of this organization. As part of the Executive Board I am honored to have a small part in its guidance.
I am nervously looking forward to October 13, 2018, the day I will be installed as the President of the California Escrow Association. I presume that since CEA was formed in 1956, I will be the 63rd President of this venerable institution. Of course, my story won’t actually start until January 1, 2019, but background work and planning has already started and will go into overdrive after October 13th. I can’t wait to face the challenges that are sure to come, find the best solutions available and broker the compromises that will keep the organization and the industry steady .
As I go through the year I hope to continuously add to this post and give insight to the challenges that we will be facing.
Let me end this with this quotation from Albert Einstein:
“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value”