Countrywide Tells Workers,
'Protect Our House'
By JAMES R. HAGERTY and JONATHAN KARP
October 3, 2007; Page B1
For Countrywide Financial Corp., this time it's personal. At least that's what a top executive says.
Having suffered a barrage of negative headlines while battling to shore up its finances and shrink its work force of 60,000 by as much as 20%, the nation's largest home-mortgage lender is launching a PR blitz aimed at repairing its reputation. And it starts inside the company.
For the demoralized employees who remain, the new campaign means wristbands with the phrase "Protect Our House" and pep talks promising to keep "amply" rewarding the most successful among them amid a struggle with the sharp drop in mortgage lending as defaults soar and house prices decline.
Leading the counterattack is Andrew "Drew" Gissinger III, a former offensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers football team who serves as executive managing director, residential lending, at Countrywide.
ON THE OFFENSIVE
See a script
of Countrywide's telephone conference call exhorting internal "opinion leaders" to help repair its image.
"Let's call it like it is, as I mentioned earlier, it's gotten to the point where our integrity is being attacked. NOW IT'S PERSONAL!" says the transcript of a talk made last week by Mr. Gissinger. "... And, WE'RE NOT GOING TO TAKE IT!"
The transcript, prepared from a phone call with 250 "opinion leaders" at Countrywide on Sept. 26, offers a peek inside one of the biggest crisis-management efforts under way in an American corporation. Along with Mr. Gissinger on the call was Jason Schechter from WPP Group's Burson-Marsteller, a public-relations firm with a long history of crisis management.
"We wanted to assure you that my firm and I have brought companies through the worst type of publicity," Mr. Schechter said, according to the transcript. He added that a six-person Burson team was ensconced at Countrywide's Calabasas, Calif., headquarters, and about 25 people overall were working on the campaign.
Rick Simon, a Countrywide spokesman, said the transcript was sent to employees Friday. It says that employees are expected to sign a pledge to "demonstrate their commitment to our efforts," and Mr. Simon says about 11,000 have signed. Each employee who signs up receives the Protect Our House wristband made of green rubber. "We believe there's a great story about the strength of the business," says Mr. Simon.
To counter criticism that its lending practices are to blame for a surge in foreclosures, Countrywide plans to emphasize its "mission" of helping Americans become homeowners, the transcript says. "I want employees to look down at their wristbands and remember our fundamental mission to help customers achieve the American Dream, and to help them withstand those malicious outward attacks and to motivate them to continue on our journey with unwavering conviction," the transcript quotes Mr. Gissinger as saying.
The company also is reaffirming its pugnacious side. "We're competitive to a fault," he says in the transcript, adding: "Our divisions will have clear goals, built on our ruthless attack strategies to continue to grow profitably. Growing, winning and being the best is also hard wired into our DNA."
The combative tone reflects the blunt-spoken style of Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide's chairman and chief executive, who helped to found the company in 1969.
"We're demonized something fierce," Mr. Mozilo said in an interview two weeks ago.
Mr. Mozilo, 68 years old, the self-made son of a butcher from New York's Bronx borough, knows how to fight back. He often has skewered his competitors as incompetent or irresponsible during conference calls with analysts. In a call last year, he said big Wall Street firms competing with Countrywide "don't know anything about the mortgage business."
According to trade publication Inside Mortgage Finance, Countrywide had a market share of more than 17% in this year's first half. And Mr. Mozilo's compensation last year, including the exercise of stock options, totaled $120 million. Even so, he said last month that he still sometimes feels like "a poor kid from the Bronx."
In the transcript, Mr. Gissinger takes up that viewpoint: "As always, we embrace the role of being the underdog. Our commitment and ability to win is demonstrated where it counts -- the scoreboard."He also warns employees to expect more "bad press." Some of that is likely on Oct. 26, when the company is due to report third-quarter results.
Kenneth Posner, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, has forecast that Countrywide will have a loss of $2.4 billion, or $3.47 a share, in the third quarter, compared with earnings of $647.6 million, or $1.03 a share, a year earlier. Countrywide hasn't provided a third-quarter forecast.
Mr. Gissinger sought to reassure employees about sticking with the company in the transcript: "I've made a lot of people rich or richer who have joined me on my past crusades. Please trust the same holds true here."
Write to James R. Hagerty at email@example.com and Jonathan Karp at firstname.lastname@example.org