ALTA President Daniel D. Mennenoh Encourages Members to Embrace Innovation and Improve the Customer Experience
Whether it’s his passion for auto racing, telephones, the title industry or his family, Daniel D. Mennenoh is rooted in history. He’s only missed two races at the famed Indianapolis 500 over the past 28 years. His home is filled with antique telephones harkening back to a time of switchboard operators and pay phones. He lives in the historic district of Galena, Ill., notable for the home of Ulysses S. Grant. And he’s the president of a title company originally established in 1883 that now employs the third generation of Mennenoh’s family.
“We must never forget our past as it provides context for who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going,” said Mennenoh, who was installed as ALTA’s 2016-17 president during ALTA ONE in Scottsdale, Ariz. “With the historical perspective, we can appropriately drive forward and incorporate innovative products to our operations to increase efficiency and improve the customer experience.”
As a tribute to his family, Mennenoh wore a red bow tie that belonged to his father, as he gave his induction speech in October. His parents, John and Ann, were active in both ALTA and the Illinois Land Title Association (ILTA) for years and inspired him to do the same.
“My parents always led by example, with the business, with industry participation, with life,” said Mennenoh, who is president of Galena, Ill.-based H.B. Wilkinson Title Company. “My dad is no longer with us, but his wisdom, experience and good humor are sorely missed. As for my mom, she’s not able to stretch a double into a triple anymore, but she’s as sharp as a tack and still has her great sense of humor.”
When Mennenoh attended his first ALTA convention 20 years ago, becoming ALTA president never crossed his mind. To truly appreciate how he reached the pinnacle of ALTA leadership, you need to know his history.
Life Destined in Title?
There were detours in Mennenoh’s career path, but the seeds of a title profession were planted early. During his childhood, Mennenoh’s father worked for Chicago Title in various offices. Eventually, the family moved to Morrison, Ill. That’s when John and his business partner, Grace Shaw, purchased H. B. Wilkinson Company (which is now called H. B. Wilkinson Title Company).
Having grown up with two siblings, Mennenoh recalled parents who were loving, and supportive of their interests, and stressed the importance of education and personal responsibility.
“And there was laughter in the house,” said Mennenoh. “My parents always planned for a family trip during the summer vacation. We took road trips in the family station wagon to many parts of the country every year. We experienced many places and learned much from those trips.”
In addition to playing baseball during his youth, Mennenoh became captivated by auto racing after visiting Indianapolis for the first time in the early 1960s. The trip to Indy was actually to see his grandparents, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was open to visitors. That’s where he saw his first race car.
“I think that probably hooked me on motor racing,” he recalled.
As far as education, Mennenoh first attended DeVry Institute of Technology in Phoenix before transferring to Arizona State where he studied electrical engineering.
“Getting defeated by Calculus 2—twice—I came to the conclusion that maybe engineering was not my calling,” Mennenoh said, smiling.
After college, he spent a summer living with his grandfather, who ran a successful landscaping business on the Chicago North Shore for over 50 years. Mennenoh envisioned learning the business on job sites, but spent most of the time doing accounting and payroll. His grandmother had always handled the office work, but she had passed away in 1974.
“He really needed the help in that area and was a bit behind on things by 1978, so I helped him get his office work caught up and organized,” Mennenoh said.
The time spent organizing his grandfather’s office would pay dividends once he transitioned to the title industry, but first Mennenoh took a job in 1979 with Illinois Bell Telephone Company in Sterling, Ill. As he Installed and maintained pay phones, he quickly realized this wasn’t the right career path.
“I heard a lot of grousing about the job and the company from the fellas I worked with in the field and decided I didn’t want to become them,” Mennenoh recalled.
Timing is everything and that’s when Mennenoh’s father asked if he wanted to give the title business a try. With the possibility of running the operation down the line, title work sounded like a better opportunity than chatting with the phone crew. In 1982, he joined the title company and started doing abstract work, searching tax records, doing plant maintenance, microfilming and recording documents at the courthouse.
“I was even the office janitor for a while,” Mennenoh shared.
Eventually, his math background from college paid off as he started doing some drafting and gained a better understanding of legal descriptions.
“I really enjoyed drawing out legal descriptions and seeing how multiple parcels fit together,” said Mennenoh, who still enjoys this aspect of the job and provides the legal description training at his company.
No Turning Back
From then on, he was hooked on title and had no interest in other careers. “I love what I do,” said Mennenoh, who was named company president in 1996 when he purchased the company along with ALTA past president Greg Kosin after Mennenoh’s father retired.
It’s been a family affair ever since. Working with relatives isn’t for everyone, but it has been successful at H.B. Wilkinson Title Company. His parents provided the perfect example working side by side for many years. In 1997, Mennenoh’s wife, Merry, joined the company and started handling payroll when his mother retired. A few years later, Merry took over general accounting responsibilities and has handled those duties since then. She’s now the company’s chief financial officer.
“The most difficult part of working together was realizing we had to stop talking about business at the end of the workday,” Mennenoh said. “When we leave the office at the end of the day, we make a conscious effort to not discuss work. We’ve been pretty successful.”
The family success now stretches to a third generation. With nine locations that service northwest Illinois, southwest Wisconsin and much of Iowa, the Mennenohs’ daughter, Devon Irby, has used her organizational skills to help the company attain Best Practices compliance. Her expertise has been used to improve the management team’s effectiveness as well as the hiring and training process. And Mennenoh has been able to pass on his father’s training to his daughter as she’s also a good title examiner as well.
“Having had the chance to work with my parents, to learn the title business from them—to learn the importance of not only our industry, but the pride in being a professional and operating a business professionally—is a highlight of my career,” Mennenoh said. “Being able to pass along those things to my daughter and see her professional growth in an industry I truly love is great.”
Meanwhile, their son, Cody, has helped keep the company's electronic title plant updated for years. "Since it can be done remotely, we’ve had him help with that for some time, and he’s good at it," Mennenoh said.
His parents also influenced his involvement with ALTA and ILTA. His mother served as ILTA’s secretary for a decade, and both understood that their involvement was beneficial to the industry and to their business. Mennenoh served as ILTA’s 1998-99 president. In addition to serving on ALTA’s Board, Mennenoh volunteers on many committees including Finance, Membership and Organization, Nominating, Abstracters/Agents Section, Nominating and Research.
“My parents spent many years attending ALTA conferences and my dad served at the committee level at ALTA,” Mennenoh said. “Becoming involved in ALTA was not a difficult decision for me.”
Mentors and Friends
Starting with his parents, Mennenoh said he’s had many industry mentors over the years. Mennenoh described his father as one of the “best examiners I’ve known.”
“I learned how to manage the operation and how to work with customers and consumers from my parents,” he said. “I learned how to problem solve from them, and I also learned how to successfully train and work with staff.”
Mennenoh recalled several title professionals from his early days in the business who helped provide guidance, including Jim Weston, Jim Costello, John Howe, Chad Nash, Bob Gorman, Mike Troutt and Hartzell Givens.
“There are many people today in the industry, too many to list, that I have great respect for and truly enjoy working with,” Mennenoh said.
Michael Lane, executive director of the Illinois Land Title Association (ILTA), took over management of ILTA from Mennenoh’s mother in 1990. Lane said he knew from the beginning that Mennenoh was destined to do great things in the title business.
“Dan and Merry are terrific people and wonderful ambassadors for the title business,” Lane added. “They also introduced me to hummus many years ago. ILTA is indebted to Dan’s leadership and we know he will offer the same great leadership for ALTA.”
Frank Pellegrini, chief executive officer of Illinois-based Prairie Title and an ALTA past president, came to know the Mennenoh family from the time he started attending title functions in the 1970s. He believes Mennenoh’s strong, steady, and measured perspective that will serve the industry well when dealing with critical issues.
“The three generations of the Mennenohs represent all that is right and strong about families,” Pellegrini said. “They also represent what is so very special about our industry. They care deeply about values, integrity and getting the job done right.”
Herschel Beard, owner of Marshall County Abstract Co. in Oklahoma, met Mennenoh about 25 years ago when volunteering for ALTA committees. Both have continued that service ever since. The two share a common bond of coming from family-run businesses.
“I have the utmost respect for Dan and Merry, and for the integrity with which they have operated their company,” Beard said. “I’m confident that Dan will be an outstanding president and will represent us well.”
If you looked up “title professional” in the dictionary there would be a picture of Dan Mennenoh, according to Mark Bilbrey, president of Old Republic National Title Insurance Co. and an ALTA past president.
Bilbrey met Dan and Merry at an ALTA Annual Convention in the 1990s. The friendship continued through their work with ALTA committees and state associations. Bilbrey described the Mennenohs as “title junkies who live it and love it 24/7.”
“Dan has the correct blend of knowledge, talent and caring to help them thru these moments, he added. “Dan has the gift of friendship. I always say to have a friend, you have to be a friend. Dan truly meets that standard.”
The president of any large organization is to help set the tone for what the organization will try to accomplish in the immediate future In 2017, ALTA will focus on six strategic priorities to help our members excel in a dynamic business and regulatory environment. These main areas will focus on:
- Best Practices
- Communicating with homebuyers
- Core industry values
- Information security
- Talent focus & business basics
Mennenoh believes one of the most pressing challenges to the industry—particularly for smaller companies—is balancing the needs of a responsibly run title agency with the additional cost of reaching an acceptable level of compliance to meet lenders’ requirements.
“The lack of guidance from the CFPB to lenders on their vendor management responsibilities is hurting smaller agencies and will ultimately hurt consumers—particularly in rural areas of the country if those smaller, rural agencies are no longer able to remain viable. The result will be that those consumers will no longer receive the level of local service they want and have been getting for decades.”
While he knows that many national companies promote their ability to service every county in the country, Mennenoh firmly believes consumers in rural counties want local market knowledge and a personal touch. Even with the advancement of technology, real estate remains a local business “best served by local companies,” he said.
“If we lose that component of the title insurance and settlement services industry, the effect on our industry and on consumers will be very negative,” Mennenoh said. “ALTA has been consistently pressing the CFPB for clearer guidance in this area and must continue to do so, along with our lender partners and other trade associations. I hope the CFPB will ultimately realize their lack of guidance is detrimental to consumers, the economy and to an entire delivery system that has worked well for a very long time.”
Mennenoh is focused on continuing the growing participation of ALTA membership through education, the Homebuyer Outreach Program (HOP), cybersecurity and advocacy. Having seen tremendous gains in recognition by legislators and regulators over the past several years, it’s important to keep that momentum going, he said, while also promoting the benefits the industry provides to the economy and providing peace of mind by protecting consumers’ property rights.
“No one else will do that for us,” he said.
Innovating and Driving Forward
Innovation is one of the topics that intersects with most of the association’s strategic priorities. Quoting Thomas Edison, Mennenoh said “there’s a way to do it better—find it.” He encourages the industry to be more innovative and explore better ways to serve customers and explain the industry. Doing so, doesn’t necessarily mean spending more, Mennenoh said. There are plenty of tools provided by ALTA such as the HOP, free education Title Topics webinars and committees that can keep staff engaged and informed of changes that are occurring.
ALTA members across the country are joining together to find ways to solve current problems and address challenges. This will lead to creative ideas that will ultimately benefit the industry’s customers.
“For those who may feel that our business is changing so much that our future in the industry may be difficult to see, we have to look at this as an opportunity to innovate,” Mennenoh said. “We’ve seen change before and we’ll continue to see change. Technology has driven a lot of change, some good, some not so good, but finding a better way can be very exciting. We want to innovate and find solutions to ensure all ALTA member companies have the tools they need to thrive in this rapidly changing market.”
Mennenoh compared life and business to the laps an Indy 500 winner must make in order to drink the famed milk.
“In a lot of ways, life and business are a race track,” Mennenoh said. “Both often leave you feeling like you’re going in circles. But every lap can be different. Conditions can change. Other racers improve their cars so that they go faster and handle the turns better. As an industry, we must be prepared for change and understand where innovation can improve our processes. From conducting title searches and sharing data to the closing table and recording documents, there’s new technology being introduced. At the end of the day, however, our core values remain the same. We are here to protect property rights and close transactions efficiently and compliantly. I am truly honored to serve as ALTA’s president. We’ll work hard to ensure our members have the tools to succeed.”
Jeremy Yohe is vice president of communications for the American Land Title Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.