Cottrell Title & Escrow’s origins go back to 2007 when founder, Justin Cottrell, and his father purchased a CPA firm that primarily focused on tax returns for real estate agents. From that experience, Cottrell identified an opportunity, due in part to the housing collapse, to apply his legal education towards bankruptcies, foreclosure defense and eventually, real estate closings for short sales. When Cottrell crossed paths with former fraternity brother, James Schlimmer, in 2012, the idea was born to launch a title agency unlike anything that existed in Southwest Florida.
“Justin identified an opportunity for us to build something special by simply outworking the competition and being as innovative as possible,” Schlimmer said. “It wouldn’t be easy, and it would require a tremendous amount of hard work, but it was there for the taking. We decided to partner up and, in 2014, Cottrell Title & Escrow was officially born.”
Schlimmer, who spent the previous 8 years working in sales for NewsBank, a news database resource company headquartered in Naples, FL, was optimistic, yet nervous to leave a steady job for the world of entrepreneurship.
“I had a great job,” he said. “It was safe and secure, but I had faith in Justin and in our ability to work together. Also, the opportunity to create something from nothing was very appealing.”
From Startup to Second Stage
Schlimmer and Cottrell started small – very small. They only averaged about three closings per month and both partners wore multiple hats in order to properly scale the business. Nevertheless, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Schlimmer, who came on board with his real estate and title licenses, slowly but surely learned everything from short sale negotiations to processing and closings to title work and how to clear defects. The business grew organically and methodically until 2016, when an opportunity to innovate really propelled their rise to prominence.
“In early 2016 we started to gain some confidence,” Schlimmer said. “We had our legs under us from a competency standpoint, which allowed us to start focusing on innovation. We went to several national title shows around the country to see how large companies, those doing a thousand closings per month, operated. From an operations and workflow standpoint, we learned a lot. We also learned the right formula for how many closings a processor and closer can properly handle.”
From a leadership standpoint, Schlimmer and Cottrell doubled down on their commitment to increase employee competency and operational efficiencies. Their approach centered on taking smart and hard-working individuals looking for an opportunity, whether they had experience or not, and providing them with all the required training.
“We understand that we’re often looked at as a commodity in this industry,” Schlimmer said. “Agents, lenders, buyers and sellers can go anywhere. With that said, our focus has always been on bringing real value to our clients. We walk a very tight rope with every transaction. It’s up to us to hold our clients hands, provide flawless communication and to make them feel safe.”
Schlimmer continued, “We looked at some of the biggest complaints in our industry, such as lack of communication and not knowing who to talk to, and made sure our team was addressing these issues. We truly care for our clients and it shows in our positive online reviews. We also look to improve the way our partners work. Through the use of technology, we’re redefining the closing experience for everyone. Our system allows you to take a picture of an escrow check and we’re getting ready to incorporate artificial intelligence. We always focus on what’s next as a way to make the whole process more streamlined and maximize efficiency. The transfer of money is another big thing we’re looking at.”
With the incorporation of technology comes an unexpected side effect that presents itself as a challenge for Schlimmer and his team. It’s easy for people to see automation and think that the personal touch has been removed. However, for Cottrell Title & Escrow, automation will allow them to spend more time with clients.
“We want the closing process to be as efficient as possible,” Schlimmer said. “We want it to be easy and fully automated, which allows us to spend more time talking with our clients and ensuring they’re comfortable with everything. When my team picks up the phone, we can talk with them for as long as they need and feel confident that technology is handling all the behind the scenes stuff. A pivotal moment came in 2015 when Justin threw out a challenge for us to grow past the level of most other title agencies in Collier County. He understood that, at the time, we didn’t have the systems in place to do this. We were growing and had great reviews, but in order to be the best, we had to start innovating. That conversation really opened the doors for future growth.”
When it comes to marketing, Cottrell Title & Escrow takes a very educational approach. They do a weekly web-show, a podcast and create content designed to help real estate agents. The focus is on being a trusted resource for agents, lenders and others in the industry. They’re also very proactive when it comes to understanding and influencing the legislation of real estate closings. Three years ago, they dove into the political sphere and led the charge to allow for remote authorized notaries in the state of Florida. The new law, designed to eliminate the need to be face-to-face with a notary, will go into effect in January 2020.
Cottrell Title & Escrow’s workforce consists of 14 full-time employees, with some, thanks to cloud technology, working in remote locations such as Alachua and Charlotte Counties. According to Schlimmer, workplace culture is fun and supportive.
“Having fun while at work is something Justin and I have looked at since the beginning,” Schlimmer said. “Our team comes in everyday to work, but they also have fun. We’re very protective of that. To maintain our culture, we’re slow to hire and fast to get rid of someone if they’re not the right fit. Most people we hire have no title experience. We train them from the ground up and support them every step of the way. We want this to be a career for them.”
Cottrell Title & Escrow’s main charity is The Sunshine Kids Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children with cancer. They’re proud to support the organization’s Southeastern Region, headquartered in Naples, which focuses on providing local kids with memorable experiences, including trips to Disney, Sea World and baseball games.
According to Schlimmer, operating in the state of Florida is beneficial for a number of reasons. “For title insurance, it’s one of the most favorable states in the country,” he said. “The weather is also beautiful and, being here in Southwest Florida, we have easy access to big cities like Orlando, Tampa and Miami. From an innovation and talent standpoint, Florida is wonderful. We’re currently working with the Economics Department at Florida Gulf Coast University on a real estate related project. We’re analyzing every deed recorded, along with other data, from 1982 to present day to see if any domestic or global indicators have an effect on the local market. This is valuable information. Florida is a great resource for talent and for collaborative projects like this.”
What’s it Means to be a Florida Companies to Watch Honoree
“Everyone is beyond grateful,” Schlimmer said. “When our employees saw the article in our local paper, it made them even more proud to work here. However, just because we got recognized, it doesn’t mean we’ve reached our destination. We’re only about 10% of where we want to be. We have so much more to accomplish.”
Schlimmer continued, “In terms of why we were selected, I think it has a lot to do with our focus on innovation and our reputation in the industry. From a leadership standpoint, both Justin and I are so passionate about this industry. We took the time to understand it thoroughly and then to innovate. The result is that billion dollar companies are now looking at what we’re doing.”
Looking ahead, Schlimmer and Cottrell’s number one goal is to pioneer the way real estate is transferred. By focusing on innovation, they’re working hard to get in front of that change. They’re also extremely focused on maintaining a workplace culture built on fun and happiness. As Schlimmer shared, “Our industry is not fun by any means, but our employees have fun at work. For many of them, happiness and enjoyment at work is a big motivator. It’s something we’re proud of at Cottrell Title & Escrow.”
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
“If you’re willing to bet on yourself, bet on yourself,” Schlimmer said. “However, it’s important to understand that nothing comes easy. Entrepreneurship is not for you if you’re looking to get rich quick or think it’ll happen in one or two years. You have to be willing to put in the time and you have to be willing to learn everything about your industry. That includes how best to do your job and what your competition is doing. It’s a never-ending grind. Eventually you’ll get to a position where you can innovate and differentiate yourself. Unfortunately, most people quit before they reach that point.”