Walker & Dunlop CEO talks building up businesses

For The News-Letter

Willy Walker, chairman and chief executive officer of Walker & Dunlop, Inc., a commercial real estate finance firm, gave the 2015 Allan L. Berman Lecture in Hodson Hall on Tuesday Nov. 10. His talk, entitled “Lessons in Leadership: Transforming a Family Business into an Institutional Powerhouse,” focused on Walker’s experiences as businessman both in America and abroad.

Walker is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and joined his father in the family owned business in 2003 as vice president. He became president in 2005 and CEO in 2007.

He began his presentation by speaking about an experience he had while at Harvard. He said that James D. Robinson III, then CEO of American Express, came to speak in one of his classes.

“I expected Robinson’s talk to be insightful,” Walker said. “But that hour was a waste in a lot of ways because he spoke about issues far from that day and moment. So I want to talk in a practical manner about what got me into the position I have.”

Walker discussed the “leadership paradigm” in which leaders, doers and thinkers come together. He said that different corporations are good at different things. According to Walker, McKinsey & Company, a management consulting company, is better geared for thinkers while the U.S. military is better suited for leaders and doers.

“Be honest with yourself about which one of these is your real strength,” Walker said.

Walker said that when he was applying for jobs upon graduating business school, he was offered a position at McKinsey. In the elevator, he met an employee who was discussing the various job opportunities for business school graduates with him. Walker said that the man asked him whether he got the Sunday New York Times. Walker responded that he did, and then the man asked him what sections he went to first. Walker said business, then sports, then styles but did not say that he does the crossword puzzle.

“If you don’t do crossword puzzles, don’t work here,” the McKinsey employee said. “We solve problems. We don’t fix them.”

With that, Walker realized that he was better suited to be a doer rather than a thinker and chose to pursue a different path.
Walker spoke briefly about some of his experiences during business school. He said that he had wanted to spend his summers and his life after school on Wall Street. However he chose to go to Paraguay for the summer after graduating from Harvard, thinking that he could work on Wall Street later.

He said that he gained valuable experience working for a small foundation in Paraguay that summer because “managerial issues are managerial issues.”

“I learned two valuable things that summer,” Walker said. “Don’t take things too seriously and always look at the root of the problem.”

While in Paraguay, he bought an airline and wanted to outsource its call center. In Latin America, however, there were no call centers to outsource to so Walker decided to build a call center.

Walker pointed out the temporality of what is considered to be “good” industry.

“Call centers were good models at the time,” Walker said. “Call centers have become human resource fulfillment companies; They’re not very good business models in today’s day and age.”

Walker praised international students at the Carey Business School venturing to learn about another culture as he did.
Walker also spoke about his two mentors, his father and Jack Hennessy. Hennessy told him to “get as many scars as quickly as possible,” which translated for Walker into fail and learn from your failures.

“I just came from Harvard, where you wanted to be the best,” Walker said. “This was an absolute paradigm shift for me.”
Walker then spoke about the difficulties faced by family-run businesses, including Walker and Dunlop. He said that a generational transfer in family companies is hard but his father did a good job by forcing Walker to take initiative almost immediately after joining the company.

In the early 2000s, the company had 45 employees in Bethesda and was “the proverbial little fish in a big pond.” Despite this, according to Walker, the company worked because it was built on a good business model that was implemented successfully.

Walker talked about the growth of his company through acquisition of other companies, mentioning that Walker and Dunlop is the 13th fastest growing company in the United States, focused mainly on acquiring other businesses and integrating them into the larger company. Today, Walker & Dunlop has 500 employees and does business nationwide. It competes with much larger global companies such as Goldman Sachs.

Walker believes the size of Walker and Dunlop is a marketing tool. He talked about his direct involvement with every aspect of the company. For instance, all employees get a handwritten card from him on their birthdays.

Walker presented a list of awards the company has won over the past year, including the title of “best place to work,” of which the company is extremely proud.

He concluded his talk by providing some advice to future businesspeople. He suggested finding a mentor, following up with people and persevering in the face of failure.

“You will make mistakes,” Walker said. “Have the conviction to hold steady to what you know is true. Take advantage of what you have here and this school.”

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