2011 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Integrity is not a suit you put on in the morning and take off at night."
Glenn Stearns was born in 1963, in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he was raised in low-income apartments on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. His father worked as a printer, and his mother clerked at the local grocery store and cleaned homes.
“We had bars on our windows, drugs being sold on street corners, and I wasn’t allowed to play outside after dark. When I was five, I found a gun near my apartment and carried it around for days. The laundry room in our building was set on fire with my two-year-old sister inside. She might have died, but I happened to be there to pull her out. My childhood seemed normal because that was all I knew,” Glenn quips.
When he was eight years old, Glenn moved with his parents and sister to a small house near the railroad tracks in Rockville, Maryland. “My dad paid $14,000 for that house and we were very proud of it,” Glenn affirms. “My father worked hard, but struggled personally and financially. Dad worked the graveyard shift, and mom was always busy helping out. Mom and dad smoked and drank heavily. I grew up with little structure, but I did hear about ‘integrity.’ That is one gift Mom and Dad insisted on giving.”
Glenn’s grandparents, aunt and uncle, and ultimately his mother, all died from alcohol-related issues. When he was 12, Glenn went on a fishing trip to the Chesapeake Bay with his father. “My dad was drinking heavily that day,” he recalls, “and he passed out in the truck. I helped drive us home and nearly made it, but a block from my house we wrecked the truck. The police came and took my father away. Life is what you see…and that was life.”
Glenn was a socially adept child, but struggled in school. He was diagnosed with dyslexia, but this was kept from him by his parents. He was humiliated when he failed the fourth grade.
Glenn began working at the age of eight, earning $6 a month delivering a small paper. At 10, he was selling the Montgomery County Journal. For that job, he remembers being picked up in a van with other boys. They were dropped off at apartment complexes and given a bundle of papers to sell within a specified time. Glenn enjoyed the competition. “This was probably one learning experience I excelled at,” he says. “I was keen at analyzing the buyer. By the end of the night, I would have 12 to 15 sales and the others guys would have only two or three.”
At 13, Glenn’s unstructured life led to life-changing complications. When he was 14, his 17-year-old girlfriend became pregnant. She elected to raise the child. Glenn’s mother quit her job to take care of her grandchild during the day. At night, the baby’s mother picked up her daughter and returned to her parents’ house. “I felt depressed when this all happened,” says Glenn. “As if I’d let everyone down. How odd it felt to be more like an older brother than a father to my own daughter.”
Glenn secured a job at the local mall to help his family with household expenses, but had to hitchhike to and from work since he did not own a car and wasn’t old enough to drive. In high school, he worked part time in a restaurant and gave most of his earnings to his mother.
When he was 17, Glenn’s parents divorced. “Years later my father told me the day my mother left him was the day that saved his life,” he says. “It took her leaving for him to hit rock bottom and acknowledge he had a problem—he was an alcoholic. He entered recovery and has remained sober ever since. Today we have a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. I am very proud of him.”
As a senior in high school, Glenn was determined to go to college. His counselor told him if he was serious about that goal, he would have to dramatically increase his grades, which at the time were a D average. Glenn hit the books and by graduation, he was an honor-roll student. He enrolled as a freshman at Salisbury State, and transferred to Towson University the following year. The first in his family to attend college, Glenn graduated with an economics degree. He was also a founding father of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity on the Towson campus. Glenn credits his fraternal advisor’s belief in him and that leadership experience as a contributing factor to his success.
Soon after graduation, he ventured on a cross-country road trip with his best friend to California. While staying in Orange County, an afternoon walk along the coast started him thinking about his own future. Sitting on a park bench overlooking the ocean, he decided to ask a man doing yard work what he did for a living that afforded him the luxury of owning such an amazing home. The man replied, “I am just the gardener. The owner is in real estate.” And with that, Glenn’s career path was set. When his friend returned to Maryland, Glenn stayed behind to begin a new career as a home loan officer while splitting time working as a waiter. Ten months later, a partner with $100,000 helped Glenn start his own mortgage company. They were turning a profit in six months.
To expand his business, he became a settlement contractor for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Starting with one contract for Orange County, California, Glenn expanded nationally, becoming the largest settlement contractor for HUD in the United States. He bought out his partner in 1999 and sold his escrow company, putting those profits back into his mortgage business. Seeing a void in the industry, he also started an audit company to service HUD and soon became one of their largest auditors in the country. He continued to build upon his success until the mortgage industry crisis of 2007.
Within a matter of months, Glenn’s company suffered a crippling 80 percent loss of revenue. “We had class action lawsuits, multiple millions in loan default and unsold nonperforming loans. This was a very dark time for me,” he says. “I went to a close friend and mentor, George Argyros—a Horatio Alger Member since 1993—who encouraged me to hang on tight and have confidence. He told me I would one day see things from the other side of this crisis and said, ‘This too shall pass.’ When someone you admire believes in you, it gives you the confidence you need to work through adversity.”
It was a daunting challenge to keep the doors of the business open, but when he watched all of his competitors going bankrupt, he saw his window. Glenn decided to employ many of the teams of mortgage professionals around the country that had been abandoned by their previous employers. “I knew I would never have an opportunity like this in the future. I found teams that had all worked together for 15-20 years. They were the best in the industry. Were it not for this financial crisis, they would still be working for their former employers. We took the chance and hired over 1,000 mortgage professionals in 2007-2009.” Glenn emerged as the number-two independent mortgage banker in California and the number-four independent mortgage lender in the country. Today his financial services corporation currently includes Stearns Lending, Stearns Wholesale, FPF Wholesale, Goverline, TriVerify, TriMavin, and CU Partners.
Glenn Stearns’ life is based on an idea that integrity will produce advantage, and drive will turn advantage into success. “Integrity,” he says, “is not a suit you put on in the morning and take off at night. Integrity is a seed you plant in your youth and grow with adversity, failure, and perseverance.” To know Glenn Stearns is to know that he does not stop at asking, “Why?” because he always insists, “Why not?”
Mr. Stearns is a regular speaker at conferences and events including his alma mater, Towson University. When he tells his young audience about his life experiences and struggles, he concludes his talk on a positive note. “I think challenges and disappointment can be wonderful teachers,” he says. “The hard times allow us to appreciate the successes of hard work. I think that when you look at the positive and negative influences on your life, you have a choice to make: You can either choose to be a victim, or you can look at your circumstances as a learning opportunity and choose to move forward and grow. If you make the choice to move through the pain and overcome adversity while maintaining your integrity, you possess the true makings of a leader. When I look back on my childhood, in a strange way I feel privileged to have been so underprivileged.” Mr. Stearns believes, “In each of our lives exist two kinds of people—balcony people and basement people—those who want to pull you up and those who want to pull you down. You’re better off surrounding yourself with balcony people.”
When asked how he defines success, Mr. Stearns says, “If you dedicate your life to improving the lives of others and speak the truth, others will make you successful.” He adds, “Having a daughter at 14 who is now the mother of my two grandchildren and my best friend ain’t too shabby either! Sometimes what appears to be the worst situation in your life can turn out to be the biggest blessing in your life.”
In 2004, Mindy and Glenn Stearns competed in the reality television show, The Real Gilligan’s Island. He won, matched his earnings, and donated $500,000 to local charities that provide opportunity for youth. Recently Glenn and Mindy created Life Changing Lives, a charity gala held annually on September 11th to pay tribute to American heroes. To date, the event has raised millions for multiple local and national organizations. In 2009, Mr. and Mrs. Stearns were presented with the Giving Is Living Award for being an outstanding philanthropic couple in Orange County, California. In addition, the Stearnses have been given multiple awards for their generosity toward youth and community services. The Mayor of Newport Beach, California, declared December 21st as “The Stearns Family Foundation Day”.
Glenn Stearns sits on 11 nonprofit boards, which mostly serve youth. He believes in spreading the dream, “One child at a time.”