Growing up, Fred Westerlund didn’t dream about going to West Point. Although his grandfathers had served in the military, he never thought seriously about joining the armed forces. Then, as he finished high school with his mind set on getting a degree in engineering, he began to look into various financing options and started considering ROTC. His guidance counselor told him something he wouldn’t soon forget. “He told me I would never get into West Point,” remembers Fred. “And that gave me a goal I was determined to achieve. I’m the type of person who is highly motivated by hearing what others think I cannot do. So, I made a commitment to myself to challenge his conclusion.”
Fred committed himself fully to the application process. He completed the necessary forms, took the physical fitness test, went on interviews, and travelled to his Congressman’s office to meet with the staff there. Fred’s father drove him to the interview where a dozen other young people were also competing for Representative Brian Donnelly’s coveted recommendation. “After the interview, I got in my dad’s car and told him, ‘I’m going to West Point! I’m in,’” remembers Fred. “My dad reminded me not to get my hopes up too high, but I had that strong feeling of knowing all your hard work is about to payoff. I knew I would get it.” And he did.
At West Point, Fred was challenged beyond what he could have imagined, but the experience gave him confidence and leadership skills he would carry throughout the rest of his career. “That first year was especially hard,” he recalls. “You’re getting letters from your friends in college talking about the parties they’re attending, and I’m here working on weekends. I was balancing a heavy course load with military education and leadership development. Even dinner was preceded by a formation. You have to want it, and I definitely wanted it. I just felt like it was so special to be at West Point. I felt honored and privileged to be accepted there.”
When it came time to specialize, Fred chose to go into the ordinance corps—a combat support group responsible for equipment maintenance and ammunition supply. He was ranked relatively high in his class which meant he was able to choose his post early. He selected Fort Hood in Texas. “My logic was that of a young man. I chose Fort Hood at least partly because Miss Texas always seemed to be in the running for Miss America,” laughs Fred. “But seriously, it’s a huge installation with plenty of opportunity.”
“I guess that’s what the platoon needed,” Fred reflects, “They needed to see a platoon leader who was in it with them, who understood what they did, and who cared for them.”
While at Fort Hood, Fred took over a platoon in a company and began to make use of his newly honed leadership skills. He loved managing the team, working alongside his people, and earning their respect. “I later learned from my commander’s performance evaluation that my platoon had been a recalcitrant group of soldiers, and I had formed them into a productive, high-performing team,” says Fred. “Evidently the previous platoon leader liked to sit in the office and complete paperwork. I’m not that kind of person. I thrived at this assignment by being outside, being physically active, and being part of the team.” Fred’s platoon managed half of the largest ammunition supply point in the United States, and day after day, Fred would first handle any necessary paperwork before going to the bunkers to load and unload ammunition with them. “I guess that’s what the platoon needed,” Fred reflects, “They needed to see a platoon leader who was in it with them, who understood what they did, and who cared for them.”
This is the type of leader Fred has always been, and still is today. He’s in the bunker sweating with his team, not sitting on the hill doing paperwork. Throughout his career, Fred has been asked to revitalize teams, processes, and whole businesses. As he’s gone about this work, he’s always prioritized the happiness and well-being of the team. It’s not just soft-heartedness that pushes Fred to carefully consider the needs of his staff; it’s just good business sense. “I truly enjoy teaching and coaching people. When someone wants to be coached and is receptive to feedback, it’s a really rewarding feeling to watch them grow,” Fred asserts. “You want people to be happy. If you give them the tools and a supportive work environment, you will achieve most of your goals.”
Fred’s methodology has been validated in each role he’s held, and in 2017, he brought his proven talents to MBH Settlement Group (MBH) where he was hired as CEO. MBH is a prominent title insurance company in Northern Virginia that has been doing steady business for over 25 years but may have stagnated in the years leading up to Fred’s involvement. “MBH was well known in real estate circles, but at that time, there was a lot of room for growth,” recounts Fred. “I thought revitalizing such a well-known brand would be a terrific challenge. I thought it would be really special and would impact a lot of people in a positive way.”
Since Fred took the helm, MBH has grown by any measure. For example, employee turnover is down significantly—a statistic which, in typical Fred fashion, he proudly cites first. Client satisfaction, meanwhile, is at 96%, a reliable indicator thanks to Fred’s strategic switch to new software that automatically sends out client surveys after each transaction. The financials have blossomed as well, with revenue and profits increasing. “All metrics are heading in the right direction,” observes Fred. “In the first year, you’re laying the groundwork. Now we’re really starting to see the impact, and I feel good about what we’ve done and where we’re heading. You give your employees the tools to succeed, ensure they understand what success looks like, help them see that they’re part of something bigger, and make sure they’re appreciated. The results speak for themselves. Client satisfaction increases when employee satisfaction increases.”
Fred’s employee-focused approach is aimed at ensuring a positive and inclusive culture at MBH, with an emphasis on meaningful collaboration and strong personal relationships. Under his leadership, MBH’s offices are encouraged to work together. Employees engage socially at the company’s annual holiday party and summer event, and the company’s performance is reviewed and our goals and path forward are discussed at our “all-hands” meeting. Fred believes in sharing the company’s plans and getting employees personally invested in the company’s success. Fred has also worked to introduce more performance metrics and recognize and reward outstanding individual and team performance.
“One thing I really admire and respect about my mother is that she cared about her kids,” affirms Fred. “She felt responsible for them and wasn’t just cashing a paycheck.”
MBH has 20 offices in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. By refocusing on employee engagement and satisfaction, Fred has positioned MBH to successfully expand its market share and continue its upward trajectory—but he knows growth cannot come at the expense of the positive changes he’s already effected. “Eventually we will pursue more business organic to D.C. and Maryland, but we’re going to do it right. We’re going to take care of our current clients first and continue investing in our employees.”
Fred comes by his passion for teaching and coaching naturally. While growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts, his mother was an elementary school teacher, and his father was a draftsman who coached in his spare time. He has one brother who is six years younger; and the family lived near his maternal grandparents. Every Sunday they would have dinner with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and eat the delicious food their grandmother spent all day cooking. Fred’s paternal grandparents also lived in the area, however in a town that was a little further away. As a boy, he remembers playing army, cops and robbers, street hockey, and pond hockey with the other neighborhood kids. He also loved football, baseball, and basketball.
In the summer, the family would go to Wareham on Cape Cod where Fred’s grandparents had a cottage. “In my memory, that place was huge,” smiles Fred. “We drove by there a few years ago, and it’s really not big at all. There was a little store that had candy for a penny or gum for a nickel and had other things like superhero comic books and little cowboy figures. My cousins and I would walk into that store with a quarter, get a bunch of cool stuff, and then walk down to the beach. It was a quiet, beautiful community.”
Fred’s parents were loving and supportive as he grew up. He remembers that his mother had a real, personal investment in her students. “One thing I really admire and respect about my mother is that she cared about her kids,” affirms Fred. “She felt responsible for them and wasn’t just cashing a paycheck. I think that rubbed off on me. It was easy for me to absorb and incorporate being responsible for your team when we were being taught that at West Point.”
His father, meanwhile, coached Fred’s sports teams from Little League baseball to football to the church league basketball team. Fred’s first job was a paper route, which he would do on his own except when it was snowing heavily, then his father would drive him along the route and stop in front of each house for Fred to jump out and deliver the paper. In retrospect, Fred realizes what a supportive thing it was to do, especially since his father had a bad back and would often be in pain after sitting for long periods of time. Fred is visibly touched as he states, “When I was probably five years old in kindergarten, I made a little sailback dinosaur out of clay. It was three or four inches long,” he describes. “Several years ago while visiting my parents, I saw that dinosaur on my father’s dresser. I couldn’t believe that he’d kept it for all those years. It reminded me of how supportive and loving my parents had been when I was a child.”
In his thoughtful way, Fred connects this feeling of love between a parent and child with the respect he shows his employees. “Everybody on my team has a relationship like that outside of work,” he reflects. “Every single person is special to someone else. I’m partly responsible for the overall well-being of the people on my team, and that’s a responsibility I take seriously.”
Fred went to West Point with a good grounding in what it meant to be a leader. He graduated with the ability to apply the values he’d grown up with. After his time as a platoon leader at Fort Hood, he became an Executive Officer in an equipment and automotive supply company and was the second in charge after the company commander. Then as the Berlin Wall came down, the government decided to offer buyouts to officers who wanted to leave the military early. Fred had loved his time there but knew he didn’t want to make it a career. He left after four years and headed out to put his engineering degree to work.
“We’d get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and would be out there rowing on the river. We were outdoors and on many mornings it would appear as if we were gliding on glass. It was wonderful,” reminisces Fred. “In my second year, we won the World MBA Rowing Championships up in Boston.”
His first job was with an engineering consulting firm in Fort Worth that worked on nuclear power plants. He began as an engineer and was working on design modifications and testing safety systems. Over time he began managing projects and making sales to utility companies and plant managers. Fred learned a lot after five years there but since there wasn’t much potential for moving up Fred decided he wanted to learn more about business. He left to attend the Wharton School of Business on a full-time basis.
At Wharton, he majored in finance and marketing. “Wharton’s known for its finance school so it made sense to major in finance. Plus, as an engineer, I was already comfortable with numbers,” explains Fred. “And I majored in marketing because of its role in helping to drive sales. You must grow revenue to run a business successfully.” For two years, Fred lived in Centre City, Philadelphia and would ride his bike to school. He also joined Wharton’s rowing crew. “That was a blast. We’d get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and would be out there rowing on the river. We were outdoors and on many mornings it would appear as if we were gliding on glass. It was wonderful,” reminisces Fred. “In my second year, we won the World MBA Rowing Championships up in Boston.”
While at Wharton Fred met his future wife, Chryssa, who, Fred is quick to note, has been incredibly supportive throughout his career. The couple has four children; three sons, who are 19, 18, and 14 respectively, and a 16-year-old daughter. “Chryssa allowed me to put my career first,” Fred says. “She has a great career and is a VP with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. But for many years, she put what she saw as the good of the family first allowing me to prioritize my career.”
After Wharton, Fred’s first job was with Sprint in Reston where he worked in sales. After 18 months, he landed a deal with France Telecom and was promoted to group manager. He took over a pricing group within Sprint Business Marketing in Dallas. There he helped introduce flexible pricing for the salespeople, and after his new pricing brought increased revenue, he was promoted to Director of Marketing for some new internet data products—a $500 million portfolio. He immediately slashed costs with his trademark efficiency and pulled them out of several trade shows that were costing $4 million annually but producing no revenue. Over his tenure, Fred grew his marketing portfolio 60% to over $800 million.
After eight years with Sprint, the company was planning to transfer him to Kansas City where the family had no connections. Fred began a new job search and was offered a VP role at NVR Mortgage Finance, a division of a large homebuilder in Virginia. “They had a unique business model and weren’t hiring leaders from other homebuilders. They wanted to build their bench with leaders from outside the industry,” relates Fred. “It was an interesting opportunity since I enjoy learning new things and taking on new challenges.” So the family moved to Maryland and Fred took over the Washington/Maryland region.
Fred applied his usual management techniques. He learned how the business operated, learned where the inefficiencies were, and pulled all the parts together to work fluidly. He, once again, ensured the staff knew they were appreciated and gave them the tools to succeed. “By the end of my second year we had the leading gross margin in the company at 69.7%,” he remembers. “In order to improve the organization, I first had to understand how everything operated from a loan officer’s perspective. That enabled me to apply what I’d learned elsewhere to streamline processes, emphasize customer service, redirect incentives, and provide coaching and additional training.” Within a couple of years, Fred was moved to headquarters in a COO role to lead title company operations. He was quickly promoted and in his six years as President, customer satisfaction scores and employee retention reached historic highs, the financials improved dramatically, and the business expanded into three new states.
In 2014, Fred sought a change of scenery and eventually took the COO role at PenFed Credit Union, the third largest credit union in the U.S. It was a great opportunity, but ultimately, Fred was receptive when approached by MBH ownership two years later.
As a leader, Fred always bears in mind his responsibility to his team. “I’m not just responsible for the results,” he says. “I’m responsible for the well-being of the team. I strive to give them the best possible environment in which to succeed. To me, that means making sure they understand what success is and then providing the tools and resources to achieve that success.”
To young people entering the working world today, Fred advises an open mind and confidence. “When you’re first coming out of college, it’s not a bad time to experiment,” he encourages. “You may not know exactly what you want to do. That first job and that first industry may not be for you. And that’s okay; just give every opportunity your best and try to learn and grow every step of the way. West Point was crucial in terms of building my confidence, and that confidence has been a key to my success. I enter every situation believing that I’m going to be a part of something special and knowing, with 100% certainty, that I’m going to make it a better place. If you embrace each new opportunity looking to help others and make a difference, then good things will come your way.”