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At The Hill, There Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

There’s a lot of talk about tall mountains in our offices lately. Even more than you’d expect for a company based in Colorado, where scrambling up a 14,000-foot peak is considered normal weekend recreation. Recently we decided to change the way we discuss client work within our walls. We adopted client code names, based on the “14ers” – mountains higher than 14,000 feet – that dot the Colorado landscape.

The change addresses something that’s a reality in our industry because of the nature of mortgage due diligence, and true for many other industries as well. The diligence community is a closely-knit one, in which it’s inevitable that employees have friends working for competitors. Also, our clients are extremely cautious about proprietary information being shared. One of the best ways to make sure important information doesn’t get shared, is to prevent employees from being able to identify the client or the project.

Although we have extensive confidentiality protocols to help ensure sensitive client information doesn’t get in the wrong hands, we felt that adopting client code names was a logical step.

While we were brainstorming naming schemes, Leon Niedzwiecki, who heads due diligence for us, suggested that we adopt the names of Colorado’s highest peaks. Colorado has 54 mountains that are at least 14,000 feet high, commonly referred to as “14ers,” which draw an estimated 500,000 hikers a year.

This endeavor resulted in some trying moments at first. For one thing, the mountains are named for historic events, places, concepts and people. They don’t all have the kind of ring to them that a marketer might come up with. Quandary Peak is an example. As is Mount Democrat, which a couple of Allonhillers thought might be offensive to the Republicans on our staff (I pointed out that the U.S. is a democracy – there is always another way to look at things, in other words). And there is my personal favorite: Mt. Sneffels, one of the most stunningly beautiful and forbidding mountains I’ve laid eyes on. I climbed Mt. Sneffels on the perfect day a few years ago. The snow was soft but not too soft -- climbing up was like walking up carpeted stairs. To come down, I sat down and slid. It’s a beautiful mountain, but the name isn’t that inspiring.

For the first several weeks, we were all a little flummoxed by the names. Checking on a deal meant translating the deal to mountain’s name. There was some skepticism at first, because the names sounded so silly and unfamiliar, and because we truly couldn’t tell what deal anyone was talking about without some decoding.

I knew it was a success, though, when I was at a charity event a couple of weeks ago. I met some friends who said their son was working for Allonhill (minor embarrassment here that I didn’t know he was working for us. But we have hired a LOT of people lately!). I asked what deal he was working on, hoping that would give me a clue as to who he was, and his dad said, “Actually, we have no idea. We ask him, and he says it is some mountain, and he can’t tell us what client that is.”

The real test came this week. I walked through our offices, introducing myself to anyone who has joined us in the past few weeks. I asked each one of them what assignment they were working on, and they all responded without hesitation with mountain names. It was clear to me they didn’t know the names of the actual clients. We have a couple of clients who are very large, and whose work is longer term, and for those I do not expect that their identity will be hidden from all employees. But I am confident that on transactional work, our staff generally doesn’t know who the client is, and they certainly don’t know anything about the assignment beyond the loans they are looking at.