Beyond His Comfort Zone
As a first-generation college graduate from Athens, Tennessee, Larry Pratt (HCB, ’73) believes in the power of stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s how he became a self-made entrepreneur and founded the highly successful First Savings Mortgage Corporation. Today, Pratt serves as chairman and CEO of First Savings, the largest mortgage company in Washington, D.C. Under his leadership, the company has grown to employ almost 200 people with some $50 billion in closed loans.
WORKING HARD AND DISCOVERING A PASSION
Growing up in a small East Tennessee town, Pratt learned about the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, from his parents, both of whom were unable to attend college but wanted the opportunity for their children. When Pratt was five years old, his father took him to a UT football game. After that first game, they would attend at least one baseball, basketball or football game on campus each year, and those experiences formed Pratt’s love for the university and its athletics programs.
After high school graduation, Pratt briefly attended East Tennessee State University before he was conscripted into the U.S. Army. “Going into the military for a few years was really good for me,” he says. “It helped me gain focus.” When Pratt left the Army, he transferred to UT where he studied hard while working his way through school.
Despite excelling in his studies, Pratt wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his business degree. He started working at a local bank while he was still a student and continued there for a short time after graduation. Next, he accepted a job offer at a mortgage banking company in Nashville. Moving to a larger city sounded intimidating, but Pratt decided to challenge himself. He wanted to get out of his comfort zone, to develop and grow, even if doing so might prove difficult. The job ended up providing him with an opportunity to work hard and perform well. Paid on commission, in the first quarter he had earned enough excess income to buy his mother a clothes dryer. “We’d never had one growing up,” he says. “That was a big milestone for me.”
Over the next decade, Pratt worked for several mortgage companies. His career took him across the country and beyond, where he experienced different cultures and became more comfortable adapting to new situations. “All those jobs gave me experience in various aspects of the mortgage field and broadened my knowledge,” he says. “By the time I was in my early 30s, I’d found my passion in mortgage banking.”
FINDING AN ENTREPRENEURIAL FOOTHOLD IN THE MORTGAGE INDUSTRY
In 1989, Pratt again stepped outside his comfort zone when he founded First Savings Mortgage Corporation in Washington, D.C., where he’d lived for the previous few years. “I’d never had a desire to run my own company, but after observing the field for years, I felt like I could make a difference if I became a leader,” he says. When the company started, Pratt recalls there were more stockholders than employees because he had no money and had to raise funds to get off the ground.
Since then, First Savings has met with exceptional success, becoming the largest private lender in the Washington D.C. market and the number one lender in the district. In the mid-1990s, Pratt was able to buy out First Savings’ stockholders. “That was due to the performance of our employees and the relationships with investors that we’d developed as customers over the years,” he says. “It was a satisfying milestone.”
Pratt has come to enjoy the independence and control of entrepreneurship. “We can do things how our team thinks best. As an entrepreneur, you can foster creativity and curiosity, not just criticism.”
He also loves investing in his employees and seeing them succeed. “We like to hire people with no experience and watch them grow in our company and cross train,” Pratt says. “They become highly skilled and are less likely to leave. As a result, we have a high retention rate.”
First Savings president Dave Alden, who’s worked with Pratt since 1985, is one of the employees who stayed. He’s been with the company his entire 38-year career and attributes that longevity to Pratt’s leadership. “He’s a strong businessman who’s extremely fair and always puts people before profits,” says Alden. “We’ve never laid anyone off, even during turbulent financial times.”
Pratt’s focus on serving his workforce has created a culture of freedom within the organization, says Alden. “He doesn’t micromanage, and he’s calm and steady in a crisis. With leadership like that, people come and don’t leave.” Managers stay with First Savings for an average of 30 years, and employees for 17 years or more.
INVESTING IN ROCKY TOP
Since the mid-1990s, Pratt has been philanthropically involved with his alma mater, first through a UT Athletics endowment in his family’s name. “I felt I was giving back to my parents and my family because UT sporting events held such special memories for us,” he says. “That was significant for me.”
Pratt also donated $1 million to the STEP-UP Campaign, gave $5 million to create the Pratt Pavilion basketball facility, was lead donor on the Larry Pratt locker room renovation, donated $5 million to the Neyland Stadium project and created the Harold “Prof” Powers Endowed Scholarship for UT students from McMinn County, Tennessee, where his hometown of Athens is located. In addition, he created the Larry F. Pratt Flagship Endowment for students throughout Tennessee and is currently funding construction of the men’s and women’s golf fitness center.
Park Hilton Hotel Group president Tom Baltimore, a longtime friend, calls Pratt an extraordinary businessman and an even better person. “He’s generous and sincere, and does so much to help many people, but he … doesn’t want credit,” Baltimore says. “He’s an inspiration to me and so many others.”
To Pratt, philanthropy is a significant, life-changing form of investment. “I want to actually make a difference, not just talk about making a difference,” he says. “Many people helped me get where I am, and I want to help others succeed.”
For the past few years, Pratt also has contributed to the college with his time, speaking to and mentoring students in the Haslam College of Business’ Global Leadership Scholars program. “Really, I’m the one who comes away inspired,” he says. “The students are bright, engaged and so far beyond where I was as an undergraduate. I just try to share some personal experiences that might help them down the line.” Most of all, Pratt encourages students to find their passions and challenge themselves. “I tell them if you’re not comfortable sitting in the front row, go sit in the front row. Keep expanding your comfort zone.”