Senior Vice President, Counsel, Head of Energy
Chicago Title Insurance Company
New York City, NY, USA
Field: Title Insurance
While attending Brooklyn Law School, and later while attending NYU School of Law, Vin DeFina maintained an interest in the field of real estate, and now, with nearly 30 years of experience, he serves as a senior vice president, counsel and Head of Energy in the New York City office of the Chicago Title Insurance Company. He has expertise in title insurance underwriting, claims and sales on all commercial asset types of property, including and specializing in energy assets such as wind farms, solar farms, hydro, fossil fuel plants, and geothermal energy. Utilizing his skills, Mr. DeFina oversees transactions from beginning to end to make sure title closes timely and smoothly. He also provides marketing for the business. Serving as the chief energy officer in the New York City National Office, he also takes many trips nationally to meet with clients and attend conferences.
Mr. DeFina earned a Bachelor of Arts in economics from Queens College of the City University of New York, a JD from Brooklyn Law School in 1973 and a Master of Laws from The New York University School of Law in 1980. He passed the bar exam in three different states: New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. In addition to his role with Chicago Title Insurance Company, Mr. DeFina has been heavily involved in contributing time to his community in Greenwich Connecticut such as in the drafting of the Greenwich Emergency Medical Service contract between the Town of Greenwich and the GEMS Ambulance Service. He has also been a member of the Greenwich Board of Health for 16 years, serving as chairman for two years, and served on the advisory board of St. Catherine’s of Sienna Parish as president.
Mr. DeFina attributes his successful career to hard work, perseverance, his ability to get along with people and family support. He oftentimes serves as a guest lecturer for the NYU Real Estate Institute, Pace Law School, and the University of Connecticut MBA Program.
Conversation with Vin DeFina
Worldwide Publishing: On what topics do you consider yourself to be an expert?
Vin DeFina: Title insurance.
What characteristics help to separate you from your competitors?
My experience, education and practical knowledge. I worked on all sides of the real estate closing table during my career representing buyers, sellers and lenders, and as a closer at one point. I also spearheaded the claims department for another title company, so not only do I know the underwriting side, but I know the claims side and I use that knowledge on the sales side.
What motivates you?
I always liked real estate and I received As in my real estate classes in law school. Being constructive in whatever I do also motivates me.
What lessons have you learned as a professional in your field?
Never burn a bridge, because if you are in the same industry long enough, you’ll come across the same people a lot. You should do the best service you can and not alienate industry colleagues or customers.
What short-term and long-term career goals are you currently pursuing?
My short-term goal is to pay my mortgage off and my long-term goal is to see my family on good footing and then step back. I changed my definition of retirement — I plan to gradually slow down, but I will always continue to be in the arena. I’m happiest when I’m busy. As long as the backup is there that I need to do the detail work, I am happy to meet the clients, help them structure a deal and get the job done for them. I would also like to publish a book that I am writing on commuting to and from Grand Central Station.
What is the most difficult obstacle or challenge you have faced in pursuit of your goals?
The biggest thing that knocked me down was when two partners, with whom I had brought into the company, decided to leave, and went after the same client base. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because my colleagues in my NYC office supported me, not to mention my wife’s support. Instead of giving up, I tried harder. When these things happen, the clients who know you the best will stay loyal to you.
Schooling was somewhat grueling. I took three bar exams—Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut—over a period of five years.
What is the most significant issue facing your profession today?
We face issues in mechanic’s liens, which is when a builder or its subcontractor work on a project and if they don’t get paid, they can put a lien on the project. We need to insure that everything is paid. We expend large amounts of money to defend our insured in court against these liens as defense costs are included in our policy coverage. We sometimes have issues with agent defalcation when the economy is weak. We have to watch our escrows closely and also watch for fraud in the real estate marketplace. We strive to make sure that we don’t miss anything in searching title. Regarding settlements, [which involve] a good deal of money passing through our company, we make sure that the monies are safe and disbursed properly. Competition is very tough, but we are very good at what we do. Our customers must have recognized this, as our NYC office was the number one office in revenue in our entire family of companies in 2013.
What are some questions that an individual interested in your services can ask to ensure a more productive relationship?
They should ask: ‘Do you have sufficient support staff to handle my business?’; ‘Do you have experienced support staff to handle my business?’; ‘Can I deposit escrow money with you and have it be safe?’; ‘Do you have a good reputation in the community and the industry?’; ‘What is the strength of your balance sheet?’; and, ‘Are you willing to come and meet with us, to see who we are dealing with?’ I still like person-to-person contact. In this business, it’s all about the personal relationship. You have to assume the competition is as good as we are. They are not, but you have to assume that they are. You have to differentiate yourself by going the extra step — show them you are better than the competition, that you are interested in them and that you recognize that their transaction is very important to them, and as such, you will be involved to make sure it goes smoothly. Socializing with customers is also important to the extent that they get a better understanding of you and you of them.
Did you ever consider pursuing a different career path or another profession?
Yes, I considered applying for the position of recreation director for the town of Greenwich 20 years ago. The benefits were great and it was local job. Also, about six or seven years ago, I started writing short stories about what was happens on the train ride to and from work. I want to get them published [as a collection of short stories]. I think the name of the book will be “Riding Backwards,” and I want to give the book out to customers. I’m taking a course right now about publishing.
What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your profession?
If you can get to the point where you are working mostly on large deals, it is great. In the energy sector, transactions are large. There are only certain people in my industry who work on the energy deals well, and my team is a leading and well-known team for Chicago Title in this sector. It is demanding work to do these kinds of deals and they take time. Being a seasoned person in the field is a big factor in obtaining business. I enjoy the social part of the business as well, and I like to do some traveling to meet with my clients. It is very rewarding when a large transaction closes after months and months of work. It is even more rewarding when one receives a call from a satisfied customer giving you another deal, [since] they were pleased with how you handled their first transaction.
What is your favorite or least favorite work-related task to do and why?
I love meeting with my customers. I get to travel, meet them and socialize with them. I also love planning an event where they are able to come. My least favorite part is the high-detail work that I used to do as an underwriter and other administrative detail work.
What advice can you offer fellow members or others aspiring to work in your industry?
There are attorney sales people who have a lot of background in real estate, and then there are pure salespeople who have somewhat a bigger personality and become friends with the customers—that works, too. You can do it one of two ways. You can be very outgoing, and people are attracted to you, or you may not have quite such a big outgoing personality, but you have the experience. You can also have both, by having a good technical background and an outgoing personality. If you maintain relationships with your peers as a young sales person, over the years these, peers will eventually advance to the point where they control deals. Those deals will then come to you if you are attentive to their needs.
Who have been your mentors or people who have greatly influenced you?
My mom because she always did my homework with me and guided me through early schooling. My dad, who was a printer, introduced me to the financial printing world in a summer job in college. This is where I met corporate attorneys and the CEO of the printing company as a “proof boy,” which is when I decided to apply to law school. The person who is most significant in my success is my wife, Barbara, now a dentist, whom I met in college and who has been by my side for the past 40 years through thick and thin. She has always given me good advice even when, at the time, it might not have been appreciated for the good advice that it was.
What changes have you observed in your industry/field since you started?
There has been a consolidation of companies. There were more companies around when I started. The technology has changed a lot. Now it’s faster to do the searching, and deals seem more complicated now than when I started on the financing side. Personality-wise, this company has become a place to learn the industry and it is the most familial. We are more efficient under the command of this chairman. We are a public company now, so there is more reporting and more focus on the bottom line. The phone doesn’t ring as much as most correspondence is by email. However, I have found that when there is a real issue, it is best to discuss it in person or on the phone with the customer.
How do you see these changes affecting the future of your industry?
I think, eventually, the land records will be more computerized and the quickness of producing title commitments will increase. It still takes a week or so to do a search and issue a title commitment. You need to be computer literate, and you have to have a half-full attitude. There are problems all the time and you have to solve them as they occur. Finally, I have found it best to be optimistic in your approach to any problem or issue.