​Dan Milstein: From refugee to superstar broker

by External10 Jun 2014

US broker Dan Milstein went from a political refugee to the country’s top broker. Sarah Megginson reports

After arriving in the US as a political refugee aged 16, Dan Milstein overcame incredible odds to become the USA’s top broker.

Milstein was only a teenager when he fled the former USSR with his family, taking with him just one suitcase and 17 cents in change. Upon touching down his place of departure simply didn’t exist on paper anymore.

“We left Soviet Union on the last day of its formal existence – by the time our plane landed in Detroit in 1991, the USSR ceased to exist,” he says. “I didn’t speak any English and I really didn’t know what to expect.”

Before long he had enrolled in high school and, while most of his 16-year-old peers were fretting about gaining their driver’s license and dating girls, Milstein was diligently focusing on perfecting his English and doing well at school. He also began working part-time at McDonald’s.

“I worked 5am to 8am then went to school, and when I finished for the day I went back and worked some more,” Milstein explains. “To this day, I’m still grateful to McDonald’s because they gave me a chance and gave me my first job.”

It didn’t take Milstein long to become enchanted with the concept of living ‘the American dream,’ so he began looking for opportunities to get ahead.

“Whenever I took the bus downtown in Ann Arbor where I lived, I saw this big, beautiful building with people going in and out wearing beautiful suits. I knew right away that’s where I wanted to work,” he says.

“So one day I had enough courage to go in and ask for a job application. That’s how I got my first role in the industry, although to this day I’ll never know why they gave me a job!

“Obviously I didn’t have a suit, so I went to the Salvation Army and got my first suit – and suddenly I was a banker.”

Today, Milstein has a reputation for being among the top mortgage originators in the USA, but in those early days he had a lot to learn. He was attending Cleary University at the time, and his job was assistant consumer lending manager at TCF Bank.

“I was like a sponge – I’ve never learnt so many terms or numbers as I did in those first 60 days. But something clicked and I was very good at what I did,” he says.

Milstein went on to rise through the ranks at several banks and served as the youngest general manager at Comerica Bank, but he admits he actually failed twice to become a loan officer due to his inexperience in the mortgage industry.

He wound up at InterFirst, a division of ABN AMRO Mortgage Group, and that’s where he “learned the business inside and out.”

“At the time, it was ranked one of the top five or 10 banks in the world. I was hired as an underwriter, to underwrite loans all over the US for smaller banks and brokers,” Milstein explains.

“It was during this job that finally I worked out the reason I had failed those other times. I knew I was a great salesman and I could sell sand in the desert, but I was lacking knowledge of the operational side of things.”

This time around things would be different. Milstein was determined to succeed and he knew that in order to get ahead he needed to find a niche. He’d already been helping Russian immigrants to buy cars by translating and explaining loan documents, so it seemed only natural to tap into emerging markets with foreign nationals when building his loan book.

His strategy worked, with Milstein ranked in the top 25 in his first year with ABN AMRO out of 550,000 loan officers in the

“I closed 449 transactions that year,” he says, “and I’ve never looked back.”

In 2000, Milstein decided to branch out on his own and established Gold Star Mortgage Financial Group. The business has gone from strength to strength, with Milstein personally closing over $3bn in loans and the business closing more than $1bn annually.

Even though he oversees a staff of 500 and growing, Milstein remains hands on in the day-to-day running of his business. He confesses to having separation anxiety when away from work – on a recent vacation to Europe he got twitchy at around 4pm each day, which was 8am back home – and while he doesn’t routinely work with clients face-to-face, he does get involved in sales, planning and marketing strategy with his staff across all 43 offices.

“On Fridays, I don’t come to the office; it’s my Skype day. Anyone within the company from any of our offices around the country can call me and talk about any issues they’re having or discuss specific clients and sales,” he says.

“I’m very much available; I have an open-door policy, and I like to share my strategies. I’ve had some staff increase their business sevenfold within 12 months.”

Milstein, who has authored two bestselling books (2011’s The ABC of Sales: Lessons from a Superstar and 2013’s 17 Cents and a Dream), with another on the way, also carefully monitors the market to ensure his business is heading in the right direction.

“We’re seeing a much stronger purchase market, and those people who lost their homes two, three, four years ago will be able to qualify for finance in the next one to three years. Even if they have bad credit we can educate them on what they can do to be in the best position to get into a home in the future.”

“At this point in my career,” he adds, “my aim is to help others to achieve their dream.”