A Passion For Success

April 27, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — As a young boy, Thomas W. Cronkright II was introduced to Rockford through the window of his grandfather’s truck as they made deliveries for the family hardware store. Now, he owns several commercial buildings in downtown Rockford.

Cronkright was dragged rather unwillingly into his first commercial purchase of 17 Squire Street. The address is now the home of Jade, a clothing boutique owned and operated by his wife, Julie. At the time, she was a hair stylist with a large book of clients, but with a passion to start a clothing store.

Cronkright, who had grown up in retail, had a sour outlook on the industry after his family’s hardware store was put out of business by large hardware-wonderland chains like Home Depot and Lowe’s. He was supportive of his wife, but he had reservations.

“You need to find a building to buy,” he told her, “because I need to find a way to lose less.”

So his wife went door-to-door in downtown Rockford asking if buildings were for sale, until she came across 17 Squire Street. The clothing store is now a success.

“Every night she comes home with a deposit slip and I eat crow — and I love it,” Cronkright said.

Name: Thomas W. Cronkright II
Company: Sun Title
Position: CEO
Age: 33
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Rockford
Family/Personal: Wife, Julie, whom he met in seventh grade. The two started dating shortly after high school.
Community/Business Involvement: Part of the Downtown Development Authority of Rockford, steering committee member of the Rockford Community Expo.
Biggest Career Break: His time at Warner Norcross & Judd. He continues to leverage the education he received there in his business methods, and “that really set the tone for everything.”

His wife’s passion for creating Jade is the kind of passion that, mixed with integrity and gratitude, is important for success, said Cronkright. Passion is what led him away from his position as an attorney with Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone to fulfill a life-long dream of starting his own company. He did so with his long-time friend, Lawrence R. Duthler, as a business partner.

Cronkright and Duthler met in the cafeteria at Wayne State University during law school. Cronkright enrolled in law school to “learn how to read and write.” He had graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in finance, but knew that in order to reach his goals, he needed to learn how to express himself articulately and read analytically.

“Law school, for me, was addressing a pure weakness that I knew I needed when I went forward in my career.”

Both Cronkright and Duthler had West Michigan ties and similar career goals, and were sick of their study groups, so they started studying together.

“He and I went shoulder-to-shoulder through law school and it worked out well,” said Cronkright. “We’ve been best friends ever since and have worked through several business models, and this one is really grabbing hold.”

After law school, the two began practicing law at Warner Norcross and Judd. Cronkright later moved to Miller Canfield. Both men left their law firms to start Apex Financial, a mortgage company. Soon, they became increasingly frustrated with their experiences with title companies and saw a need for consistently good title service — with a spin on it, said Cronkright. The “spin” was being customer service oriented.

“We dealt with almost every major title company in West Michigan. Large, small — you just consistently came across lack of accountability, poor communication, a closing experience that was less than favorable — certainly not memorable at all — and just poor work product,” said Cronkright.

“No one really cared. When there was a problem, nobody stepped up. Everyone threw everyone else under the bus. We thought, you know what? There’s too much to this business not to have some accountability.

“You’re talking about the single largest asset in most people’s lives — their home, and the mortgage is the single largest obligation, so why aren’t we treating it like that?”

They created Sun Title in 2005, buying the building directly next door to Apex Financial. They sold the mortgage business shortly thereafter.

“Neither my partner nor I had any background in title. We just knew what we didn’t want to see, and I think that probably was our best advantage. Our whole company was built from a customer service approach because we were frustrated clients,” said Cronkright.

“We wanted to create an environment where our customers would like to bring their clients.”

They renovated the building, located at 1410 Plainfield Ave. NE, restoring the tin ceiling and brick walls and adding a Wi-Fi connection. A large meeting room with glass walls allows parents to keep an eye on their children in the lobby where there is a large plasma television and snack crackers.

“We have a place where you’re going to want to bring your client because they’re going to remember the closing — rather than the typical closing where you have this tight white box, the people that are closing make you feel like they’re inconvenienced by you even being there, and want you out as soon as possible,” said Cronkright.

“That’s not the case here. When people close, usually they’ll go outside, have a drink, and that’s the time our clients — the bankers, the mortgage companies and the realtors — spend with the buyer.”

Sun Title saw tremendous growth in the first two years, and Cronkright and Duthler wanted to expand the business, but were unsure how to reach into other areas without taking away from the experience at their original location.

“If we were going to go to the lakeshore and I was going to rent a space in a strip mall — that takes away from the uniqueness of over here,” he said. “We looked at some of the frustrations we had as title consumers before we started the company, and thought that we should be able to bring all the title services to their door in real time, and that’s when we came up with mobile closing.”

Sun Title’s mobile closing is a patent-pending method of making title services available from a mobile unit. The company bought several vans and equipped them with a computer and a printer/copier/fax machine connected through an “aircard” to the main office, said Cronkright. A laptop computer equipped with an aircard allows access to a wireless, wide-area network.

He gave the example of how homebuyers now are able to close at their newly purchased house. If there is any need for last-minute changes, they can “fire up the van” and make those changes within minutes. Sun Title is currently licensed in five states, with a license pending in a sixth, and it plans to use the mobile closing as the model for state-wide and national expansion.

Like most companies engaged in real estate, Sun Title felt the pains of the “mortgage meltdown,” but have been able to navigate through the slump with some success. Sun Title finished in the black last year with one of the company’s busiest months in February, and has actually added staff during the first quarter of this year. Cronkright commented on the company’s success: “It’s every day planting good seeds, delivering service and something that’s a little unique. It’s nice that the community is responding to it.”

On top of Sun Title and his real estate in Rockford, Cronkright also has a private law practice and dabbles moderately in foreclosed real estate, leaving little time for extracurricular activities like sleeping, he said, but he enjoys what he does.

“I think why we’re passionate about it is because you’re helping people,” he said. “Here you’re helping bankers, you’re helping developers, down to somebody coming in with their family buying their first house. That is just awesome to see.”

Cronkright recently hired an assistant and said he hopes to have more time to volunteer in the community — and maybe try that whole sleeping thing.

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