Scott Kelsey is the consummate team player. He’s quick to pass the credit to his partner, Tom Gates, at the Nassau Street office of Mortgage Master Inc., while keeping his eye on the goal of helping his clients.

“Tom has been a big part of my career the last 12 years, and we have grown our businesses together, side by side,” says Kelsey, who manages the office. “He is a huge asset to Mortgage Master’s Princeton branch.”

Kelsey knows a great deal about teamwork, having played more than 500 games in the ECHL, formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League, and the Colonial Hockey League, both mid-level professional hockey leagues, before trading his hockey stakes for wingtips and joining the mortgage banking world.

Kelsey joined Mortgage Master last May, about a week before Gates came on board, to open the Princeton office. The office employs two other people and is looking to hire one or two more employees. The company, based in Walpole, Massachusetts, has grown to become one of the country’s largest privately owned mortgage companies since its founding in 1988. It employs more than 420 employees in 22 states and lends more than $3 billion each year.

“The strategy of Mortgage Master isn’t like Dunkin’ Donuts, with one on each corner,” Kelsey says. “The company builds its branches around finding the right people who have the experience, contacts, sales tools, and a platform.”

Kelsey began working in the mortgage banking business in the Princeton area in 1998 and built a successful client base, which is why Mortgage Master approached him to open the local office. It’s not a career that was on his radar when he graduated from high school or college. Kelsey grew up in Clinton, New York, about 40 miles east of Syracuse. His father was a therapist, counseling people with drug and alcohol problems, and his mother was a nurse working in home health care and the emergency room.

A natural athlete like his father, brother, and sister, Kelsey began playing hockey around 4 years old. “My parents spent many miles lugging my brother, sister, and me to hockey and other games all over the area,” Kelsey says. He played for his high school and college hockey teams and was good enough to think he could go pro. “I was open-minded before I went to college, thinking initially about going into law,” he says. “But I had no focus so I chose a liberal arts college.”

He enrolled in his hometown’s Hamilton College, where he earned a bachelor’s in history and a minor in economics in 1993. “I thought I might go work in finance in New York,” he says. “But first, I thought I could play professional hockey. Hockey is a popular sport in upstate New York. Some of my friends went on to play professionally. At first, I thought I could play in Europe.”

Instead he was offered a contract with the Utica Bulldogs, a minor league team in the Colonial Hockey League. “My dad was very supportive,” Kelsey says. “He was drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers but didn’t give it a go because he couldn’t afford it. He wanted me to have the chance to play that was denied him.”

Kelsey played for 10 seasons, bouncing across three teams his first seasons from the Utica Bulldogs to the Muskegon Fury, and then to the Louisville IceHawks. He played for a full season with the San Antonio Iguanas, before going to the Memphis RiverKings, where he enjoyed his greatest success. Kelsey played four seasons in Memphis and went to playoffs for three of those years — the finals in 1996-97. He retired after the 1997-98 season, when some friends in the mortgage banking business encouraged him to enter the business. But a year later, the Trenton Titans were formed.

“The coach knew me and invited me to join the team,” he says. “It was my greatest moment in hockey, to be on the opening team roster when it first played in Trenton.”

After 18 months and 34 more games Kelsey hung up his skates for good and settled down to the mortgage banking business full time. “It was an intense lifestyle,” he says. “Surprisingly few players make it to the NHL, though some of my teammates did. Some even went on to teams that won the Stanley Cup.”

Kelsey played mostly defense and some years racked up his team’s second-most penalty minutes. “That only occurred by necessity,” he says.

The hockey experience proved surprisingly beneficial for a career in mortgage banking. “I learned, as you would in any sport, to remain focused and disciplined,” he says. “You have to prepare your mind for each game. It’s no different in what I need to do today to be successful.”

He got his start in the mortgage banking business in Princeton in 1998, when he first worked with Gates, a seasoned pro in the business, with 17 years of originating mortgages.

Gates, a Princeton native, went to school at the University of Vermont, where he studied mass communication and planned on a career in the film and television industry. He certainly didn’t want to do what his father did for a living — finance. The senior Gates commuted from Princeton to U.S. Trust in Manhattan, in a suit, for 35 years. It was not something the son wanted any part of.

But since “there’s more money in money” than in the television business, Gates says he went into finance and mortgages and hasn’t looked back. He moved back from the Boston area in 1993.

“Tom was integral in helping me learn the business from day one,” Kelsey says. “We both were able to enjoy many years of success at our past company. We also co-managed a branch for that company for the last two years we were there.”

In early 2010 Mortgage Master recruited Kelsey and Gates. It was the right move at the right time for Kelsey. “I got the opportunity to take my career to the next level,” he says. “Mortgage Master is a high volume company and it was coming to our town.”

The real estate market in the Princeton area is an attractive place to be, Kelsey says. “In our first six months, we did about $50 million to $60 million in businesses and we have another $25 million in the pipeline. Our sweet spot is helping people with mortgages anywhere from $50,000 to $5 million.” He adds: “There is a big cross section among our clients, from a Wall Street executive seeking large home to a kid just out of college looking to buy a condo.”

About 90 percent of the business is in refinancing, Kelsey says. Historically, refinancing accounts for about 40 percent of the mortgage business. The imbalance is due to the blend of a down economy and low interest rates, though refinancing lately has been dropping as new sales are slowly beginning to pick up.

“There are some good opportunities out there,” he says. “Some people are still waiting, hoping to buy at the bottom of the market.

“But the housing market isn’t going to get much better than it is right now.” It’s also highly competitive out there. Mortgage Master’s competition, Kelsey says, “is anyone lending money for a mortgage, from small banks to existing mortgage companies.”

Kelsey also enjoys the prospect of helping people. “You meet so many interesting people in this business,” he says. “A home is one of the biggest investments people usually make.” But the industry has gotten complex in qualifying people. “It is much tougher today than when I started,” he says. “But I really enjoy its challenges and structuring deals that get people into their new homes.”

He finds he is often dealing with people in tough situations today, such as a couple selling their home — and looking for two new ones — because they are getting a divorce. “If I do my job right, then they have one less thing to worry about,” Kelsey says. “They can focus instead on getting a new job and their kids.”

Speaking of tough situations, there is today’s mortgage market reality. Rather than rattle off a list of what’s changed since the loan market fell apart in 2008, Gates simply says “everything.” The rules, the regulations, the guidelines — all of them have become tighter and more controlled. The free-wheeling approach to loans and refinancing (such as drive-by inspections, for which a re-mortgage lender literally drives past a property and evaluates the borrower’s request from the car window) is no more.

“No-doc” loans — loans that required no proof of income that became known as “liar loans” — are not dead, Gates says, but they are harder to come by. You can still get a no-doc, but you had better be prepared to put up 30 to 40 percent on the table before you sign.

Still, Gates says, business is going well. The trend in 2010 was heavy on refinancing, but already this year, he says, Mortgage Master is seeing more actual purchases.

Kelsey came to Mortgage Master with a large clientele — people he sees as indispensable. “We are realists here,” he says. “We couldn’t have survived in this industry if we weren’t.

“The standards today are much tougher for us and for home buyers. Our job is to guide people through the mortgage process. That means, I can’t sugarcoat the bad news.”

Ten years ago it was easier to qualify for a mortgage. “I’m not sure I could have been as candid as I need to be today,” he admits. “Of course, I also know the system, the licensing and different products, too, and I’ve developed a trust factor with my customers.”

#b#Mortgage Master Inc#/b#., 215 Nassau Street, Princeton 08540; 609-577-4164; fax, 609-613-5579. Scott Kelsey, manager.

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