Business News

When Life Threw This Houston Astro a Curve, He Came Back Swinging

By Adam Korengold | April 12, 2016

When Life Threw This Houston Astro a Curve, He Came Back Swinging As a new baseball season opens, we caught up with former major leaguer Jeff Heathcock, who left The Show and joined Fannie Mae on a “temporary basis.” What he didn’t expect was the same emotional strength he needed on the mound would help him navigate a successful 20-year career helping homeowners and improving Fannie Mae’s real estate owned (REO) properties.

How many of your co-workers have an entry in the Baseball Reference? Jeff Heathcock does. He pitched 158 innings and had 18 decisions, winning nine, for the Houston Astros between 1983 and 1988. He also spent all or parts of 10 seasons in minor league baseball.

Unlike most people who go straight from college to a career, he says, “I got to put off working in the real world for 10 years. It was a blast.”

Heathcock’s baseball career came during a time when most players – unless they were superstars – needed to find work in the offseason. He poured concrete for several years and completed college with the expectation of working in construction. In the early 1990s, though, the building industry slowed. So he looked for work in other industries and began doing real estate appraisals, which led him to Fannie Mae.

He was in jeans and a work shirt, on a call to sell heavy equipment, when the company contacted him for an interview.

He found a quick change of clothes and got the job.

Heathcock expected the position as a real estate analyst to last for only six months. “But I thought it would be a lot better than what I was doing. And I stayed for 20 years.”

He began reconciling values for REO properties, then moved to a field specialist role in which he conducted quality checks to make sure needed repairs had been completed on Fannie Mae homes for sale. In 2008, after Hurricane Ike, he relocated temporarily to Houston to conduct assessments on damaged properties.

Today, the former major leaguer is a repair specialist lead with Fannie Mae’s credit portfolio management group, which manages REO properties. Heathcock makes sure these former foreclosures are appropriately maintained and repaired so they can be sold through the company’s HomePath® program at the best price.

This job gives him great pride because, as he says, “We try to do the right thing. You have to keep values up in the neighborhood. You can see it doing property inspections where there are properties that other investors don’t appropriately maintain and repair. And then there are ours, where the yard is maintained, and there’s new paint. It’s as simple as being good neighbors.”

Heathcock has been with Fannie Mae long enough to have experienced some challenging business environments: “I’ve been through three or four business cycles. People change and processes change, but REO for the most part stays the same. We do it the right way.”

Still, he’s used to seeing change at Fannie Mae. “You go to Dallas and you talk about the weather – but just wait for five minutes and it will change. We’re constantly trying to change and make things better. Let’s start working smarter and get things done. There’s always a better mousetrap.”

Heathcock notes that the work ethic that sustained him as a pitcher also serves him well at Fannie Mae. “The good thing about the people I’ve worked for over the last 20 years is that everybody is willing to listen to a better idea and a better way to get from A to Z. That’s what has kept me engaged for as long as I’ve been here.”

Everyone pitches in, “no matter what their paycheck says. You’ve got to actually go out and do your job. Only one team wins the World Series. So what do you do when you’re 17 games out at the All-Star break? You’re playing for the name on the front of your uniform.”

Which leads Heathcock to reminisce a little about his playing days.

He recently attended a reunion in Houston of fellow former Houston Astros. (“They called it a Legend’s Reunion, not that I’m any legend, but I still got invited.”) And he was joined by teammates including Nolan Ryan and Jose Cruz, who played on the division-winning, “Tequila Sunrise” uniform-wearing Astros teams in the 1980s.

He is also still plugged into the game, offering thoughts on his new “home team,” the Washington Nationals, “if they get any kind of pitching at all.” And he notes that one of his neighbors, who played two years ahead of his own son in Little League, is Nolan Arenado, the Colorado Rockies’ All-Star, Gold Glove-winning third baseman.

Jeff’s hope for Fannie Mae? To see the company “rise out of the ashes” – something that he is playing a role in making possible.

Having experienced the most difficult days of the company and its recovery brings to mind what Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller said about the game of baseball: “Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is, with a new game every day.”

It’s as true for business as it is for baseball, he notes.

Adam Korengold is a research analyst with Fannie Mae’s corporate communications team.