CitiMortgage CEO Sanjiv Das helps people keep their homes

There is very little in Sanjiv Das' uncluttered office.

Just snapshots of his wife and his 20-year-old daughter, Natasha. No pictures of his favorite sports: golf and cricket.

Das has moved around the world, run credit card acquisitions for American Express in India, and handled the mortgage business for Citibank in Sydney. But none of it compares to what he's doing now.

His spartan office shows Das hasn't even had time to personalize his space. Most of his spare time is invested in his job as CEO and president of CitiMortgage.

Just eight months ago, Das found himself charged with motivating 10,000 employees and revitalizing a franchise caught in the throes of one of the biggest housing crises to hit the USA.

It's the riskiest thing Das says he has ever done.

"The single biggest issue I face is to be able to deal with this onslaught of unemployment and negative sentiment (toward banks) out there that none of us control," says Das, 47. "We all feel, in our own small way, if we can ebb the tide, it will go toward turning around the economy of this great country, and belief in the housing market and trust in the banking system."

That would also benefit CitiMortgage's parent company, Citigroup, which has received $45 billion in financial rescue funds from the government since last fall, and whose health remains a worry on Wall Street.

As the head of CitiMortgage, Das says one of his goals is to bolster employee morale during a time of intense business demand and shrinking public respect toward financial institutions.

Another goal: to do what he can to avert some of the foreclosures crippling the housing market. Foreclosure filings — default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions — were reported on 803,489 properties in the first quarter, an increase of nearly 24% from the first quarter of 2008, according to RealtyTrac. One in every 159 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing during the quarter.

About 3.7% of Citi-serviced loans were 90 days or more past due at the end of 2008.

The workload means little rest for Das, who has told his wife and grown daughter that, these days, work comes first.

"I told them the prodigal husband and father will return," says Das, whose main office is in St. Louis.

Even over his customary breakfast of oatmeal, Das is always working, checking his BlackBerry. Night means little more than five hours of sleep. There is scant time for his favorite hobbies, such as going to Manhattan for Japanese food, watching cricket provided by a satellite dish at his home, or listening to classical music.

Helping borrowers

Das has already made a difference. He helped pioneer a first-of-a-kind program at CitiMortgage, the nation's fourth-largest lender, to help homeowners who have lost their jobs. Under the program, CitiMortgage allows eligible borrowers who have been newly laid off to have their monthly mortgage payments lowered by about $500 for three months.

The performance of CitiMortgage's loan modifications also has beaten national averages, the company says. It reported in March that 23% of delinquent home loans it modified over the past year fell into default again, far below federal figures that show about 55% of modified loans done by national banks were in default after six months.

Since 2007, CitiMortgage has modified 440,000 customers' loans, affecting $43 billion of mortgage debt.

In the fourth quarter, CitiMortgage says, among its customers facing potential foreclosure, Citi found a way to keep six of them in their homes for every one that was foreclosed upon.

"Our people are driven by the ability to find innovative solutions, as opposed to doing the same thing we do in good times," Das says. "Our mantra to people is very clear: It's about keeping people in their homes."

Others who know or who have worked with Das describe him as someone who has a knack for tough situations and ushering in change.

Trevor Harris, professor at Columbia Business School, worked with Das at Morgan Stanley when Harris was a managing director and vice chairman. Das had been managing director of Morgan Stanley's institutional securities group when he left last year to head CitiMortgage.

"He tries to understand the issue and problem and takes alot of different input," Harris says. "He identifies what he believes the right solution is (for a problem) and works hard to execute it. He tries to make everybody feel comfortable with the outcome."

It all harks back to a value system Das learned as a boy in Delhi. His father trained in the army, and it was from him that Das says he learned a sense of purpose and integrity in tough times. Raised in a family of three sons, Das says his upbringing instilled in him a belief in helping others, rather than in amassing material goods.

Now, with thousands of people working for him, Das says he tries to do as he was taught, such as by nurturing morale.

"You do that by integrity, and leadership is at the heart of my values," Das says. "The No. 1 thing I talk about are the customers. Each day, my business is to keep them in their homes, no matter what. That goes back to the values I was brought up with."

Das says he has always been fascinated by both the analytical and behavioral sides of business. He holds a bachelor's degree in math from the University of Delhi and an MBA in marketing and finance from the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad.

His day typically starts at 5 a.m. Once he's at work, he starts his routine every morning by meeting with other CitiMortgage executives to review the previous day's key performance measures. Other meetings often follow — with the CitiHoldings Management team or with staff to discuss new programs and ways to keep people current on their mortgages. He holds conference calls with teams implementing the new White House program to avert foreclosures, monitoring Citi's progress and resolving impediments.

"I remind my staff to stay focused on the help they can offer to alleviate financial pressure on those caught up in the economic turmoil," Das says in an e-mail.