Her name is Melissa Dant: general counsel for National Asset Direct Inc. (NAD) and the iServe Companies by day, athlete and Tough Mudder racer by night. Backed with a JD from the University of Southern California Law School, where she was on Law Review, Dant boasts over 20 years of legal and business expertise. And despite the formalism of her experience, Dant resists the personal-professional dichotomy often self-imposed by professionals who prefer to keep work at work and play on the weekends. The ethics of Dant’s professional life—energy, aggressivity, and trust—are intimately wed with her after-hours athletic pursuits, which have not only placed her at the top five percentile of the 12-mile Tough Mudder race—qualifying her for the annual World’s Tough Mudder competition—but also makes her one of the few female general counsels in the highly competitive mortgage industry.
“It’s not a coincidence that the same skill set is necessary to succeed in athletics and in the legal and business world,” Dant says. Whether behind the desk or in front of the pack, the steps she takes to stay sharp are the same.
1. Life starts at the end of your comfort zone
Launched in 2010 by war veteran and Harvard MBA graduate Will Dean, the Tough Mudder race—first held near Allentown, Pennsylvania—has since turned into a national racing phenomena. It sets racers on a 10- to 12-mile off-road course with obstacles—barbed wire, log jumps, cargo nets, flaming trenches, freezing water—designed by the British Special Forces. Though the race itself was designed to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, it also works to emphasize the cooperative accomplishment of the racers who are pushed to their limits both physically and mentally.
“The Tough Mudder is really suited to my personality; it’s really physical and intense, and I’m intense with everything I do,” Dant says. The neologism coined by Tough Mudder racers (Tough Mudders) to describe this intensity is “badassery”—a competitive virtue that precludes comfort-zone safety for the exploration of new physical and mental potential. As a mortgage professional who weathered the inclemency of the economic downfall, Dant considers “badassery” to be one of her definitive qualities.
2. Be aggressive when necessary but know when to pick your battles
Straight out of USC Law School, Dant went to work as an attorney for Rutan & Tucker, LLP—a California-based law firm. However, after a few years there, she realized that firm work wasn’t for her. “I didn’t like having so many clients, but not getting to be an intimate part of the money-making aspects of their business,” Dant says. “I discovered early on that in-house work was a much better fit for my personality; I love being at the epicenter of a business and being directly responsible for the profitability of a business.”
After leaving Rutan & Tucker in 1993, Dant joined Citigroup as a general counsel—but after four years there, she got an itch to pursue a more adventurous and entrepreneurial opportunity. In 1997, Dant joined the burgeoning Franchise Mortgage Acceptance Company (FMAC). “I really like working with entrepreneurial businesses,” Dant says. “At FMAC, we were the first entity to make and securitize a gas station loan. It was really exciting and groundbreaking.”
3. Always be solution-oriented
After a five-year stead with FMAC, entrepreneurial interest fed and nurtured, Dant sought a move into the residential industry, seeking something that supposedly promised to be more stable. “At the time it seemed like a great idea because I thought housing would always be there,” Dant says. “And my first seven or eight years in the industry, it was all very positive work—until March 2007 hit.”
After a brief stint as senior counsel for New Century, Dant went on to work as the associate general counsel with Accredited Home Lenders (AHL) in 2004. “With AHL, all the financial matters were my responsibility from a legal perspective,” Dant says. “That’s the area I really love as a lawyer and a businessperson—helping a company be profitable, and making some money for myself as an added benefit.”
Despite having the bottom fall out in 2007, Dant stayed committed to her moneymaking passion, working closely with AHL’s warehouse lenders to prevent default. As the collapse gained momentum, she was packing in 120-hour weeks, eventually helping AHL ink a $3.6 billion dollar asset sale in less than 12 hours. “I came in at midnight, negotiated with the purchaser, drafted the contract, and all in time for AHL to accept the wire the next day,” Dant says.
4. Treat others as you would like to be treated
NAD was founded in 2006 at the height of the real-estate boon. Its primary focus, when Dant signed on as general counsel in 2008, was buying and selling distressed residential and real-estate assets. “I saw an exciting opportunity for the company to buy and sell these assets, and it seemed like a great fit for me in the new world,” Dant says. “We’ve bought and sold over $300 million in residential assets, but in this economy, you need to be as flexible as possible.” NAD is also an origination, REO provider, and a national servicer.
This flexibility lends itself to a sense of cooperation and openness not traditionally associated with legal practice. But especially in the wake of a damaged economy, mutualism is essential for Dant—and it is a trait she draws directly from the Tough Mudder credo: “I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.”
“I’m a very strong advocate for my client on whatever transaction I’m working on, but I think you can do that in an honest way where you’re not intentionally misleading the other side, and also maintaining your integrity and the integrity of your client,” Dant says.
5. Always trust your mind and your body
Tough Mudders will tell you that the race is just as much about physical capability as it is about mental endurance. The philosophical parallels between the Tough Mudder and the highly scrutinized world of asset management are a foregone conclusion for Dant. “Whether it’s with my body on a physical challenge, or my mind on a deal challenge, I always give 110 percent,” Dant says. “I’m continually keeping my mind open for better ways to do things.”
On the Tough Mudder course, this could mean evaluating the speed and velocity one takes when facing the launch of the 12-foot “Berlin Walls,” or 4-foot-wide “Dirty Ballerina” mud puddles, or conquering the fear of 10,000 volts of electricity. In the negotiation room, this means assessing the needs of the client, the requests of the purchaser, and the priority of the bottom line. “I’m like a dog with a bone,” Dant says. “I sink my teeth into it, figure out how to make it happen, and never quit until it’s done.”
6. Easy is boring
For those as passionate about the deal as Dant, there are two types of closers: those driven by recognition, and those driven by the bottom line. Dant posits herself in the latter category, understanding that, for her clients, the easiest way is not always the best way, or the most profitable. “If you just rely on some system you’ve created, or some system created by an organization for you to follow, your deals—and your life—can pass you by,” Dant says.
Dant’s system calls for continual self-evaluation, building frameworks, analyzing problems, and figuring out solutions by utilizing calculated risk. This tendency often adds time and difficulty to her transactions, but its positive effects are reflected in the bottom line. “I always take the stairs instead of the elevator,” Dant says. “Anything that makes my day a little more difficult ends up paying off.”