Pitch Perfect: ALTA President Cynthia Durham Blair’s Blend of Attributes Will Guide Industry to Amazing Harmonic Heights
Cynthia Durham Blair NTP always desired to be a professional singer. After high school, she hoped to go to New York City and try her luck on Broadway. “My dad put the kibosh on that and told me I had to get a college degree first,” she said. Broadway’s loss was the title industry’s gain. In October, Blair became the first title professional from South Carolina to serve as ALTA’s president. She’s also the fourth woman to lead the association, following in the footsteps of Cara Detring, Anne Anastasi and Diane Evans.
Described as an eloquent attorney, loving mother, keen entrepreneur, inspirational leader and a trusted friend, Blair’s also someone who’s not afraid to rock out to AC/DC. It’s all these intertwined attributes and invaluable assets that will help ALTA and the industry have the perfect pitch over the next year, capitalizing on opportunities and braving business challenges.
“I am truly privileged to lead such a strong group of title industry professionals who work diligently every day to ensure our customers don’t have to worry about their property rights,” said Blair, who is also a founding member of the law firm Blair Cato Pickren Casterline LLC in South Carolina. “Helping unite our more than 6,300 members and the land title insurance industry under the ALTA umbrella is a job I am humbled to have and one I take seriously.”
Path to Becoming a Title ‘Nerd’
Blair grew up in Columbia, S.C., in the house where her mother still lives. She’s the middle child of three siblings. A younger brother also lives in Columbia. An older sister lives only an hour away near Charlotte. Their father was a commercial real estate broker and developer.
“We started out at a very young age looking at property and buildings,” said Blair, who added that her father instilled a strong business sense and money management skills in his children.
While Blair was in graduate school, her mother turned in her stay-at-home mom apron and became a certified antiques appraiser. Her mother has operated that business—in addition to dealing sterling silver flatware and collectibles—ever since.
When Blair headed to Florida State University, she was still tempted by music and focused her studies on voice and theater. Blair soon learned there were plenty of technical courses that didn’t interest her. “I realized that to actually major in voice, you had to study music theory and other things I didn’t want to do, so I quickly knew that wasn’t my future,” she added.
With her father encouraging some type of business major, Blair focused on studying multi-national business. Already minoring in Spanish, she thought it was a great fit. As graduation loomed, Blair decided to give the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) a try. She did so well that Kaplan—which provides comprehensive training to help prepare for the LSAT—asked Blair to teach a course. With that, she headed back home to attend the University of South Carolina School of Law. Although Blair thought she’d become an international business lawyer, she clerked for a small real estate attorney after her first year of law school.
After finishing law school early, she earned an international MBA and lived in Chile while doing an internship with a large telecom company. Working as a criminal litigator for several years, Blair realized that was something not in the cards long-term. With commercial real estate in her blood, she landed at a law firm in the title industry. Blair recalled her real property professor during the first year of law school who made property law seem so interesting. “He is still one of my favorite professors, and although he doesn’t teach anymore, I still see him occasionally,” she said. Also fueling the title flame was the attorney she clerked for, who taught Blair from the ground up how to search title and how to be a real estate practitioner.
“To this day, you might find me preparing a Closing Disclosure or putting a loan package together when my closers are busy in the weeds,” Blair said. “I believe it’s important for business owners to know how to do their own business.”
Blair was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1993 and admitted to practice law in Florida in 1995. She also is admitted to practice in the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. District Courts for the District of South Carolina, and the Northern and Southern Districts of Florida. Her abilities have been recognized by many. She has an A/V Preeminent Peer Rating for the highest level of professional excellence from Martindale-Hubbell and is the recipient of several prestigious professional awards including the 2013 Leadership in Law Award from the South Carolina Lawyers Weekly, the Gold Compleat Lawyer Award from the University of South Carolina School of Law and the J. Lee McDonald award for outstanding service to the title industry.
“I know I’m a total nerd, but I really enjoy preparing closing statements and Closing Disclosures,” Blair added. “I also love when I get a big title search that I need to review, and I have to sit down and piece together the chain or figure out boundaries—it’s like a puzzle, and I’ve always loved puzzles.”
Handling the messy chains of title or vague legal descriptions may get the juices flowing, but Blair says her favorite transactions involve first-time homebuyers. “I’ve handled thousands of closings and reviewed thousands of title searches, but first-time buyers are always so excited, and it reminds me of the first house I bought almost 20 years ago,” she added.
Forging Her Own Path
Being on Broadway or a famous rock star may have been options early on, but Blair always thought she’d own her own business—no matter the industry. So, after several years with another law firm, Blair and a few other attorneys ventured out in 2014 and formed their own firm—Blair Cato Pickren Casterline LLC. Based in Columbia, S.C., the company started with one office, six lawyers and 14 staff members. They now have two offices, 12 lawyers and 28 employees.
“The first few months were really tough trying to get everything up and running, but we persevered and have been extremely successful,” Blair said.
The firm’s accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed. SC Biz News named it one of the state’s fastest growing small businesses in 2018, while readers of The State Newspaper (the local newspaper in Columbia, S.C.) voted the company as the Best Law Firm the past two years. Blair attributes the success to the relationship she has with the other two owners—Gary Pickren and Rex Casterline.
“Our roles in the firm are organically very complementary, meaning we are lucky to each have strengths and weaknesses that have made our management roles in the firm work very well,” Blair said. “The other main driver behind our success is the fantastic team that we have. We have built a very solid, hard-working team of folks who are invested in our clients and customers.”
Balancing Work and Family
Running a law firm while serving on ALTA’s Board of Governors often puts a crunch on the calendar. Often with not enough hours in day, Blair maintains boundaries in the evenings, so she can spend time with her son, Durham, and daughter, Emily Grace.
“There’s never a shortage of work that needs to be done. Figuring out how to prioritize all the urgent tasks and projects is always a challenge,” Blair said. “Admittedly, sometimes it is tough. I have great help for the children, and I normally know my travel schedule way ahead of time, so it just takes good time management. I know there are times my law partners get frustrated with me being gone but with phones and laptops, I can do most anything work-related remotely anyway and keep in touch with my children.”
To strike a balance, Blair’s children join her on a couple of ALTA trips each year. Earlier this year, Durham joined his mom on a trip to Anchorage, Alaska. Making their first trek to the state, they visited a wildlife preserve. “My son saw more snow on that trip than he’s ever seen in his life,” Blair joked. In August, Emily Grace was the travel partner as Blair attended the Kansas Land Title Association’s annual convention in Topeka. The trip was a significant milestone as Blair has now visited all 50 states—a goal she set to hit before turning 50. She turned 50 on Oct. 12, the same day she was installed as ALTA’s president.
“I love the opportunity to take my children new places and create cool memories with them,” Blair said. “My children are now counting their states and have a friendly competition between themselves to see who can visit the most states. I think they both have visited something like 16 states, which is way more than I had at their ages.”
Respected Leader and Friend
Blair attended her first ALTA meeting in January 2010. It was at the Large Agents meeting where she met Bill Burding NTP, chair of ALTA’s Agents Section Executive Committee and executive vice president of Orange Coast Title Co. The two have been friends ever since“
Cynthia has demonstrated leadership on both the Agents Section as well as ALTA as a whole,” Burding said. “In a time of changing leadership at the CEO position of ALTA, the organization could not be in better hands during this year of transition. Her work on remote online notary legislation is especially important as that is this year’s major issue confronting the industry generally and agents specifically.”
The first major ALTA conference Blair attended was the Advocacy Summit (called the Federal Conference then) later that year. That’s when she met Shonna Cardello CLTP, NTP, president of White Rose Settlement Services. Both were first-time attendees and quickly understood the importance of getting involved and advocating on behalf of the industry.Cardello said she was drawn to Blair’s integrity, intelligence and genuine interest in the industry, “not to mention her fantabulous personality.”
“While serving ALTA and any other association, Cynthia has the ability to wear the association hat and leave the personal hat in the office,” Cardello said. “I value this trait in our leaders. Cynthia is a strong woman and I am excited to see where she leads us this year. I know it will be an amazing ride with Cynthia as president.”
Over the years, Blair forged two strong friendships with Lisa Steele, executive vice president of Mother Lode Holding Co., and Nicole Plath, CEO of Fortune Title Agency. They started calling themselves the “Trifecta of Awesomeness,” but have since shortened it to simply the “Trifecta.”
“Cynthia will be an excellent president for our association,” Steele said. “Her passion and knowledge, along with her progressive thinking, will certainly help lead our industry through whatever comes our way. She’s a true leader who is bright, articulate and relatable. I’m proud to call this powerful woman one of my best friends, and I’m so excited for this chapter to begin for her and ALTA. She’s a rock star.”
Plath shared a similar sentiment, describing Blair as “one of the most inspiring and intelligent women I know.” She connected quickly with Blair because they “both know how to play hard and work hard.”
“Beyond her charisma, she has a deep understanding of the issues we face as an industry and of the strategic priorities we want to achieve over the upcoming year,” Plath added. “Over the years, as our friendship has strengthened, I have gained a deep admiration for her as well. She is an amazing mother, a strong and confident leader, and an incredible friend. I am truly grateful to have her in my life and can’t wait to see her in action as she represents our industry this coming year.”
The title and settlement industry remains at a critical juncture with the presence of more and more disruptors that could affect how mortgage and real estate transactions are handled, including technology advances and information security threats. Blair is excited to start working on ALTA’s 2019 strategic priorities alongside the Board of Governors, staff and membership. ALTA’s 2019 strategic priorities include helping members:
plan for change through innovation and quality operations.
stay relevant in the secondary market.
communicate the benefits of what they do to consumers.
protect their businesses’ and customers’ data and money.
harness the power of ALTA’s Our Values and a robust, ethical corporate culture.
To help title professionals remain an important piece of the real estate transaction, Blair said one of the best things ALTA can do is to continue developing resources such as the ALTA Marketplace, which is a new interactive vendor directory that provides high-level guidance to title professionals about the products and services available to them.
“Providing a one-stop shop where our members can keep up with what’s new and what’s on the horizon is extremely valuable,” she said.
Blair said one of the things she plans to focus on is helping small title agencies across the country become aware of the resources ALTA provides to help them compete and operate more efficiently. In addition to the Marketplace, the hiring tools are great resources to help smaller operations find new talent and onboard employees.
“There are many resources that are meant to help small businesses be on a more even footing with their larger competitors,” Blair said.
Regulators have put more emphasis on protecting consumers and making the real estate transaction more transparent. This has made it vital for ALTA members to help consumers better understand the important role title professionals play in the transaction and how they benefit from having a title insurance policy. Blair encourages all title professionals to continue telling the industry’s story in terms that consumers can understand.
“The materials that have been developed by the Homeowner Outreach Program are a fantastic utility to do just this,” Blair said. “There is so much material that can be used in ads, social media and classes for industry partners.”
In addition, she says the development of ALTA’s Our Values program has been important to serve as the industry’s culture compass, highlighting the best attributes and reflecting professional strength.
“It has become clear to me that if a company defines its values authentically and its employees buy into the values, the company’s culture thrives, and it becomes a driver of that company’s business and brand,” Blair said. “Values serve as the basis for what all of us do. I think the Our Values program has helped many of our members begin the process of defining their own companies’ values and culture.”
Over the past year, Blair has helped guide ALTA’s efforts to educate the industry about remote online notarization and the need for more advocacy regarding digital closings. She led the recently established ALTA Digital Closing Committee, which will focus on improving and innovating the closing process.
“ALTA should be viewed as the industry leader in digital closings and innovation in the customer experience in real estate settlements,” Blair said. “Digital closings, which are not a new thing, are gaining more traction, particularly with the passage of remote online notary laws in several states. The newest generation of homebuyers want to do business in a different way, so our industry is going to have to adjust our thinking to meet the desires of that market.”
Jeremy Yohe is ALTA’s vice president of communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Personal Side of Cynthia Durham Blair NTP
While she loves Florida State football, you probably won’t find her sitting at the top of Doak Campbell Stadium. Why? She’s terrified of heights
She loves animals and currently has two dogs and three cats. All but one of them are rescues. “I particularly like big dogs, my dogs are mastiffs,” she adds
Cynthia loves to read fiction, particularly mystery/crime drama and fantasy. She says, “I’ve probably read almost everything Stephen King has ever written.”
Cynthia was a public defender when she started practicing law, trying quite a few cases to a jury.
Have a large extended family? Cynthia does, and she loves to entertain. She also enjoys hosting her family for all major holidays.
Shoes? Yeah, Cynthia says she has a large extended family but may have an even larger shoe collection.
Get her to drink a glass or two of wine and she’ll bring down the house with some karaoke.
She visited all 50 states before her 50th birthday. (#50by50)