Countrywide Financial Corp. will add 2,000 workers to its sales force, following through on past statements by founder and Chief Executive Officer Angelo Mozilo that the lender would seek to pick up market share from struggling competitors.

Mozilo announced plans to boost the company’s sales force at an investment conference Monday and Countrywide issued a press release today detailing its recruiting campaign, which will also involve additional hiring of workers with experience in information technology, underwriting, banking, insurance sales, customer service and loss mitigation.

The press release describes an “aggressive campaign” to recruit mortgage professionals, including those with a background in prime or nonprime loan sales, both retail and wholesale.

Countrywide spokesman Rick Simon told Inman News that the new hires in sales will be distributed throughout the company’s network of 996 retail branches, and that the company plans to add 100 additional branches by the end of the year.

The recruiting campaign will also fill other vacancies in the company’s banking and capital markets business segments, Simon said. Positions available at the company are listed on a dedicated Web site, www.countrywidecareers.com.

“As the market consolidates, we are looking to bring in top talent in sales as we expand market share as part of our goal to emerge as the dominant player” in mortgage lending, Simon said.

Other lenders in recent weeks have been laying off workers, including LendingTree, which cut 440 positions; ABN AMRO Mortgage Group, which plans to lay off 1,300; ACC Capital Holdings; and bankrupt New Century Financial Corp., which has laid off all but a few hundred of the 7,200 workers it employed last year.

A little more than six months ago, Countrywide announced a $500 million cost-cutting measure that was to include 2,500 layoffs, with many of the cuts in loan production. The California-based lender also said it would move jobs out of the state because it pays higher state income tax rates there.

But by the end of March — before this week’s announcements — Countrywide’s sales force remained larger than it had been a year ago.

According to the company’s last quarterly report with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Countrywide had a sales force of 16,920 workers at the end of March, up from 15,472 at the end of March 2006. The number of retail branches also increased from 895 to 993, and Countrywide added three call centers for a total of 15.

That helped Countrywide boost first-quarter-2007 loan production by 10 percent from the same period last year, to $117 billion, even as it reduced its reliance on subprime loans. The company said the increase was primarily due to a 16 percent increase in market share, to 18.2 percent.

But rising delinquencies and increased loss reserves drove up credit costs, which hurt profits in mortgage banking. Pretax earnings in mortgage banking, which totaled $453 million in the fourth quarter of 2006, fell to $100 million in the first quarter of 2007.

Countrywide funded $40 billion in mortgage loans in April, up 11 percent from the same month last year. That, despite the fact that the lender tightened underwriting guidelines and reduced the percentage of subprime loans funded to 4 percent, down from 9 percent a year ago.

The lender said an increase in refinance activity helped boost loan production in April, accounting for 61 percent of production, compared with 54 percent a year ago.

Funding of “exotic” pay-option loans in April was $2.7 billion, down from $6.7 billion a year ago. Year-to-date funding of pay-option loan totaled $12.3 billion, down from $28.4 billion at the same point in 2006.

Responding to a rise in delinquencies, Countrywide cut subprime loan funding to less than 7 percent of loan production in the first quarter of 2007. Reuters reports the lender plans a national roll out of a 50-year subprime loan by the third quarter but plans to resell the loans on the secondary market rather than holding them in its portfolio.

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