The four friends had worked together in real estate at Wachovia Corp. for years, risen to the senior ranks of their unit, and were involved in billions of dollars of transactions each year. But then the economy plummeted, their struggling employer was bought out by Wells Fargo & Co., and the guys started to heed the writing on the wall.
That was a year ago, when Bill Green, Brett Smith, Bill Cohane and Chuck Wolter started to talk about going into business for themselves instead of waiting for the bank to decide their fate. Within a few months, they'd all left their jobs. Then they rented space down the street from their old digs, on the 25th floor of one of the Bank of America towers. And by Sept. 1, they had launched Tannery Brook Partners.
Jumping from a huge conglomerate into entrepreneurship always carries uncertainty. But on top of that, the Tannery Brook founders decided to focus on commercial real estate, a sector that's arguably in even more turmoil than the rest of the economy.
Green said there was never any hesitation about the decision to focus on that troubled sector. It just made sense, he said, because "our backgrounds are in all ways, shapes and forms commercial real estate." And though there aren't many new deals being made now, there is still business to be done: Plenty of people need help working through troubled balanced sheets.
Tannery Brook, named for a stream that ran in front of Green's childhood home in East Aurora, N.Y., is part of a broader trend of boutique firms cropping up in Charlotte since the downturn started, often driven by Wachovia or Bank of America ex-pats who lost their jobs or were afraid they might. Out-of-state firms including Sagent Advisors Inc., Robert W. Baird & Co., and Lazard Ltd. have also set up shop in Charlotte recently, hiring mostly Wachovia veterans.
Tannery Brook has nine employees, with plans to add another two to five through the year. Finding applicants shouldn't be a problem.
"We probably get 10 emails a day from people saying, 'I'm interested in doing something more entrepreneurial,' or 'My role at Bank XYZ isn't what it used to be,'" Smith said.
The four founders, who worked in Wachovia's real estate capital markets business, know that feeling. When they first started musing about launching their own firm, Cohane was working for Wachovia in London, but the Charlotte bank was starting to wind down some of its European operations to focus on problems at home. Smith and Wolter were back at Wachovia's Charlotte base, but the takeover by Wells Fargo had them thinking it was time to do something new.
"They had very experienced people who had earned their stripes and were probably going to be the leaders of those businesses," Smith said, referring to the Wells merger. "And I had worked for a bank for a long, long time."
Green had left Wachovia by then and was working at Starwood Capital Group in London, but was inspired to do something more pioneering by observing his CEO, the well-known investor Barry Sternlicht.
"Ultimately he created something out of nothing, by having a great team and without the benefit of a large balance sheet behind him," Green said of his old boss. "It reaffirmed that we could strike out on our own."
Plus, it didn't hurt that Green and Cohane both missed Charlotte.
Right now, most of Tannery Brook's clients are borrowers, such as hedge funds and investment trusts, that own mortgaged shopping centers, office buildings or other commercial property, and want help getting their loan restructured or otherwise figuring out how to avoid foreclosure. They might seek help because their properties have lost tenants and aren't generating enough capital, or because the lender has asked them to pay off the loan but they can't seem to get a bank to give them one.
The Tannery Brook partners say they talk to clients about what is possible and, more importantly, what isn't. Sometimes, the lender's hands are tied because of a strict agreement with the company servicing the loan. Green and his partners emphasize to clients that they must approach their lender with a plan and a willingness to make concessions, instead of just asking for a break because times are tough. For example, a lender will probably be a lot more willing to lower the loan's interest rate if the borrower agrees to raise capital to pay down part of the loan.
It can also be useful to consider changing a building's purpose. Converting condos to apartments is a well-known option, but there are other strategies too, like remaking extended-stay hotels into Section 8 housing.
"What we won't (take on) is someone who says, 'I just want to hire you to go fight with my lender,'" Smith said.
Green said it helps that borrowers have clamped down their expectations compared to two years ago, so they're more in line with reality.
Though most of the work at Tannery Brook is focused on restructuring, the partners want to grow the more traditional investment banking functions too, such as advising on mergers and acquisitions - again, all in commercial real estate.
"We're doing these debt restructurings because the business is there and we have the skill set," Cohane said. "But we're not a one-trick pony."
They're also drumming up investors who might want their own piece of the action, with an investment management firm called South of Wall. It will create funds to manage commercial real estate investments and assets. They've recently started raising capital for the first fund, which will focus mainly on debt-related investments. They plan to switch gears to equity investments when the markets improve.
Still, they predict it will be years before the economy returns to "normal." The U.S. will have to work through unsustainably high rates of homeownership before a recovery can occur, Green said, and that could take five to seven years.
On a personal level, the Tannery Brook partners had to make a few adjustments after moving from a giant employer to a nine-person office: For starters, there's no help desk to call when the computers break down.
But mostly, they say, the change has been fun - partly because every new assignment is a cause for celebration. It's easy for them to feel a sense of ownership when they can secure a deal and know exactly what the firm will use that money for.
"In a big organization, you could literally have multi-million dollar gains and it seemed at times that nobody even knew or cared," Green said. "Now, even signing up a small advisory and getting a bigger front-end fee - that's a very real thing for us."