The head of the only woman-founded commercial mortgage banking firm in the country shares her experiences and an analysis of the commercial real estate industry in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Development: What led you to a career in commercial real estate mortgage banking?
Gretchen Wilcox: I went to Babson College and majored in finance. I worked on Wall Street for Merrill Lynch in its commercial real estate area, contacting lenders across the country and working on developing a nationwide debt-placement system. During that time, I took courses at New York University. One of my professors sparked my interest in the mortgage banking world and its monetary potential. I took a job with a mortgage banking firm in New Jersey, and the firm grew tremendously over the next seven years. I had a good reputation among national lenders, I was making a lot of money, but I decided to risk it all and start my own company. When I started the company in 1994, it was the only woman-founded traditional mortgage banking firm in the country. And 27 years later, it still is.
Development: Could you tell us about launching the firm and the challenges you had to overcome?
Wilcox: Mortgage banking is a tough business for women and men. The critical questions for someone new to the business are how do you get developer clients if you do not have exclusive lenders to represent? And how do you get exclusive lenders to represent if you do not have developer clients? I borrowed a small amount of money by getting a second mortgage on my home to start the business, and I hired three people. The great challenge was how do I survive until I close the first deal? The money that I borrowed didn’t go very far after paying for office space and overhead, but we opened in June and closed a $25 million deal in September. I paid back the loan in six months and have never had a year where I lost money.
Development: What is your primary role as CEO of G.S. Wilcox today?
Wilcox: I oversee the entire operation. I maintain client relationships on the developer/owner side and on the lending side. I enjoy mentoring the younger employees in the firm. I am fortunate to have four senior people who have been with me for between 24 and 27 years. I still have my first employee I hired, who is now my CFO.
Development: What qualities do you look for in hiring senior staff?
Wilcox: We don’t hire senior staff. We develop people in the firm. We prefer to home-grow our people. When I hire younger employees, I am looking for team players who are passionate about their work, honest, and a good fit for our culture.
Development: Your two children are part of the business. Could you offer any advice on bringing in the next generation?
Wilcox: It probably starts the day they are born! But it depends on the kind of relationship you have with your children. If you are going to bring your children into your business, you need to respect each other and be willing to learn from each other. Everyone has something to bring to the table. It is important for your children to work for other companies before joining the family business. Both of my children, Wesley and Bridget, worked for other firms before joining the company.
Development: The pandemic has been devastating, but now, thankfully, there are vaccines coming into use. What is your short-term and longer-term outlook for the industry?
Wilcox: We are in the midst of the pandemic and a change in administrations in Washington, D.C., but interest rates have been so low that people continue to borrow money. Interest rates cannot go much lower from here. If they turn around and go higher, then cap rates will go higher. That could have a negative impact on the commercial real estate business. For us, much of our business can be conducted over the phone. But we love in-person meetings and association meetings, like the kind that NAIOP New Jersey holds. We really miss those NAIOP meetings!
Development: Speaking of NAIOP, what has been your involvement in the association? What has NAIOP meant to you?
Wilcox: NAIOP made my career. It has been the most important industry association that I have been associated with. Being involved in leadership positions and the ability to network through the organization has had an incredibly positive impact on our company. I have been extensively involved in NAIOP for many years. I participated in the Capital Markets Forum. I served as a trustee for NAIOP New Jersey for 15 years. I was on the National Board for eight years.
Development: What is the best advice you have received during your career in real estate?
Wilcox: Be yourself. I am in a people business, but there are not many women in this business. My competitors will take a client on a five-day golf trip. I’m not doing that. Instead, I may have an elegant dinner party for a client when they are in town. When my clients came to New Jersey from the Midwest, for example, they came to dinner at my home rather than having to eat at a restaurant or the hotel. They loved it.
Development: What crucial lessons have you learned in the decades you have been in the business?
Wilcox: Be patient. It takes time to close a deal. You have to learn to be patient rather than constantly pushing.
Development: How do you de-stress in your off-hours?
Wilcox: I love being with my family, even though I see them every day. I love golf, oil painting and cooking.