What Does It Take to Work for America's Most Active Debt Broker?
On the second floor of One Battery Park Plaza, Meridian Capital Group managing director Brian Flax surveys his group of future real estate rainmakers through a glass partition—watching as they talk into their headsets, negotiating with banks, owners and developers—determined to place Meridian's next multimillion-dollar transaction.
Their outreach is well-timed and well-placed, as they work from leads generated by Meridian’s 10-person research department and with access to a breadth of other proprietary resources, including Meridian’s deep bench of human capital.
Brian leaves himself (and his door) open, and any matter he can't personally address is directed to the figurative and literal “higher-ups” on the 26th floor, who lend their decades of experience and negotiating prowess. Brian chose this group of associates because he was compelled by their background, promise and drive. They represent the best of the best from whom he can demand the unparalleled results that Meridian—the US' most active debt broker—expects and will help them achieve.
Since starting in March 2013, Brian and Meridian's corporate training program have minted more than a dozen top-tier commercial mortgage brokers. In almost three years, the program (dubbed "Meridian University") has trained 16 in-house associates who have closed approximately $700M for clients, with another $200M in the pipeline.
How It Was Built
Brian (pictured), who joined the firm in 2012, explained that the structure and content of the training program required considerable thought and time to conceive and execute.
Although he came to Meridian with significant experience in training, managing and working with new salespeople–having established a similar training program as chief marketing officer and SVP of Operations at Newtek Business Services–Brian tells Bisnow that Meridian's industry, quick pace and dynamism required something unique.
Understanding that the most progressive and successful programs found methods to deliver training materials in ways that kept employees engaged and interested, Brian made sure that Meridian's program not only included necessary PowerPoints, homework assignments and quizzes, but also had a significant social and networking component.
His associates will often be seen at commercial real estate events (including Bisnow’s), on property tours, in discussions with senior brokers and partners of the firm, and engaged in meetings with lenders to discuss transactions and learn about specific product offerings.
This networking element has also helped the program gain significant credibility within the real estate investment and lending community. Brian says Meridian’s relationships—and the program’s track record for producing highly effective brokers—has made lenders excited to visit the firm’s Battery Park headquarters and meet with these active deal makers to find well-vetted financing opportunities.
Any transactions negotiated with these lenders, in turn, provides Brian and his team with additional relevant real-time information and effective teaching materials he can use to gauge the market, assess incoming opportunities and train future classes, creating a cycle that helps the program continue to flourish.
What Sets It Apart
What truly sets Meridian's training program apart, Brian says, is the interaction that new associates have with every department of the firm (like the research and marketing teams)—as well the firm's senior partners and brokers. Collectively, this group is renowned for their expertise in everything from construction loans and complex leasehold structures to multi-tiered capital stacks and institutional-sized syndicated transactions.
These senior members of Meridian’s team are not only a source of advice on negotiating deals and how to make it as a new broker, but also as a source of collaboration. "Young ambitious people are looking for programs that give them the resources, mentorship and support they need to be successful.
"Meridian provides exactly that, and it’s a rarity,” Brian says. “Having that type of senior support makes associates in the program realize the vital role they play and how supportive the firm is of their development.”
In return, new brokers bring their own insight and skill sets to the 25-year old firm which helps it stay on the technological forefront.
For example, with each progressive class that comes in, there's a greater knowledge and use of online research tools, social media as well as other technology and information platforms that brokers can use to market themselves, network, build and maintain relationships and uncover new opportunities.
At the end of the day, Brian says the program is a "win-win for everybody:" Meridian's senior brokers gain access to new deals and information and associates benefit from "the full force and power of Meridian" to help them win and place assignments. In addition, the partnerships and friendships formed in the program grow as the associates’ careers progress. “In five and 10 years from now, the alumni network of this program will prove to be an invaluable asset,” adds Brian.
It’s not uncommon, Brian says, for trainees to sit with senior partners during lunches to ask for their advice or perspective on a deal. This flat management structure is reflective of the meritocracy at Meridian and allows the cream to rise quickly to the top.
He says Meridian’s interest in helping its brokers be as successful as possible and reach their full potential is also reflected in the number of long-term employees that the firm boasts. The firm has consistently retained top talent and has more than six dozen employees who have been with the firm for more than 10 years.
What It Takes
Even before he starts the proactive recruiting process, Brian receives hundreds of employee referrals and calls throughout the year. And with each "class" averaging seven members, the program has an acceptance rate below 5%. To put that in perspective, you have a better chance of gaining admission to Harvard (6%) than you do getting into Meridian's elite program.
The reason so many people are drawn to the company, he believes, is Meridian's name, reputation and brand in the marketplace. After all, Meridian closed 3,900 loans totaling $35B in 2015.
"Think about it: we’re in New York City, which has the biggest real estate market in the country—if not the world—and if you look at who the leading finance company is, you naturally isolate Meridian."
Those brought into the program have come from a variety of backgrounds, and represents a 50/50 mix of people with real estate experience (such as leasing brokers, sales brokers, property owners and so on) and those without.
"There’s no substitute for learning on the job," Brian says, "But we built the program in a way so once they're done with the seven-week training segment, they can have intelligent and substantive conversations with real estate owners.”
More importantly, however, Brian says his candidates’ backgrounds mirror the traits that make someone successful in the field: tenacity, competitiveness, and ambition.
“Competitiveness is something I focus on in the multi-round interview process. I look for people who refuse to lose. No matter how far Meridian expands, we want to win every transaction we work on, that is how Meridian’s business was built and what makes the firm so prolific.
I often find the competitive trait in people with a sports background or in people who I feel that if they find themselves struggling, it’s going to motivate them to do better, work harder and push themselves further. Everyone in this business is going to struggle at some point. It’s how you deal with it that is an indicator of your long-term success. After screening for technical and quantitative capability, I’m always looking for that competitiveness, tenacity, fire, and passion.”
A perfect example of the competitive spirit manifesting itself at Meridian is Brian’s “leaderboard"—an oversized whiteboard in his office that tracks the numbers of every associate he manages and is available for all to see.
Not only does this drive the team to do its absolute best by making rankings public, Brian says, but it also builds camaraderie and allows associates to share in each other’s wins and learn from success stories.
The program has been a massive success for Meridian, with trainees bringing in—and closing—a broad variety of deals both large and small. Recently, Meridian associates who have come through this program closed a $29M loan for a condo conversion in Chelsea, a $23.5M loan for an 84k SF office building in Chelsea, a $41M loan for the acquisition of a portfolio of assisted living facilities, and a $10.8M CMBS loan that closed in 19 days.
Through the program, the firm has also found a steady supply of bright and talented workers, of which more than 70% remain with the company full-time. As the associates’ careers progress and they become more focused in areas of interest and expertise, Brian says, opportunities for further growth abound within Meridian.
Members of earlier classes have gone on to work for the firm’s top institutional deal teams, been selected to relocate across the country to further expand the firm’s platform, and gone on to work directly for partners of the firm focusing on complex structured financing transactions.
If you think you have what it takes to be part of Meridian's program, apply here.