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Origin Stories: Centennial Bank's J.C. De Ona On A Career Spanning T-Pain And T-Notes

This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

J.C. de Ona has worked his way up the banking world, starting as a teller and learning about all aspects and types of banking. 

His journey had an interesting sidecar: For a few years, he was an executive music producer who worked with big-name artists like T-Pain, Pitbull and Flo Rida. But commercial real estate lending won out over working with celebrities after he got his first taste of it in 2004.

De Ona now serves as Southeast Florida Division president of Centennial Bank, overseeing the expansion of Centennial Bank’s CRE lending arm in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, and he said he has truly found a career where he belongs.

J.C. de Ona and Dwyane Wade at a Miami Heat basketball game.

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE? 

De Ona: I was introduced to CRE early on in my banking career but really got more involved during my time as a private banker. Starting as a teller and working my way up, I was able to experience multiple positions and have always remained curious as to my career path and the opportunities that were in my future. While working in the wealth division, I was given the opportunity to work alongside successful commercial real estate clients and found much interest in this sector.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE? 

De Ona: My first job with more of a focus in CRE was at Stonegate Bank, which was later acquired by Centennial Bank. There, I was more involved in the deal-making process, which was a hybrid of my work in private banking. Once I was more involved in the ins and outs of deal-making, ranging in deal size and complexity, I knew I had found a passion to expand on.

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role? 

De Ona: I received a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s in business from Florida International University. I went through formal credit training, which included cash flow and real estate analysis at Wachovia (now Wells Fargo). While these skills were helpful in my career success leading to being Miami-Dade County president, followed by Southeast Florida Division president, the most noteworthy component of my success is the ability to adapt quickly and continuously learn. This has helped me foster and maintain relationships, which is essential to being a successful CRE banker. My personal experience with CRE investments has also helped me understand the process from the perspective of my clients, which has proven to be beneficial for my career. 

J.C. de Ona and his family on vacation in the Florida Keys.

Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?

De Ona: While a loss can be devastating, having the experience on both sides of a deal can provide constructive lessons for the future. I am very fortunate to have never experienced real loss, thanks to having amazing clients, but do think it’s important to understand what could go wrong and how. It’s a question I like to ask when screening for new hires.

Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? If you changed careers, did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn in order to succeed here? 

De Ona: I’ve always been a banker throughout my career. For a few years as a hobby that turned into a business, I was an executive music producer, connecting U.S. artists with French artists. It was rewarding to explore a creative role where I worked with incredible artists such as Rick Ross, Flo Rida, Pitbull, T-Pain, Meek Mill, Wale, Kid Cudi and more. This experience helped me create relationships and knowledge that I’ve carried over into banking.

Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed? 

De Ona: I always felt like I belonged in the industry, but one aspect I found to be the most challenging was construction deals. There were many nuances to learn, and because it’s an ongoing process with constant oversight needed, the window to catch things before they go wrong is small — leading to an increased chance for error. After gaining more exposure and experience in construction, I do think that in-depth knowledge of the construction process from beginning to end is vital to CRE success.

Centennial Bank Southeast Florida Division President J.C. de Ona working from home.

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?

De Ona: Overall, my impression of the CRE industry has been a positive one. Much of my experience was acquired during the 2008 financial crisis, seeing firsthand how deals are underwritten in a volatile economy. This has prepared me for the current climate. From a bird's-eye view, the CRE market is extremely resilient and will continue to grow and prosper, even after downturns. It’s especially exciting to witness in South Florida. Born and raised in Miami, it is a great thing to see our market mature and rise to the forefront.

Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE? 

De Ona: My mentors in CRE are a cumulation of people I’ve worked with during my career, in addition to my clients. Many are prominent figures in their field and have extensive experience in the industry. Coupled with oftentimes having been the youngest person in the room, I always made note to learn everything possible. Absorbing the positive attributes of those around me has shaped me into the professional I am today.

J.C. de Ona visiting Machu Picchu in Peru.

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?

De Ona: A key lesson I’ve learned is to always take a step back and look at a deal from a higher viewpoint. Sometimes, you can be enamored with the potential of a deal, but at the end of the day, looking at the numbers in detail and potential risks will help you make the right decision.

Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

De Ona: The market can be extremely saturated, especially in South Florida. There’s a lot of talent, so you need to establish factors that set you apart from everyone else in the industry and run with them. You’ll find success if you have the core fundamentals: a stellar work ethic and a good reputation.

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?

De Ona: I would be interested in how my career would have turned out if I started as a banker in New York City and made my way back to South Florida. As we all know, that area boasts the world’s top financial market, which would have been invaluable to learn from. It may have taken me in a different direction, but I guess we’ll never know because staying in Florida allowed me to excel.