By Brianna Wilson, Editor, DealMaker
Finding the balance between niche work and a flexible market is tough, but it makes for an extremely successful business landscape. As this year’s NACLB Industry Icon – Broker, Vernon Lesser discusses how he found his niche being a business owner with a unique perspective on brokering.
Vernon Lesser, owner and president of Bull Market Capital, has a unique story of entering the commercial loan brokerage industry and starting his own business. He began his journey in the mid 1990s by obtaining a marketing degree and then continued his schooling to receive his MBA. Lesser followed his passions to the fitness industry, where he spent several years in sales and management and learned about guerilla marketing and how to create a business — knowledge that he still uses to this day.
Following his time in the fitness industry, Lesser worked for his father’s flooring business for five years. After building a great team within his father’s business, Lesser was hungry to create his own project, so he started a disaster-restoration and construction company, primarily for retail and office build-outs. Unfortunately, Lesser was forced to shut down the business because of the Great Recession, but that turned out to be the push Lesser needed to start his next chapter.
Lesser’s next steps included moving from Houston to North Carolina and becoming the national sales manager for a textile company — the first job he had in years not working for himself or his family. He found success in the new job, but it was not an industry he loved, so he began looking for a business to buy or to start. He came across an advertisement for Commercial Capital Training Group in 2013 but did not decide to move forward with the program until he began to receive marketing emails from the group around 2015.
“The thing that got me really interested was, when I owned my disaster-restoration company, there was another one for sale in my area that was a little more seasoned, so I wanted to buy it. It was a good price and I thought I could really do well with it,” Lesser says. Recounting the experience, Lesser says he did not have success getting an SBA loan to buy the business, despite banking with two different banks. Neither he nor his banks knew anything about SBA lending at the time, and he spent a frustrating six months trying to figure out the loan process with those banks.
“I lost that opportunity, but that frustration stuck in my mind, and that was one of the reasons why I thought I could be successful in this business — the reason being that I’ve been there, done that,” Lesser says, noting that he understands the business owner perspective, allowing him to empathize with his clients and work with them on the business aspect of their companies.
At Bull Market Capital, Lesser works with a very small team that includes an assistant, a part-time salesperson and a network of bankers bringing him leads. “With them, it’s more of a relationship where they know that if they bring a lead to me that their bank isn’t able to help with, I’ll do everything it takes to get it funded. I think that confidence has really served me well in getting additional business,” Lesser says.
Lesser’s success with Bull Market Capital has led him to many exciting deals. This year, Lesser has received many SBA 7(a) and 504 opportunities, and despite high rates, demand is strong for such transactions. Because these loans have government debentures, Lesser knows they will close, allowing him to feel confident in his SBA deals. “In this current environment, those are what I’m pursuing and that’s where I’m having my success,” Lesser says.
Speaking about a deal nearing close at the time of publication, Lesser says, “It’s a purchase of a dock at a marina and then a number of houseboats. The total project’s close to $20 million, so we’ve been working hard on this one. We’ve got two different banks and two different loans. One’s a conventional loan and we’re actually waiting on the term sheet in the next day or so. I expect it to be about $10 million, and then we’ve got a companion SBA 7(a) loan. It’s exactly $5 million, so that’s a pretty exciting one. Working hard on that.”
Another long-time client he works with buys a lot of businesses and is starting a “reefer yard”, which is a shipping container yard to refrigerate containers that come off ships. “It’s pretty exciting seeing a lot of the people I’ve worked with over the years [grow their businesses]. And with their success, I have a lot of success because they keep them coming back to me time and again for other loans. So I’ve got multiple clients where I’ve done probably 10-plus loans for them,” Lesser says.
The reefer yard transaction is a particularly exciting deal because, currently, banks have tightened up on lending. “I’ve had to change my business this year in terms of not working so much on the real estate side and working primarily on operating companies, new businesses getting started or being acquired because it’s been constant changes,” Lesser says. “You can’t really ever have a status quo and just keep your business on path. You have to be flexible because the outside world changes.”
Flexibility is something Lesser emphasizes when asked how he would advise those looking into the commercial loan brokerage industry. He says his first eight months in the industry were tough, as he was still finding his niche, figuring out how he wanted to run his business and making sure his style worked once he figured it out.
Lesser personally enjoys consulting with businesses, so he works with numerous real estate developers and people buying, starting or expanding businesses. He also does SBA-type lending and makes it a point to knows everything about his clients’ businesses, including their financials. “That’s not for everybody,” Lesser says. “If you want something more transactional than something that has a longstanding relationship, I would say find that niche, whether it’s merchant cash advance or equipment lending or something of that nature. Find what’s comfortable for you and, more importantly, what you can market to because marketing, to me, is always the key.”
Lesser also emphasizes the importance of consistent marketing, “If you get yourself too busy doing work and not focusing on marketing or keeping marketing up, then your business is going to slow down. You never want to have those ups and downs; you want to be consistent. Find your niche, then market to that niche and don’t stop.”
Lesser was excited to attend this year’s 9th Annual National Alliance of Commercial Loan Brokers Conference & Expo, as he often knows at least half of the vendors in attendance and enjoys catching up with them. He was equally as excited to meet new people, “One good thing about this industry is that because you’re dealing with a lot of successful, high-energy people that are, a lot of times, disciplined in their trade, it leads to other opportunities,” Lesser said.