Jaki Becker has logged more than 25 years in the commercial real estate business. Today, she is the senior vice president and relationship manager with Associated Bank’s commercial real estate division, responsible for loan origination and business development throughout the Chicago-area and Illinois markets. Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke to Becker about her career, her love for real estate and the advice she would share with others hoping to succeed in this profession.
By Dan Rafter, Editor
Midwest Real Estate News: How did you get your start in commercial real estate?
Jaki Becker: My interest in real estate started as early as when I was a college student. I made sure that my elective courses supported my interest in real estate. By the time I was finished with college I was able to sit for my Illinois real estate broker license. My first job out of college was with an investment banking group. It was such an in-depth experience in how to structure complicated real estate transactions. I was immediately hooked on the intricacies of structuring a deal, on the whole development process.
MWREN: How long, then, have you worked in the real estate business?
Becker: I’ve been in the business for more than 25 years. I started in housing development, working with a low-income housing development company. I found that there was no better way to learn the development business.
MWREN: What did you move on to next in your career?
Becker: My work in low-income housing led to an offer to spearhead Bank of America’s introduction of CMBS lending in the Midwest. I repeated the process with Wells Fargo a couple of years later in Chicago. In 2005, I transitioned to middle market lending, which has continued to the present. It’s a professional and personal challenge that I really enjoy.
MWREN: What do you enjoy about this kind of commercial lending?
Becker: On this side of the real estate lending spectrum you get to develop really solid relationships with your borrowers. You become a value-add to their projects. Every client and every deal is different. They all require you to reach into your bag of knowledge.
MWREN: Every day then must be different.
Becker: Every day is different. And every day is fun. That is a good combination. You get to keep honing your skills and moving forward. Each project is a new project with new people, a new set of circumstances. You have to use your existing skills and take on new ones to close a deal.
MWREN: Why do you think you’ve been so successful during your career?
Becker: There are a lot of things you need to be successful in this career. Obviously you need a good skill set. You have to like what you do. But I think that if you look at the bigger picture, there are two big guiding points to my success in this industry. The first is that you must have integrity above everything. You are not going to be successful in your career if your clients don’t respect you and value your professional ethics. Your reputation is critical. You have to put the customer relationships ahead of the deal. Second, you must never burn your bridges. The commercial real estate industry in Chicago is a tigh-knit industry. It’s likely you’ll end up dealing with people from your past. It’s best to maintain those relationships.
MWREN: When did you realize that you had what it takes to be successful in this business?
Becker: In the early 2000s I took off with the CMBS side of the business. It was a new real estate platform. It was exciting. l was opening new markets, educating clients. I was educating the market. It was a fast-paced world. There were relationships that I formed then that I still have today and still value very much.
MWREN: What are some of the more challenging parts of working in commercial real estate?
Becker: Those things that are out of our control. A perfect example would be what happened in early 2009 through some would say this year. That was a huge challenge for the industry. It was hard to maintain relationships and get new businesses and keep portfolios together. You had to put on a different hat. You couldn’t just originate new business. You had to roll up your sleeves and help clients sustain what they had. You had to help them get through the challenging times. If you didn’t do that, you weren’t going to succeed either.
MWREN: How did you get through those tough years?
Becker: If you had a good base of business, if you had clients that knew you were looking to help them succeed, that helped. When you work hard for your clients in a bad time, you become the first on their lists in the good times. I approached that whole period as a time to really help my clients. Now that the economy is getting better, it has led to new business for me.
MWREN: What advice would you have for people new to this business?
Becker: Take every opportunity you can to learn. Don’t too early in your career become too specific. Being a generalist early is helpful. You learn about varied asset types and lending structures, different markets vs. acquisitions, what borrower and lender expectations are. If you can dip your toes into different areas and then decide what to focus on, you’ll have a much broader knowledge base going forward. You’ll have a bigger bag of tricks.
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