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Create Your Opportunity and the Rest Will Follow

This article by Beth O’Brien originally appeared in REI-Ink Magazine

It was early January and I was hastily plodding through two to three feet of snow in lower Manhattan trying to make it to 85 Broad Street before the 7:30 a.m. global call. The city was paralyzed under a horrible storm making the subway and a slog the only option. I was panting from the effort of moving through the snow on foot in boots, a skirt and a heavy long coat (it was still some time before we even considered wearing pants to work). But I had the leader code and the physical books and printouts were likely on my desk. There were no Blackberrys yet. We didn’t get email on our desktops until 1997 and the closest thing we had to a distribution list was if you had saved everyone’s name in your voicemail box or you could painstakingly “spell by name”. I made it to the conference room soaking wet and cold but I opened the conference line and soon heard the familiar beeps of Hong Kong on the line, Paris on the line, London on the line, and then, one by one, everyone who was traveling and all the New Yorkers dialed in from home.

It’s a matter of mindset

Should I have stayed home that day? Probably. Only the traders made it to committee in the room. Everyone else dialed in. But it was a new job that I had only been in for a few months and I knew they had taken a chance on me. I didn’t think it was an option not to show up. I was Chief Administrative Officer to the Whitehall Street Real Estate Funds and (in my mind) I was still figuring out real estate, so I made sure I had everything else, such as a conference call, perfectly nailed down.

A job with no description

I should back up a bit. I was a corporate lawyer for three years doing what associates do – working on high yield junk bonds in the early 90s, an occasional IPO and some corporate disclosures. When I had the chance to move to Goldman Sachs in a legal/strategy role, I jumped at it, but the group was disbanded in less than a year after an amorphous beginning and an inglorious end. I was one of a handful of people encouraged to interview internally although it seemed like another big risk. A job in Real Estate Principal Investments looked interesting to me though I had never worked in real estate. I had lots of skills they needed in the real estate group. I could write, I was organized, I was curious. The group was growing quickly and needed someone to run things so the acquisition people could get back to acquisitions. Interestingly, each person with whom I interviewed with described the job differently because they each just wanted to lose some of what was on his or her respective plates. It seemed like I had a great opportunity to shape my own job since no one had ever done it before.

Why trying something new lends to growth

I could have gone back to a law firm when the first position fell apart. I could have slotted right back in to a comfortable job I knew how to do. Instead, I took the job that had no formal job description other than run all the meetings and the calls, get out the annual reports, handle investor relations, help raise the next fund and eventually have all the analysts and associates report to me for work flow, reviews and compensation. It turned out there were things I was good at that I never would have even considered had I stayed a lawyer. Over the next 10 years, when we entered new markets and needed servicers set up from scratch, I went. When we had an investment overseas that was too large for the funds to take down, I worked on structuring the consortium for the bid. Our small team won the firm’s innovation award for a servicer in Paris by pulling together business plans, a corporate governance structure, a review of tax implications and interviewing scores of people in a foreign country to actually do the work. I sat on the board of a joint venture in Thailand and worked on the due diligence of a distressed bank in Korea. But, before all these things, I walked in as I did that snowy morning, worked hard and made sure the calls went off cleanly, the books were always accurate, and the annual reports were well written. I did what I knew how to do and then leaned in to the other projects. Looking back, I would never even have had the chance to expand to other areas had I stuck to my comfort zone or looked for a job I knew how to do.

Opportunity and the prepared mind

I’ve only worked at three other places since that snow storm. The last two times also involved taking jobs at places where no one had ever held what became my position and in all three cases in niches that I had not worked in before. And, another commonality among the companies was that because I had no natural affinity or direct experience, I was able to grow my skillset enormously by delivering upon skills they needed while personally developing the expertise. It is often said that women are promoted based on recent performance and men on potential. Creating opportunity however, almost demands stretching for jobs that require personal growth. Getting to growth almost always means being hired on potential. It requires risk taking but it can and should be a calculated risk. A mantra that has stuck with me since I was a biology major in college was “chance favors the prepared mind” presumably uttered by Louis Pasteur on why so many scientific discoveries were noticed by accident. I believe opportunity also favors the prepared employee.

Be responsive to the market and your clients

After Goldman and a hiatus to raise two small children, I was hired by Citi on the residential mortgage desk with no residential experience but with a deep understanding of servicers and transactions and how to manage distressed real estate. It was 2006 and within a year, I was the only one on the desk with work out experience when the subprime crisis hit. It was there that I also learned how to securitize. Eventually, I was hired away by to start an on-line residential loan platform. Neither of us had ever done it before. Shortly after getting there and while I was building the new business, the idea was percolating that we should also start a private money lender to facilitate auction purchases. I had never originated but saw the opportunity. I needed to know who the investors were, what their capital sources were and structurally how we could make it work. I went to the live auctions. I sat in registration and counted in the money that bidders brought to the venue in cash and cashiers checks. I talked to everyone as just a person in the crowd. Then, I spent countless Saturday mornings watching the online auctions. Again, I used my time figuring out who the bidders were and scraping the closing data for the capital sources. Keep in mind that, most of the time, if it is a new opportunity no one else knows the answers either.

Continue to innovate and iterate

You need to develop a market theory and test it yourself. The idea for a platform may be great but without the direct market knowledge, the structure could be wrong. You need to address the need you see and not some hypothetical need. In fact, we restructured the entire way we dealt with investors after a few months of my shadowing what they were doing and what they actually needed to do to accumulate assets on that platform. We had to change a lot of our systems and suppositions, but we were able to significantly affect investor volume. We started the private lender and we also started an investor VIP group and started covering buyers as well as sellers to develop a real marketplace before it became a buzzword. My takeaway was always bringing your skills to the table but look for ways to innovate and build adjacencies. My ideas would have been useless in a vacuum. The raw research informed the entire project.

How it all comes full circle

Eventually, I was asked to join Colony to start something from scratch once again. This time it would become a fully integrated private lender in the residential real estate investment space. It was as though everything had finally all come together in the same job. We have a commercial real estate structure, periodic securitizations, external fundraising, portfolio management and servicing and cutting-edge digital marketing. I finally feel like I actually do have the direct experience in the different facets of what we do. I still do site visits and close an occasional loan to understand the clients’ perspective and really understand the real estate. I am still looking for the next adjacency and a way to address needs we are still identifying. We are creating opportunity, so we can’t stop understanding the direct market and what it needs.

About Beth O’Brien

Beth O’Brien is the Founder and CEO of CoreVest Finance, the leading lender to residential real estate investors. Under Ms. O’Brien’s leadership, CoreVest has closed over $5B in loans and has issued approximately $2B in single-family rental bonds including the inaugural deal with Freddie Mac. Previously, Ms. O’Brien was Executive Vice President at, where she ran residential capital markets, and was President of, where she ran the financing strategy for the platform. O’Brien also held prior positions at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. Combined, she has over 25 years of experience in almost every aspect of the mortgage industry, as both a principal and an advisor. She has overseen more than $20 billion in transactions and was named in Housing Wire’s 2018 and 2014 Women of Influence, Mortgage Professionals America’s Elite Women in mortgages in both 2016 and 2017 and Most Powerful Women in Mortgage Finance for 2018 and Globe Street’s 2016 Women of Influence in Commercial Real Estate. Ms. O’Brien is a member of the Forbes’s Real Estate Council and has numerous publications in Forbes, The Scotsman Guide, the M Report and MPA Magazine. Ms. O’Brien holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University Law Center.

View the article as it appeared in REI-Ink here.





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