How does a no-name upstart compete with major banks?
In 2002, Christopher Hurn launched Mercantile Capital Corp, a commercial real estate lending company.
He wanted to build one of the fastest growing companies in the country. Along the way, he felt close to having a nervous breakdown.
In this interview, I want to hear the story of what happened. If you prefer more practical advice, grab his book, The Entrepreneur’s Secret to Creating Wealth.
Christopher Hurn, Mercantile Capital Corp
Christopher Hurn is the Co-founder of Mercantile Capital Corp, a nationwide, commercial lending firm that specializes in providing smarter commercial property financing for business owners and entrepreneurs. He’s also the author of The Best-Kept Secret in Commercial Real Estate Financing.
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Hey there Freedom Fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. And in this interview I want to find out how a no-name upstart ends up competing with major banks. In 2002 Christopher Hurn launched Mercantile Capital Corp, a commercial real estate lending company. He wanted to build one of the fastest growing companies in the country and you’ll find out the specific way that he measured that. And along the way he says that he felt close to having a nervous breakdown. In this interview I want to hear the story of what happened, and if you prefer more practical advice then we’ll get to in this interview, grab his book, it’s called the Entrepreneurs Secret to Creating Wealth. And of course. It’s available on Amazon and tons of other places. Chris, welcome and thanks for doing this interview.
Chris: Thanks for having me Andrew.
Andrew: At your height, how much revenue did you guys do?
Chris: We did about 13.2 million.
Andrew: 13.2 million. What year is that?
Chris: That would’ve been our most recent year.
Andrew: OK. Wow. And you started the business with how much of your own money?
Chris: Wow, what did I put in? I put in an about 100 grand initially, actually.
Andrew: The thing that sets you off on this course was an observation about something called the 504 Loan. What’s a 504 Loan?
Chris: It’s a commercial property small business loan. It’s not very well known. I’ve been called sort of the evangelist or the pied piper of it. It actually uses at about half of the loan and has a government guarantee that borrowers, small business owners actually pay for. They pay fees so that it kind of goes into an insurance pool in case there’s any future losses, that type of a thing. So it’s actually what’s considered a zero subsidy loan and it’s just a tremendous program by virtue of comparison to what is normally offered by conventional banks. And it was something that wasn’t done much until we started. And actually to give you some perspective about 35% of all of these loans were used to be done out of California and since we’ve launched about 10 years ago now, that number has gone down considerably and more and more people around the country are aware of it. A lot more small business owners are aware of it. We’ve actually financed now 1.3 billion dollars in project costs. One small business owner at a time since we started. And we can get in to some more details later on in the interview but it’s a tremendous program that was your classic entrepreneurial situation where nobody had really taken advantage of it and we jumped on it and exploited it and built our company around it.
Andrew: How did you come across it? How did you say “Hey this is something that we can build a business around.”
Chris: Sure. I used to work for GE Capital way back in the Jack Welch days and I was in small business finance there and it just happened to be one of many things that we offered the marketplace. And I always felt it was the best commercial loan product available when a small business owner was buying commercial real estate or equipment. And yet very few banks ever talked about it. There’s a whole reason why that is the case. Not to sound overly conspiratorially. Well it’s just the way the loan is structured, the business banker, the commercial loan officer doesn’t quite make as much in terms of bonus or commission on this loan, despite the fact that it’s a better overall structure for a small business owner. So that plus a little bit of added complexity on the bankers part, was really the reason why this product hadn’t taken off much outside of California. So we knew this was an opportunity for us to try and exploit and try to educate the marketplace about it.
Andrew: And beyond just working for GE and understanding about finance through there and finding this opportunity there, you’re an entrepreneur from way back. You used to do what I used to do. You used to shovel snow as a kid.
Chris: Yeah, I started when I was about 8. I mowed the grass in the spring and summer, raked the leaves in the fall, and shoveled the snow in the winter time and pretty much been working straight since I was about 8 years old. Right now I have 3 businesses, currently actually and so I’m very comfortable juggling my balls.
Andrew: There’s a story that you told Jeremy, our producer, about how you fired one of your customers, which is something what I was doing. I was too hungry to get a customer, I wouldn’t have done it.
Tell the story about why you fired a customer?
Chris: Well, it was the first time I fired a customer, which I’ve done many times. But it’s basically, it was this little old lady. I know it’s going sound terrible.
Andrew: You didn’t have to add that.
Chris: But it’s true. I’m kind of an open book. You can only shovel as you know. You can only shovel so much snow. You’re basically being paid for your time and of course your muscles. And so this woman, we had a big snowfall. I grew up in the state of Illinois, outside of Peoria and we had this big snowfall one time and I always shoveled her sidewalks and this time she decided that she wanted me to shovel both of her driveways. She was very rare in my neighborhood. She had two driveways and a driveway took me like half hour to shovel the entire thing. It was one of those really wet snowstorms and yet she paid me $2 normally when I would shovel her sidewalks and she paid me $2 to shovel these hours’ worth of work to shovel both driveways.
I was typically getting about $5 for shoveling sidewalks in about 15-20 minutes. And so I went ahead and did it. I agreed that I would do it. I took the $2 and I said ‘Unfortunately, I’m not going to be coming back again. I’ve got a lot more driveways and sidewalks I can do for this price’. And of course, she called my mother and my mother had a conversation with me and I just explained matter of fact to my mom. I said “Look, I can only do so much an hour. I’m not going to go and do it for $2. She’s going to have to hire some other sucker. It’s not going to be me.” And my mother didn’t know what to say. She just said OK. I guess that makes sense.
So avoid her. Avoid Lydia.
Andrew: So how did that prep you to run your own business, to have done this before? Why not play a game with your friends and draw and maybe even just kill time in front of the TV set instead of going out and shoveling snow?
Chris: Well, you know, I think I grew up in kind of a working class background. I had interests and hopes and dreams and frankly I was raised by a single parent, by my mother with my brother and I, my younger brother and I and if I wanted to have nice shoes, I had to earn it because she didn’t have the money to do it. Later on, when I was in High School if I wanted to join the French Class and go to France, I had to pay for it and I did.
So there’s just a lot of those little things. what it thought me was that if I wanted something in life, I’d have to work for it and obviously I worked very hard for it. I’ve since learned the difference between trying to work a little smarter. But I’ve always enjoyed working for myself and if I have things that I want to accomplish, goals that I want to achieve, nobody better to rely on than myself.
Andrew: Dream big. What’s the biggest thing that you wanted to have that if you could have absolutely made it, what would it had been?
Chris: Well, probably, I got a lot of big dreams. One of the ones which you alluded to in the intro was I wanted to be on the 500 list of Fastest Growing companies in America when I started Mercantile. And sure enough, 5 years after we started it, we hit the list not once but actually three years in a row. And it probably would’ve been still on the list today had it not been for the fact that we actually merged the company in the fall of 2010 into a community bank.
Andrew: So you read that magazine and you said one day I’m going to be in these pages, one of the top fastest growing companies. That’s how it works.
Chris: That’s exactly what I said, yes.
Andrew: When you applied to be in that list, what do you send them? You show them…
Chris: There’s a whole application process. You have to send them audits, financials, certifying your revenues, your number of employees, what you did, all sorts of different things.
It’s kind of funny because in many respects, they don’t actually go off net profit and to me, again, as a banker, that’s something that’s rather more meaningful to me than just revenue growth and they’ve done that maybe we would’ve been higher on the ranks.
Andrew: 2009 was the last year that you were on the list?
Chris: Yes, it was.
Andrew: What was the revenue in 2009?
Chris: Off the top of my head probably just shy of $10 million.
Andrew: And what were the profits then, off the top of your head?
Chris: it was good, Andrew. I don’t know that I want to publicly say. That’s why we’re still privately owned.
Andrew: I wonder what kinds of margins you have in your business. I mean, don’t give me specifics but are we talking about a business where 10% makes it to the bottom line or 40% makes it to the bottom line?
Chris: We’re not at 40%. We’re closer to 10% and we work pretty hard to get there. But even having said that, in the financial service sector I would say we were doing pretty well by comparison.
Andrew: So, for every 10 million you might end up with roughly a million in profit?
Chris: That’s pretty good.
Andrew: Does it piss you off that there are bloggers out there who are making a million dollars off of ads and affiliate program when you are working like mad?
Chris: I don’t know that it pisses me off. I mean, everybody has got different skill sets. You know, selling ads and blogging about whatever, I don’t know how meaningful that is for a lot of people. Myself and my staff, I think, get a lot of meaning out of what we do. I think we are making a major impact in the lives of our clients. Not everybody can do what we do. I’d love it if we could get paid more for it, but you know what, I think it’s a great service that we provide and I think we are paid well for it. And, you know, I’m not so sure that the days of a blogger getting a million dollars of profit are going to last forever. I mean, it may be something that exists right now, but I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last in the future. I’d be surprised a little bit about that. Of course, they’re disrupting the whole normal media space, anyway, and that is all changing dramatically.
Andrew: You are also creating an asset that’s different from what one single blogger might be making.
Chris: That’s true. Yes.
Andrew: Let’s continue then with the story. So you discover this thing and you’re on your way to building an incredible company, millions of dollars of revenue.
Chris: No, go ahead, I’m listening.
Andrew: We’re getting a little bit of an echo and I guess I heard my own voice coming back at me which is why I stopped. What I’m getting at is before you start your partner tells you that he lost his CFO, chief financial officer. Why is he telling you and what do you end up doing about it?
Chris: Well, my business partner’s name is Jeff. He is actually 22 years older than me. We had been partners in a number of commercial real estate development deals and I’m the one who actually brought the idea for Mercantile to him. He’s actually a former bank president and he was working at the second largest commercial real estate brokerage firm here in Orlando, Florida, where we are based. He was the chief operations office, and of course, he was basically running the company. His CFO had left and at the time, I was actually a management consultant. I was on the phone literally five days a week traveling all over the country, and that was starting to get a little old, a little tiring to me. I had a daughter by then, she was still a newborn, but it was getting a little old for me. He was just kind of explaining the situation and I said, well, sounds to me like what you need is sort of a more modern day version of a CFO. Somebody who can think strategically, not just a book keeper, a number cruncher, and he sort of said, “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Why don’t you do it?” I said, “Well,” and I was kind of flabbergasted and I said, “Well, let me get back to you.” And I got back to him and it was kind of the way that he got me off the road out of management consulting to come in and do this, help him out at the commercial real estate firm, but also it was sort of genesis of us creating Mercantile at the beginning. Literally, I was in a 200 square foot office which later becomes a copy room for the real estate brokerage firm. But we worked together and I kind of straddle the fence between being the CEO of Mercantile and the CFO of this other company for about 18 – 24 months. He and I worked much closer together by doing that. Again, it goes back to my thing about I’m very comfortable with lots of balls in the air that I’m juggling, so it was fine.
Andrew: So he hires you to be his CFO and partners with you to launch this new business that we’re talking about, Mercantile.
Chris: That’s exactly right. Yeah. 10 years ago.
Andrew: I see, wow. And you were able to do it, but you were also starting your own family, working two jobs, one of them incredibly stressful – probably both incredibly stressful, but one fledgling business that you actually have to get to prove itself so you can build something, a legacy, for yourself, and that’s the point where you told Jeremy that you almost had a nervous breakdown. But when I read that in the intro, and it came right out of your notes from the conversation with you, I looked at you and it felt like…well…you tell me. What were you thinking as I read that in the intro?
Chris: What was I thinking at the time? This would have been our second month that we had loans closing, and for many, many years closing four loans in a month was considered a pretty decent month for us. This would have been four months in the business and we had four loans closing. I had been originating all of these loans, underwriting all of these loans, working on closing these loans, and literally now that is the job of probably four people. I was doing it all myself while marketing the business. Still the business was fledgling, as you said, and my wife had gotten pregnant and actually delivered our second child, my son, at the end of that month, and that’s when I had, what I told Jeremy, your producer, that I almost had a nervous breakdown because I was just thread bare. I had been working, literally, 18, 19 hours a day for a couple of weeks, and then my wife delivers my newborn. It was kind of clichÈ’. A lot of entrepreneurs will get inspiration from a story they’ve read in history about how people, I don’t know if it was the Vikings or what. They’d invade some land, and then they’d burn the boats behind them, so you can’t retreat. Literally, failure is not an option.
That’s kind of how I felt, in many ways. Here, now, I’ve two young children, both of them under the age of two. I’ve got a brand new business that’s even younger than that. Failure is not an option. Now I’ve just proven the concept. It’s obvious that we can grow a lot from here. But I’m gonna need some help. I think that’s when Jeff took a vacation a couple of months thereafter, and he came back and he said, okay, I think I’m ready to join you full-time now.
And sure enough, the very next calendar year, he came back full time, and has really been an active chairman ever since. It was a stressful time. It’s one of those things when you feel like you’re just so worn out, you either cry or you laugh. Hopefully, you’ll laugh, but oftentimes you cry.
Andrew: Literally, you cried?
Chris: I did, actually, at the time. Yeah. I was so spent. It was very emotional. Yeah.
Andrew: when you cried about this in front of your wife, were you embarrassed?
Chris: No, no. My wife and I have been together almost 22 years. We started dating when we were in college. She knows. There’s a particular commercial on TV that I’ve never seen before, and . . .
Andrew: Oh, really?
Chris: . . . really pulls my strings. Oh yeah, I’m a mess. If I go to the movie and I’m not prepared for some scene in the movie. Yeah, I wear my emotions on my sleeve a lot. Yeah. It’s OK. I’m man enough to admit that.
Andrew: I’m not man enough, apparently because . . .
Andrew: I’m a little embarrassed when I cry around Olivia.
Chris: Oh, well. Yeah. My kids now know it too. Now my daughter’s 11, my son’s 9. They’ll kind of look at each other sheepishly and say, oh, dad’s going to, you know, he’s going to leak now. That’s what my son calls it, leaking. I don’t know if that sounds very good.
Andrew: I want to know how you got those customers. But, before you even got customers, you wrote a business plan. Something that in the tech world, people just don’t do anymore. At least not in the tech start-up world. What was the business plan, and how close did you come to living what you imagined you were going to build?
Chris: Well, I had the business plan, literally, in the countertop right up here. It’s kind of funny. We moved . . .
Andrew: Can you pull it down just so we can . . .
Chris: Yeah, yeah. Hold on a sec.
Andrew: Let’s take a look at it.
Chris: It’s hideous. Here you go. I don’t know if you can see.
Andrew: Yeah, I can.
Chris: October 1st, 2002. And there it is. I have it up there. Interestingly enough, the reason it’s there is because we moved into our new office space about 13 months ago, and it was in the bottom of some file cabinet. I pulled it out and started reading through it. I was chuckling about some of these things. Because, yeah, people don’t do business plans as much anymore, and, actually, I have coached many people over the years, and I’ve yet to meet an entrepreneur who’s every followed the business to a “T”. It just doesn’t happen. But the very act of going through the writing of a business plan, I think, is what’s been so effective for so many years.
Andrew: For example, what part gave you value, and what did you get?
Chris: Sure, well, I mean, what gave me value, and I’ve often talked to other people about, is you have to understand your competition, of course. And how are you going to differentiate yourself from the competition. If you don’t have the tactics and the strategies to do that, it’s going to be really tough to prove your concept and to actually continue to grow it going forward.
That’s something that, I think, the very act of writing the business plan itself, it forces entrepreneurs to contemplate those things. Now obviously, today, as you alluded to, you don’t see that as much in some of the high tech space because things are moving so quickly. Although I still think that idea, that thought process, is extremely important.
Andrew: Just take one slice of the . . .
Andrew: . . . business plan to say, how am I going to be different than all these other people’s, many of whom, as I said at the top of the interview, are way bigger than you’re ever going to be.
Andrew: How are you going to differentiate yourself? Do you have anything that you put in there that you laugh at now and you say, what the hell was I thinking?
Chris: Mostly the projections. [laughs] I mostly laugh about the projections which, you know, every . . .
Andrew: Did you project ten years out?
Chris: No. Oh God, no. No, no. I think we only projected three years out. Frankly, I don’t think anything beyond three years is very . . .
Andrew: What did you think you were going to do in revenue for the first three years?
Chris: Oh, I don’t remember off the top of my head. I’d have to take a look at it, but I don’t think it was anything close to what we ultimately did.
Andrew: You just overshot it?
Chris: Yeah. I think we probably did. That was after us trying to be fairly conservative. We just think a lot of things didn’t happen as they planned, which is pretty typical for a business plan. But back to your point, as how was I going to differentiate? I’ve often likened ourselves to a David in an industry filled with Goliaths. We literally, our competitors have branches on every street corner. They have billions if not trillions of dollars worth of assets, hundreds of thousands of employees. How would we compete against that? Well 10 years ago one of the ways that we were going to compete against that was we were going to be much more marketing centered. Much more marketing centric than a lot of people in the banking industry. Now things have changed, bankers have gotten better at marketing, but they’re still not very good by comparison to a lot of industries. And I think it was part of my experience at being a management consultant, what I was able to see working well in other areas, other industries and applying that to ours. This was early in where still a lot of peoples websites were very much brochure where I believed in trying to build up a database. I was one of the, I think I was one of their earliest people, certainly in my industry, who was trying to collect names and addresses and emails and things like that so I could build up a list of people that I could regularly communicate with and engage with and…
Andrew: And just do that on your website, collect that information.
Andrew: [??] for the loan business.
Chris: Yeah, it was direct response marketing, we did that early on. We’ve done a lot of offline marketing, a lot of direct response.
Andrew: I’ve got a great example here, I’m going to save it because I want to go in chronological order but it’s a great example of where you got some leads that we’ve got to bring up. Let me bold that to make sure I don’t forget that story. You also raised a little bit of money, what was the funding process like for you?
Chris: Well we went back to, Jeff and I went back to all of our partners who had invested in these commercial real estate deals and that’s where we raised money. Believe it or not we raised 800 grand to start. Which if you think about we’re effectively operating as a bank, it’s an awful small amount of money. And then we got about a million dollar commercial warehouse line of credit that we were going to fund these loans with. And so we were not very well capitalized, we thought it was OK at the start. About, I think it was about 18 months in we raised another 400 thousand dollars and that’s all the capital we ever raised until right before we merged in with the bank.
Andrew: So you went back to the people who invested in commercial property with and you said, “Hey, you guys like borrowing money and building up these properties with me? What if we go to the other side? We become the people who lend money and no more building.”
Chris: That’s exactly what we did. Yeah. And they were pretty excited about it. I mean, there was an education process in explaining that this is a real business, they’re not likely to get like monthly rich x type of a return type of scenario. It was going to be something we build up over time. Hopefully if we did things correctly, we’d be profitable and obviously our exit strategy would be to sell the business and that’s effectively what we did.
Andrew: And as you exit did they get to cash out?
Chris: No, we all got stock. We actually did, we’ve actually, our distributions were such that before we merged the business to the bank and they gave them all stock; they had actually recouped all of their investment, their initial investment back substantially. So we had pretty healthy distributions for several years. We’ve been profitable I have to say from day one. Only made I think about 63 hundred dollars that first year in business, but we were still profitable.
Andrew: How did you get your first customers?
Chris: How did we get our first customers? I think we parlayed some of the relationships that we had, talked to a lot of folks about what we were getting ready to do. And quite frankly, again, back to the product itself, that we’re now considered the nations experts at, in some respects it kind of sells itself. I know, again that sounds very clichÈ but it has some clear advantages versus what you would otherwise go to an ordinary conventional bank and get…
Andrew: Do you remember your first customer?
Chris: Yeah I do.
Andrew: How did you get the first customer?
Chris: He was somebody I believe had seen our website, our brand new website. His name is Max Clark and he actually repaired ATM’s. ATM machines. Had a pretty good business, and actually came back and financed two more properties with us over the years.
Andrew: What did he want money for?
Chris: He was buying a building. He was buying a building for one of his locations. Just your basic office warehouse complex.
Andrew: I see. So he wanted a place to store his ATM’s that were going to go get put in different locations and have his people in. And instead of leasing from someone else, he was buying. And he found you online?
Chris: Yeah. He found me online.
Chris: That would’ve been back in early 2003, yeah.
Andrew: What do you know about being online? I’m looking at your history here, and your website does look great. But I’m looking and I’m saying, the guy worked at GE, he worked at, let’s see what else I have, Marsh and McClennan Financial, I don’t see any web work. I don’t see anything that would make me think this guy really knows the internet and he knows [??]. Especially back in the early two thousands.
Andrew: early two thousands.
Chris: I never even took a marketing class. And I’ve got two bachelor degrees and a master’s degree and even went to law school for a year before I dropped out and said I hate that process. But no, I’m just completely self taught Andrew. I mean that’s, I learned…
Andrew: You’re just looking around online and you’re seeing, well how, how do you come across the whole [??] process online, that’s pretty killer stuff.
Chris: Again, I’m really self taught. I’ve read a bunch of things over the years and I’m constantly working on improving myself and constantly educating myself. That’s really all it is. There’s no magic to it. I think I just put in the hours that a lot of people don’t and read a lot of great material and then try and implement the things that I’ve learned and apply it to my business.
Andrew: What do you read?
Chris: I’ve read tons of stuff.
Andrew: Anything you can recommend about it?
Chris: Geez, I don’t know. I’ve read just about every Tom Peters book there is. I’m a big fan of Peter Drucker over the years of course. I’ve read a lot of Seth Godin stuff, obviously recently. I mean just, you know, you’d know a lot of these people. But the important point here I think, the lesson here is, it’s one thing to read a lot of business books, it’s another thing entirely to actually try to apply that to your company and actually implement something. And that’s what I’ve always been pretty good at.
Andrew: The leads that I was alluding to earlier came from a listing service for commercial real estate; can you tell that story?
Chris: The leads from a commercial real estate listing. I’ve done a lot of stuff over the years.
Andrew: It was a service that was the equivalent of the MLS for commercial real estate.
Chris: Oh yeah. Well without naming names, because it is a publicly traded company I don’t want to get myself or them into trouble but, it’s an example of I guess how my mind works and this was a commercial property multi listing service effectively, still exists to this day. And very early on in the process they had a tremendous data base of small and mid sized businesses that were leasing all around the country and my idea was, well gee, if we could triangulate knowing when someone’s lease was coming up, knowing approximately the square footage they had, what kind of property type they had, we could figure all that out, I could actually pitch them other property types that would fit those parameters, those variables for them, with our type of financing and actually do a marketing, a offline marketing campaign directly to them. And so we did that. And actually one of the guys who now is one of my right hand men, who’s still with me years later, we tried that process, we spent a lot of money on it for many years and really were using the service much more sophisticated than any of the commercial real estate brokerage firms were using it. And they even wanted to make us sort of an example and pitch this aspect to other financial firms. The problem was, only about 50% of their data was actually accurate and that was a big problem.
So when we were getting things returned to us or people were saying, “Well, no, my lease isn’t up for another 7 years. I don’t know why you thought it was up in 7 months,” or whatever the case was. But that was one of the things where it was just a disparate a bunch of information that we were all trying to put together to try and help these folks and to teach them basically that ownership in many respects is a less expensive way than to continue leasing and if you’re a small business owner and you don’t expect to go public one day, your exit strategy is enhanced by ownership. You really can create some wealth from yourself by becoming your own landlord. And that’s what we were trying to teach.
Andrew: So I imagine myself, say I own or rent a floor of real estate here in San Francisco, my lease is almost up, I’m trying to figure out what to do next, maybe go at a different office, maybe we’re still in negotiation with the landlord for this place and in comes a letter from you saying, “Hey, have you considered buying?” And I go, “Yes I have. But I’m not in that business. I don’t have enough money to do it. I need to lease.” And then the letter goes on to say, “We can make you this loan that’s credibly favorable. You only put 10% down and you’re also building up equity.” And so on and so forth. If it works, terrific. I mean if I’m at that place, you’ve got me with my full attention. If I’m not, I understand not being interested but what I’m wondering is, first of all, brilliant, but second, so what if 50% don’t work out? That just means that your cost is double it’s still so brilliant that doesn’t it still make sense financially? Why doesn’t it?
Chris: Well at the time, I mean it’s probably one of those things where you go back to today; of course the subscription basis on the software is pretty dramatic at this point. We could certainly handle it, sure. But we have so much business coming in these days that I guess it’s just one of those things, Andrew, I haven’t gone back to. If I move on from something and deem it that it didn’t work at the time, I guess I, I sometimes am not as introspective as I should be like a lot of entrepreneurs and go back and try to see if I can do it. It might work, you’re probably right, and certainly right now in just the economic cycle we’re in, it works even better because property values are way down compared to where they were five years ago. Interest rates are at historic lows. The probably have nowhere to go but up from here. Obviously, having just written the book, I really believe in this. I have one of these loans myself. So, yeah, I could probably go back and do it now. I’d have to staff up for it.
Andrew: Even if it was twice as expensive, that still doesn’t seem that expensive for data.
Chris: Well, it’s more complicated than what I’m explaining.
Andrew: That’s what I’m getting at. What am I missing?
Chris: Well, we had a multi-step process. It was three to four letters, it was two or three phone calls outbound. At any given time we probably had 100 to 150 properties that we were pitching to them on behalf of the commercial real estate broker that had that listing to whatever the potential perspective buyer base would be around that area. We usually did a radius search, 3 to 5 mile radius search around that property that met the square footage. It was a lot to manage logistically it was a lot. Like I said, the guy that was doing this at the time, literally this is all he did for first 8 or 9 months then obviously, I moved him into some other things here. But you bring up a good point. Maybe when I get off this interview I will go back and say…
Andrew: I’m bringing up points I’m trying to understand.
Andrew: And I see why it is a multi-step process. It’s not as easy as feeding it through some algorithm. This whole time as you’re building up this business you’ve got Bank of America, Wells Fargo, all these big guys breathing down your next, and when a customer says, “You know what. I’ve known Wells Fargo. That logo of theirs, the chariot…”
Chris: The GE meatball. When I was at GE it was the meatball.
Andrew: Yeah, so you’ve got the GE meatball, you’ve got the Bank of America company that has been around forever. I did a search for commercial real estate loan earlier and I think I came up with CitiBank, in fact, I didn’t even see you guys there.
Andrew: When a customer comes to you and says, “Hey, I know this reputable bank. They’re giving me a rate, a better rate than you. You’ve educated me. Thanks for all the great articles in INK magazine thanks for all the articles on your website. I’m taking this and going over to them.” What do you do? How do you compete with something like that?
Chris: Well often times we compete by sheer knowledge and competence. One thing that we have always had an advantage, and just about every small company does over a big company is speed. Our turnaround time is much faster than any of those big behemoths. We also compete with our personality. We are not ashamed to put out who we are, what we stand for, what we mean, whereas a lot of big companies can’t do that. They can’t get it past through general council offices and I think that is one of the most important things about being a small to midsize company is not being afraid to do that. You don’t see it as much in the tech space. In 2013, you see a lot of high tech firms that are comfortable getting their personality through their marketing, but you don’t see it usually in a lot of other industries, certainly not our industry. That was another differentiator about us from day one. So, those are some that we do. We also use customer testimonials which you don’t see a lot of people do. I’m a big believer in that because it is social proof and that actually does help and sell. We have a lot of those big name companies actually come to us for our knowledge now at this point, our competence, which is a little bit head scratching on that. Those are the reasons. That’s how we compete. I talk about in my book, I’ve heard it put this way. You can have speed. How did I put this in the book? You can have speed, you can have price, or you can have competence. You can pick two of the three, but you can’t have all three. I think that is pretty important and I think that holds true in most industries.
Andrew: I can see that. I can see someone going over to Bank of America saying, you know what, their price was good, but where are they after they got my loan? After they got things off the ground.
Andrew: You mentioned testimonials. I saw that in the notes from the conversation that you and Jeremy had.
Andrew: I thought testimonials are differentiator? That clearly wasn’t in your business plan. It was something that you’ve discovered along the way it seems like, right? Why are testimonials such a differentiator that now I’m hearing about them twice as key points. Tell me about that. Testimonials where and why aren’t bigger banks doing it.
Chris: I think bigger banks to some respect, they try to control the marketing message so much and sometimes that’s to their detriment. My belief is no matter how powerful I think we can be and how good we can be, I think it’s better told by somebody else. It’s a lot more impactful when somebody else tells it, having gone through the process.
So we’ve always had that as a central piece of any of the marketing that we’ve done, whether it is on our website or if we give a marketing packet and we always include quotes from our customers. And these are, you know, like “Mercantile’s great. You should use them.” It’s not like that. We try to be very specific with the testimonials. “This is how much I save with these guys”, “This is how fast they did this”, “I had a transaction that nobody else. I went to 14 other banks. Nobody else could figure out how to get it done but these guys did.” It’s thinks like that very much specificity in the testimonials.
But I think it just comes down to human nature. It’s social proof. What other people say about you I think it’s extremely powerful and I’m not really sure why other banks don’t use it. But that’s not my concern. It works well for us and not only do we have written testimonials, we have video testimonials. If you call in and get on my on hold message you’ll hear audio testimonials by some of my past clients talking about the things that were so helpful and why they got what they paid for with us and they appreciate what we did for them and why it made such a big difference in their business life.
Andrew: And now it’s a good time for me to read what Dwayne would feel. This Mixergy Premium member said in a comment of a recent post, he says ‘I just went Premium. If you think the interviews on Mixergy are good, they are nothing compared to the courses. I just filled half a notebook with things that I’ll be implementing in my business from the courses. It is worth it’
By the way, if anyone is out there watching and you like these interviews, check out the courses on MixergyPremium.com. On Mixergy proper, I bring out interviews with entrepreneurs. On MixergyPremium I bring entrepreneurs on to teach one thing that they’re especially good at. I’m about to record with Guy Kawasaki, the first evangelist at Apple who’s going to talk about how to build a brand yourself, how to personally take control of your personal brand and how to build it up. If you’re not sure why you should do it instead of hiring an expert, wait until you hear the crazy story that he tells that a mutual friend went through when she thought Hey, I’m going to give it someone else and see what he was able to do for himself as he built up his personal brand.
If you’re a Guy Kawasaki fan, wait until you get that course. It’ll be part of your Mixergy Premium package. And if you’re not a Guy Kawasaki fan or not a Mixergy Premium member, get on it. I don’t know how to tell you to join Guy Kawasaki’s army but I’m going to tell you that if you want to join Mixergy Premium and get notes that you can actually use for your business the way Dwayne would feel has been able to take and see results, go to MixergyPremium.com
I was only going to quickly read that testimonial but I thought Let’s just go for it right here. I’m going to do a quick plug.
Chris: Well, I’ve met Guy a few times, I’ve heard him speak, I’ve read all his stuff. Actually, he’s got my book, believe it or not. He’s a fan of my book and I’ve got a photo somewhere on Twitter that you can probably find with me and Guy and my book. So it’s kind of interesting.
I’ve read some good things from people about it.
Andrew: If I see him, I’ve got to take a picture together. I always have dinner with interesting people, I always have interesting conversations and then I don’t take a picture. But the picture has a lot of power. Talk about social proof.
Chris: That’s right. Yes. If anybody goes to any of my social media accounts, they’ll see pictures of me and Gene Simmons and Tim Ferriss and all sorts of different individuals that I’ve met over the years. It’s pretty interesting.
Andrew Warner: I saw that you have a big social media presence.
Andrew: Do you have metrics on how effective that is for getting new customers?
Chris: We try to. Obviously people pitch me all the time.
Andrew: On metric systems?
Chris: Yes. We measure things in terms of what kind of content that we put out, what kind of responses do we get, in what part of the day do we get the best responses, things like that. But frankly we’re also always bottom line results driven and so for many years people have scratched their head and until recently they haven’t understood like LinkedIn, for instance. What are we getting out of Linkedin. Well, I’ve told people ‘It’s another place where we can engage with people and put out our content, repurpose our content’. And it wasn’t until I had a deal about a year ago that paid us over 6 figures that I was like that’s the first tangible win we had on LinkedIn that I can point to and candidly that pays for many of our positioning in LinkedIn for a couple of years at least. I mean, that was pretty powerful, so I’m never going to doubt some of these social media [??] anymore after that.
But we get a lot of people that follow us. I’ve had a lot of folks that have obviously bought my book and reviewed my book on Amazon and other places, and a lot of it has come from our social media activity, absolutely.
Andrew: I had brunch with a founder of Goodreads, and his wife who also works with him went on Nightline and she was told beforehand don’t say the site say Goodreads, so I wonder if we shouldn’t, instead of the book, say “The Entrepreneur Secret to Creating Wealth”.
Chris: There you go.
Andrew: It’s a mouthful. I’ll say it right. The Entrepreneur’s Secret to Creating Wealth. At what point, well, not at what point, throughout you had to personally guarantee loans for your business? You were willing to do that?
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Andrew: How much?
Chris: Almost forty million at one point.
Andrew: That means, business goes belly up, business suffers – it doesn’t even have to go belly up it just has to suffer – you have to put up forty million dollars yourself, basically that would bankrupt you.
Chris: That’s right. Oh yeah. At some point it doesn’t matter. I mean, they can come after me and keep digging, they’re not going to get the forty million, so…I guess that.
Andrew: So do you remember when you first started taking out personally guaranteed loans?
Chris: Oh, we did it from day one, we did it from day one. In fact, it’s only been within the last twelve months that that contingent liability has completely gone away and I no longer have any contingent liability with my company.
Andrew: Do you ever remember waking up in the middle of the night going, I’ve got kids and tens of millions in loans guaranteed.
Chris: No, not really. I think I’ve been a really good compartmentalizer over the years, and I really do mean it. I mean what’s the worst that can happen? In this country you go bankrupt and you start over. Frankly, knowing what I know now, if I had to start over again I might do a few things differently, but I’m convinced that I’d get right back to where I needed to be. So it didn’t really bother me that much.
Chris: Yeah. What’s interesting is for all of our loans I require personal guarantees from our borrowers, and there’s been a few times where somebody will bitch and complain and say I can’t, my lawyer tells me I shouldn’t do that. I say, “Well, good luck getting a loan anywhere.” Because right now in this particular financial climate we find ourselves in, any small loan is going to require a personal guarantee and then often times I’ll say let me tell you a little story about personal guarantees.
Andrew: Yeah, because you’ve got a story.
Chris: Yeah, you think you’ve got trouble, come on.
Andrew: Wait until you see my number.
Chris: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew: You then merged in 2008, 2009?
Chris: 2010, actually.
Andrew: Oh, okay. Why?
Chris: Well, it was an opportunity for us to get bigger faster and to get rid of those commercial lines of credit. To actually deploy the same strategy that our competitors do which is bankers fundamentally take in deposits from their clients and they lend it back out and we had never been able to do that. So, we were never quite as profitable as we ultimately could be because we weren’t able to do that. We actually had to pay a little bit for those lines of credit to then lend the money out. That’s why we did it and quite frankly, it’s no secret, but the financial services sector went through, almost had a bit of a heart attack in Fall 2008 and it has pretty much lasted until maybe last year. We are still falling out a little bit right now. We are not completely out of the woods. From a regulatory standpoint, it was already a very heavily regulated industry, it is even more so now. We really haven’t seen what Dodd Frank and some of the other laws are going to do just yet. But it just made more sense for us to partner up. It happened to be one of our line banks that we partnered up with and we made a very meaningful impact on their bottom line. They’re very pleased with us. They let us run things as a wholly one subsidiary, we are completely autonomous and it’s good. We haven’t really changed much.
Andrew: What’s the name of the company that you merged with?
Chris: It’s called Old Florida National Bank. It’s Old Florida National Bank shares. Some of my staff will probably complain because they’ve had to do compliance software updates and things like that online, compliance classes and stuff, but I always get interns to do it for me, so.
Andrew: It’s a merger but you end up with shares in their business or shares in the combined business.
Chris: That’s right, shares in the combined business.
Andrew: I’m trying to figure it out, how much did you sell for? Or what share of business do you have? That’s the most amateur question I could have asked. I couldn’t come up with more, um…
Chris: Yeah. We got a nice price, Andrew. It was just a book to book deal. Book value to book value. And it’s been very good for us. We actually have another merger right now with another community bank that will probably close in the second or third quarter of this year, assuming we get regulatory approval, and we expect to. At that point we will be the largest Orlando based community bank. We’re pretty excited about that. We will be the largest community bank in central Florida at that point, and that’s pretty fun. The bank is always only going to lend in central Florida at the time being. That’s their footprint. But we continue to lend nationwide and do it pretty well, I think.
Andrew: I’m looking here at 504experts.com, doing research that I should have done before we started the interview. They cover you guys really well apparently .
Andrew: “Giving them combined assets of 415 million dollars.”
Chris: Now, actually –
Andrew: “FDIC approval.” You guys went through the FDIC approval process where you spent money because you wanted to start taking in deposits.
Chris: Yes. Well, let me back up a little bit. First of all, the combined assets right now of Florida International Bank is about 700 million. When we merge with this other bank we will be about a billion one. But, backing up, in 2008, we always wanted to become a bank ourselves. Several of my board members have been founding board members of a national bank. Jeff my business partner had started a national bank himself and sold it out to Regions, that’s how they actually got into the central Florida market place. And so we knew that was one of the ways we were going to evolve our company over time. Our timing was terrible. We started in 2008, and decided we wanted to become a national bank. We went through the process. You haven’t seen an application until you’ve seen this for a bank charter. We actually got our OCC approval. The office of the comptroller currently approval, but remember, a big event happened in the Fall of 2008.
Basically in August, September time frame, which is Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, the fed let them go bankrupt, and the entire financial community kind of seized up. We were in the midst of that. We probably would have been one of the last banks to actually get chartered but for the fact that when we went to get our FDIC insurance, the application had been in for many months, we actually withdrew our FDIC application in February of ’09 because it was apparent there was an unofficial moratorium on new bank charters. It was really too bad because when you go through the bank process, a startup bank as a no bill process, you have to have a number of staff already on staff. You have to have declared where you are going to have your offices. You already have to have leased your offices. So when it’s all said and done we actually wasted about a million eight because the government didn’t let us know that there was a moratorium on bank charters.
So to this day, that’s one of those things I try not to think about too often. Just saying it right now makes me a little bitter and a little irritated. I’m not a big fan of the former FDIC chairwoman, but, because of stuff like this, maybe there wasn’t anything she could do. Candidly, as an economy we really needed a fresh bank capital at the time, and we still need fresh bank capital to help us in this recovery. I think that is a big reason why the economic recovery has not been as dramatic as all of us would have hoped it’s because the banks, for the most part, have been on the sidelines. They haven’t participated much in this recovery and it’s a shame.
Andrew: You wrote on 504experts.com, eventually Mercantile, your company, had to return 37 million dollars in capital to shareholders and absorb the application fee.
Andrew: So the 37 million dollars from shareholders was for what?
Chris: That was what was going to be our new bank raise.
Andrew: I see.
Chris: That was our capital.
Andrew: You raised money to become a bank.
Andrew: And that wasn’t happening. You had to say guys, sorry, it’s not coming.
Chris: Yeah, we ultimately ended up keeping, I think we kept about seven million of it. The folks wanted to keep it with us to recapitalize Mercantile again and then shortly thereafter, well a little more than a year later, we ended up merging with Old Florida National Bank.
Andrew: Was that the lowest point for you as an entrepreneur having to return money to shareholders because…
Chris: Yeah, probably.
Andrew: Yeah. I think as we’re talking that it’s a little uncomfortable.
Chris: Oh God, just thinking about. Yeah, yeah, that probably was. That was low.
Andrew: If you hadn’t sold, how shaky would you have been? Emerged?
Chris: I have more confidence in myself than just about anything or anyone else. I think we probably still would have been okay but we would have been limping along a little bit. I think it was important that we did our merger when we did. You know, I think we’re certainly much stronger now because of it. It worked out well for them. It worked out well for us. Obviously our employees were all taken well care of. A lot of our employees had options in our company, they now have options in the bank.
Andrew: I’ve heard you mention confidence quite a few times here.
Andrew: This sense of, confidence that if you lost it all, you’d, I forget what movie it’s from, it was, “If I lose it all, I’ll meet you right back here in another silk suit.” And you had that kind of confidence.
Andrew: That if you lost it all you’ll find another way to get it right back up here doing another interview about how you built up another successful business. How do you get that? How do you bring that out of yourself when you’re not feeling confident, when you’re struggling.
Chris: I don’t know. It’s a little of, you know, there’s an element of fearlessness, I suppose, that all successful entrepreneurs have. Some of that’s probably how people are wired up. This is kind of a question that I’ve attempted to answer many times over the years, Andrew. I just asked it a lot. I think, you know, I’ve never been a big fan of authority. Maybe we should start there. I was always the kid in grade school that was the mastermind behind the bad kids, you know, telling them, “Boy, it’d be fun if we threw this pumpkin out of the five-story window. Let’s see what happens.” They’d go do it, they’d get in trouble, and all throughout the day, back to me, but I was the kid that was getting straight A’s and I was bored out of my mind, and that’s why I was doing these things, probably, acting up.
But I don’t know. I’m not really sure where it comes from, but over time, as you’ve gotten yourselves in situations that would perhaps crush mere mortals, and you get yourself out of it, and I think that you build on that. I think that gives you the confidence in yourself, you’re going to figure out a way. You get in these challenging situations, and it doesn’t take you down. You figure out a way to get out of it and to live another day, and I think that emboldens you somewhat, and I think if you’ve lived the life of an entrepreneur, over time, it just has a stacking process, I guess. I just think, it’s kind of funny, I mean, now I’m 40, and it’s kind of funny, I’ll walk into Jeff’s office every once in a while and there’s some issue that we’re dealing with or something, and he’s like, well, don’t flip, I’ve got to tell you about this. Don’t flip out. And I’m calm, and everything’s fine, and I said “See? This is me, the more mature me. I didn’t flip out. (?) or even another day, or whatever the case is. But I think it’s an evolutionary process. I certainly don’t think people have it right out of the gate. Some people do. Some people are naive, and don’t know what they don’t know of course. And I think there’s probably a little bit of an element of that, early on, when you know it’s going to happen and know it’s going to come at us, but it’s worked out pretty well. Can’t complain.
Andrew: You’re saying you fall down, get back up, fall down, get back, and pretty soon you realize, hey, I can get back up.
Chris: Yeah. Falling down is like everything I do, yeah.
Andrew: You know what I just realized, as you were talking, I finally looked up 504experts.com, of course, it’s your domain. It’s merchant capital corporation. As I read it like it was an authoritative source and then figured out the way you wrote it and so on, I’m thinking this is really good, this domain works. It looks like we’re the experts in (?). So here’s the thing, I wonder how many other mistakes I might have made in this interview, what else did I miss here? And it’s because I interview tech entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses and I’m much more plugged into the tech world, obviously than I am into finance. I think the reason that we ended up doing this interview, I say we, because as you know, there are lots of people here involved in doing research and crap, is because we got an email from Phil Mcmicken? A marketing associate at your company?
Chris: Phil? No, I don’t think so.
Andrew: Oh, Phil actually emailed me two years ago and I said no to him, three years ago, I said no. I said it’s not a good fit right now. And then most recently I guess someone else might have reached out to us. Why is it useful to do an interview here on Mixergy? What’s in it for you? Be honest.
Chris: Well, obviously, I mean, I want to sell books, sure. I think what I wrote in my first book is pretty useful for a lot of folks. The reality is, a lot of, I have financed small business owners across all different industries. I mean, it’s just remarkable the number of industries that I’ve finance. I’ve finance plenty of people in the high-tech space, actually, and I think if, you know, so few people meet their public, and especially now, with the compliance cost of being a public company and what-not. So a lot of people have to look at their exit strategies, and for most small business owners in America, it’s going to be selling your business or shutting it down, but my contention has always been that if you can own your property, you can actually create wealth for yourself over and above whatever you do within the operating company, and I think that’s pretty powerful, and I think that’s not the kind of thing that a lot of business owners think about. Sometimes they think about it many years after the fact, after they’ve made their landlord wealthy, and been paying his mortgage all along.
And so, I just try to educate people on the big (?) for small businesses, so I want to get this kind of message out there, because I don’t think, especially in the text base, there’s not that many people who have thought about this strategy, I think, and yet it works. I mean, look at Amazon. They have the largest commercial real estate project. Of all 2012, it was $1.8 billion purchase of 1.2 million square feet of office space in San Francisco. And they did it for many of the same reasons that I advocate the small business owners should do it. It’s the same reason why people move out of apartments into homes eventually. It’s building equity. It’s buying into an asset that should appreciate over time. It’s not get rich quick’ by any means. But perhaps it’s ‘get rich smart and slowly’, and that’s the kind of thing that . . .
Andrew: I mean, do you have $1 million in liquid assets? Do you have $1 million in cash?
Chris: I don’t have $1 million in cash, because I also started another business.
Chris: So I’ve got three businesses. But I’m doing fine, though, Andrew. Yeah.
Chris: I’ve got a lot of things going. I don’t know what would I do right now with liquid assets? I mean, you can’t get any return at any banks right now. Right? So, I start businesses.
Andrew: You can take risk off the table.
Chris: That’s true.
Andrew: So you can actually say, “Hey, if the world falls apart and all my businesses go down, I’ve got something.
Chris: Yeah. But that’s motivation driven by fear, and I don’t think that’s a way to live. I still think I have better days ahead of me and I still think this country has better days ahead of us. I don’t want to stick my head in the sand. A lot of people do that sort of a thing. But I have a lot of fun with the creative process of building companies. I think that’s a lot of fun and I think perhaps maybe that’s why we’re doing this interview. Because I think I have a lot more in common with some of your viewers and your listeners than you’d think, at first glance.
Andrew: I think so to. I appreciate you doing this interview and I realize now how we got connected. It’s Adam Whinney [SP] who reached out again. He’s the [??] at Managed Media Group, who, I guess, published your book.
Chris: He’s my publisher. Yeah. Yeah. That’s good.
Andrew: And you publish a book to become an expert on this topic. And by being an expert on the topic, first, you get to inspire people, and you get to teach them, but you also get to bring people into your business.
Chris: Sure. I mean, let’s be honest. I think I was an expert before I wrote the book. I think that the book was the last thing I hadn’t done, you know, that stamp of credibility that was missing. And nobody else in my industry had ever written a book like this. So, I think that’s . . .
Andrew: It helps to do that.
Chris: It does.
Andrew: And frankly, I know I’m not the only person who googles you and then comes up with a book, and then googles you and comes up with an Inc. Magazine. I guess you were in Inc. a couple of times, right?
Chris: Oh, I’ve been in Inc. many times.
Andrew: And of course, the numbers pan out, because I do a search on Inc., to make sure that I found you. Even did a search on Dun & Bradstreet, as you and I talked before the interview. We discovered that it wasn’t the same company.
Andrew: Just one with a similar name.
Chris: You got to be careful with that Dun & Bradstreet because you know that’s self-reported. So I’ve always . . .
Andrew: I know. I was so surprised when I was a kid, they called me up and they asked me about my revenue. And I go, ‘But I can give you anything?’
Andrew: I thought there was some value here.
Chris: Right. Right. Well, there used to be. Maybe there was 20, 30 years ago, but today, I don’t know how much value. Now, the Dun & Bradstreet people probably hate the fact that we just said that.
Andrew: I think that it’s a very open secret.
Chris: Yeah. It could be. It could be. I don’t know. As a banker, I don’t generally put much credence in anything from Dun & Bradstreet.
No. The only value is that there’s some businesses that do report back to Dun & Bradstreet when people don’t pay them on time.
Chris: That’s right. That’s true.
Andrew: But that’s a whole other nightmare to have to get involved with Dun & Bradstreet to report a lack of payment. Do you guys do that?
Chris: No. No we don’t even report it.
Andrew: Well, thank you for doing this interview and dealing with some of those invasive questions about finances. I figured, ‘You know what. He’s doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know our space. He can really, frankly say whatever without being to damaged and knowing that I couldn’t catch everything.’ So I said, ‘Well, how do I use that? Oh, right, well, I don’t know him that much. And if I ask him a question that’s too invasive, he can’t go tell his friends, ‘Don’t do an interview with Andrew.’ ‘
Of course, you’re smiling and you’re obviously happy with this interview. So I figured, go a little bigger.
Chris: No. That’s fine. I appreciate you having me on.
Andrew: All right. The website is, I’m actually going to give people the 504experts.com website, because it’s so easy to get. And the name of the book is “The Entrepreneurs Secret to Creating Wealth.” Thank you so much for doing this interview.
Chris: Thanks for having me, Andrew. Take care.
Andrew: Thank you for being a part of it.
Chris: All right. Bye.
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