Local woman heads new capital services firm here

June 1, 2012
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Cohen Financial, a national commercial real estate capital services firm, recently opened a regional office in Grand Rapids that is being led by Cathy Bronkema.

Bronkema is a partner in Cohen Financial, an executive vice president with the firm and a native of the city. She returned home earlier this year after spending nine years at the company's corporate headquarters in Chicago. Before that she worked 10 years as a portfolio manager at Lowe Enterprises, an investment management firm and pension-fund advisor in Los Angeles.

In the short time Bronkema has been here, she's helped clients secure more than $10.2 million in financing through a partnership Cohen has with Colliers International, which includes the local West Michigan office headed by Duke Suwyn.

During the first quarter of this year, Bronkema teamed with Colliers to arrange financing for three industrial properties: one acquisition in Marne and two refinances in Grand Rapids. The three deals totaled slightly more than $3 million. Bronkema also worked with other Colliers' offices to secure $2.25 million in refinancing for an industrial parcel near Houston and a $3.9 million refinance for a Walgreens in the state of Washington.

Bronkema said Cohen Financial chose Grand Rapids for its regional office because the company is looking to expand its presence in the Midwest. The firm already had seven regional offices before it landed here, but the only one with even a modest connection to the upper Midwest market was the Cohen office in Kansas City. The six other offices are located in the nation's south, southwest and on the West Coast.

Another reason Cohen came here is Colliers International has a successful office in the city. "We do see opportunities here in Michigan, but also throughout the entire Midwest," she said. "When the Grubb & Ellis office here went into the Colliers International network, we saw an opportunity to expand our footprint in the Midwest."

While Cohen Financial doesn't make loans, Bronkema said the firm does help clients find capital for their acquisitions and refinancing of commercial properties. "We have 35 years in the business and extensive relationships with capital providers, and we help them find debt and equity. So we're a mortgage banker, meaning we help mortgage the loans or help them raise capital, if they need equity," she said.

"We have a national correspondence with SBA lenders, as well as working with local banks. We're really client-centric. What that means is finding the right capital for our clients based on their strategy for their real estate and their entire portfolio versus just having one product to sell."

Bronkema said commercial real estate activity in this region has picked up steam over the last eight months or so, as properties here are successfully being acquired and refinanced. "There are a lot of buying opportunities out there right now," said Bronkema, who is a distant cousin to Randy Bronkema, a veteran local commercial real estate agent and owner of Independence Realty.

"As it relates to our lenders, we are a national company, and we have a loan-servicing department in which we service over $6 billion in loans. I'm seeing a lot of opportunities with lenders, whether it's life companies or the CMBS Wall Street guys, and national and regional banks," she added.

Bronkema explained "life companies" are life insurance firms, which have taken to investing premiums in real estate projects to earn a return to cover claims. The CMBS guys are Commercial Mortgage-Backed Security lenders who slowly began coming back into the lending market about a year ago after a two-year absence.

At the local Cohen office, Bronkema isn't limited to making deals only in Michigan and in nearby states such as Indiana and Ohio, but has a national region. "I'm not defined by a region. I go by where my clients are. If I have a client here in Grand Rapids, and they are buying or building a property in Texas, I follow them, and I work with Colliers nationally," she said, adding she has had a close relationship with Colliers the past five years.

As for the future, Bronkema said she sees good things ahead for Cohen and her clients. "The cost of capital, meaning interest rates, is so low right now I'm seeing an uptick with activity in the commercial real estate sector. In the manufacturing sector, the auto industry is coming back, and the economy is becoming diversified. Specifically in Michigan, I see lenders getting aggressive, and there are opportunities in this market to make good deals on their investments. I see that throughout the Midwest," she said from her fourth floor office at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW.

"The life companies have been putting up the majority of the money and the lending over the past two to three years. So the CMBS lenders, which are the Wall Street conduit guys, are not able to compete with the life companies, and they're coming to the secondary markets to get their returns. So I think it's starting to become a more competitive market. We've definitely seen an increase in business."

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