By Dan Orlando
If you look closely at Melissa Cohn’s old dining room table, you’ll catch a small piece of history engraved into the surface.
Cohn launched her very own residential mortgage operation out of her home in 1985. Her first client signed their deal on her table, leaving an imprint of their signature impressed into the furniture.
Over the next three decades, Cohn would grow Manhattan Mortgage until it became the largest residential mortgage broker on the East Coast.
Though she owned what would become an iconic business only three years after graduating from Smith College in 1982, Cohn managed to help redefine the mortgage industry as a salaried employee before venturing out on her own.
After being advised that retail banking was “the future” during her time at Smith, Cohn set her sights on New York’s mortgage market and joined Citibank “fresh from college.”
“I was really interested in dealing with people and I really like the concept of retail banking,” said Cohn. Eventually Cohn was managing 10 of the bank’s branches on the Upper East Side.
After cutting her teeth and earning a reputation as a rising young talent, Cohn joined the team at Gilbert Charles & Beylan, Inc.
“I created a mortgage company called Mortgage Placement Inc.,” said Cohn, who headed up the division for her new employer.
“I was basically the first mortgage broker who got a bank to pay me a commission in order to bring them a loan,” Cohn told Real Estate Weekly.
Then working on both salary and commission, Cohn began to swiftly accrue new business.
She was so successful, thanks in part to the commissions coming from the lenders, that her employers decided to rework her deal. The new arrangement left Cohn with her salary but stripped her of the commissions that they were paying her.
“They decided I was making too much money, so they got rid of my commission and I got rid of them,” she recalled.
Resolving to make her own way, Cohn forged ahead with Manhattan Mortgage, and used her independent status as a selling point for potential clients.
“I was a mortgage broker and not a banker,” said Cohn, telling Real Estate Weekly that her knowledge of and access to loans made her valuable and her identity as a wholesaler made her approachable.
The company thrived until the balloon began to deflate in 2008 and 2009.
“I survived the crash,” Cohn said. “I was very careful about how I did business. I actually never lost any money.”
Unfortunately for Manhattan Mortgage — plenty of others did.
Cohn’s enterprise continued to prosper through 2012, a year that she says was one of the company’s best ever before it was sold on October 1st.
The decision among the bigger banks to stop collaborating with wholesalers after the market downturn
“forced my hand,” Cohn recalled.
Deciding that a partnership with a larger mortgage bank was necessary, she joined Guaranteed Rate in 2012 as an executive vice president, where she remained for nearly two years.
“It was just not the right fit,” admitted Cohn, who became president of GuardHill Financial this past November.
However, the entrepreneurial urge that Cohn found when she first launched Manhattan Mortgage in the 80’s could not be quelled and she recently left GuardHill to pursue an opportunity with another existing mortgage bank, which she declined to name before the final papers were signed.
Cohn told Real Estate Weekly that the deal is expected to be finalized this week and that she will still be “autonomous and independent,” when she begins her new role.
However, she will be creating a division for the larger entity that she can mold into a descendent of the Manhattan Mortgage startup that she navigated to 30 years of success.
Cohn, who hinted that the new division would likely have a similar name to her old company’s moniker, will still be working “under her own name,” but will wield the power of an established bank.
“I want to be better than ever. I want to be the best. I’m not looking to become the biggest,”
said Cohn, who is keeping a close eye on the market as she begins the new venture.
“I think that the Fed has made up its mind,” said Cohn. “They keep saying they’re going to raise rates and they keep not rising rates. There are no real reasons that rates should go up substantially,” added Cohn, conceding that they may twitch upwards in reaction to the speculation.
“The markets themselves actually do the tightening for the Feds,” she said, noting that if rates are raised, an “over-reaction” would perhaps lead to more significant problems.
Cohn, who once served as a governor on the Real Estate Board of New York and has been recognized as a top originator multiples times, is extremely excited about the next chapter in her career.
“I’ve been given an amazing opportunity to start with a clean slate,” she said.