Smith, a native Grand Rapidian, has returned here as the new Fifth Third Bank senior vice president of commercial real estate lending for western Michigan.
He told the Business Journal that commercial real estate lending is not a new interest for him.
And, likewise, Grand Rapids.
He first moved away to Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., to attain a bachelor’s degree, returning to attend the University of Michigan for his MBA. Then it was back to New York when Smith went to work for Citibank there.
Starting in 1976 and for the next 20 years, Smith worked for Citibank in a variety of positions, primarily in commercial real estate lending in both Chicago and New York.
In 1997 Smith made the transition from Citibank to Security Capital Group, a large real estate investment firm, where Smith was in charge of providing investment strategy for two of the company’s larger clients.
“I have always been in the corporate lending business — a lot of it was commercial real estate — but I did a lot of other corporate lending, including leverage buyout financing,” said Smith.
“With Security Capital Group I was responsible for our investments in two basic businesses: One was a business that owned 250 grocery-anchor shopping centers, the other was an urban parking business where we financed, purchased and owned parking areas in cities and also off-airport parking.”
Security Capital Group was sold in 2000 to General Electric Capital and Smith subsequently went back to Citibank, which in the meantime had merged with Travelers Insurance and is now doing business as Citigroup.
He was working at that job in Chicago when the phone call came in about the position at Fifth Third Bank in Grand Rapids.
Smith said he chose to come back to his hometown for three reasons, one of which was the chance to return to a part of the country he knew and loved.
“Another was joining an organization that has an absolutely terrific reputation for management strength and, third, the opportunity to join a very successful real estate team here that is already in place,” said Smith.
Having been at his new desk for several weeks, Smith said he is still trying to work into his new job. But he has managed to visit all of the offices in his department, in addition to offices in Lansing, Kalamazoo and on the lakeshore. He also has met with the 27 Fifth Third staffers who are responsible for creating opportunities with real estate investors throughout West Michigan.
And he said he not only feels fortunate to be able to work with a set of such talented individuals but he truly loves this field of work.
“What I really enjoy about the real estate business is that this is an industry filled with entrepreneurs. It is people who are very creative, who have good ideas. And you have the ability — especially when you are looking at the development side — to watch the idea coming to our office and taking it from the point where we finance the building and construction to where the building goes up and the tenants move in and it becomes part of the local economy,” said Smith.
“It is something you can see and touch. And the people that you deal with all tend to be very creative and interesting and very talented people, and I enjoy that part of it.”
Coming into an already successful department, Smith said he doesn’t feel there is anything he needs to change. His main goal, he said, is to build on the principles that have made Fifth Third the dominant real estate lender in West Michigan today.
Smith said this means he wants his department to continue to provide financial services to the real estate industry across the area.
He feels Fifth Third has an advantage because of its strength and size, because it is a local bank across West Michigan and because it has the ability to provide an array of services to clients.
“We are proud of the fact that we can bring our private advisory business,” said Smith.
“We have a private client business for high net worth people. So if we have a developer who has been successful and has sold some real estate and has lots of money, we have an investment advisory business that takes high net worth people and teaches them how to manage their money.”
He said for now, the commercial real estate lending group just needs to run harder and faster and be a little more successful than it already is.
Smith added that the goal is to serve clients and the more successful the client is, the more successful Fifth Third is, which in the end is the object.
Smith’s other target areas are to get involved in some of the organizations he was involved with in Chicago before he came to Grand Rapids. He noted that being an 18-year cancer survivor, he plans to be supportive of cancer organizations locally in one way or another.
Smith also was involved in providing art education for underprivileged children and was on the board of the Historical Society in Winnetka, Ill.
“I am certain I will find organizations and charities of that sort to become involved in, when the time allows itself,” said Smith.
“And occasionally you might find me on the golf course — after five, of course.”