Read the full Originate Report April edition here.
What is the purpose of a COO?
I think the role of a COO depends on the company’s size and culture – do you wear one hat or multiple hats? A COO is critical for getting things done. Traditionally, the role of a COO was comprised of cutting expenses and adding or dismissing staff. Today, a COO’s role has expanded to controlling costs and adding to the bottom line by growing and generating revenue.
At Fidelity, my role includes overseeing day-to-day operations, streamlining processes to create efficiencies, reducing expenses without hindering revenue growth and generating sales. Simultaneously I have to consider the bigger picture of the company’s future and implementing that vision.
What is your mission?
My mission is not just to reduce expenses and increase revenue but to provide a work environment for my staff that is both healthy and fulfilling. As they say, “a company is only as good as its employees”.
Can you explain a time where you faced adversity or had struggles early on in your career?
I immigrated to the United States from Germany at the age of fourteen with minimal English language knowledge. Twenty-two years ago, I began a commercial real estate career and had to transition from a salary to a solely commission-based income. I struggled financially and had to regularly borrow money to pay bills and then hope to close a deal in time to pay that money back. It took several years to build up my clientele to where I was making enough money and I didn’t have to borrow any more; things were looking up. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit, and the real estate market collapsed. I had two kids, a wife in law school, and the financial troubles returned, leaving us to live off food stamps and government assistance.
Where did it all begin?
My future in private debt and equity started, unbeknownst to me, seventeen years ago when I met a man named Chuck Hershson, or “Uncle Chuck,” as everyone calls him. We were both members of a charitable organization called The Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. When Chuck found out that I was in commercial real estate, he began calling me for my opinion on the value of commercial real estate properties in the San Fernando Valley. My evaluation would determine the size of the loan Chuck was willing to place against the property, and on occasion, I would sell a property for Chuck. Our business relationship very quickly turned into a close friendship. One day Chuck asked me to come work with him at Fidelity. Chuck was looking for someone to come in, help run the company, and eventually buy him out.
How did these experiences mold and shape you into the leader you are today?
I remember the challenges I have had, and I try to see people’s challenges from their perspective. This is a mindset I have to maintain with staff, clients, and anyone else I come across. You’ll hardly ever know what someone is struggling with at that time, and it’s important to be empathetic towards their situations. I have made the mistake of making assumptions. As my cousin, Paul, says: “don’t assume; it makes an ass out of you and me.”
Is there anything that you wish you could go back and tell yourself at the beginning of your career?
There are a million things I wish I could tell my younger self at the start of my career. In all honesty, if I knew how hard the beginning would be, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to start. But with that experience and where I’m at in my career now, I’m glad I didn’t know, and I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon. One thing I would like to tell my younger self is to stay organized and follow up. These are two areas I struggled with when I was starting out and I had to learn the hard way to gain these skills.
Who is someone that has had a significant impact on your career and why?
I was fortunate enough to have many mentors and seasoned professionals to work with and learn from. Still, the most significant influence in my career has been Charles Hershson, or “Uncle Chuck,” as he is known in the industry. Chuck convinced me to transition from commercial real estate to the private lending business and taught me how to succeed in it. I’m grateful to him because it brought me to this chapter in my life/career.
What would you consider to be the highlight of your career thus far?
While not part of my job, my career’s highlight was my election to Co-President of the Guardians with Zane Koss last year. The Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s mission is to provide financial support for members of the community who the Los Angeles Jewish Home serves through residential and community-based programs. The Guardians’ history goes back to 1938, and in its 83-year history, I am the first non-Jewish President. My affinity for The Jewish Home started seventeen years ago when I learned that the Home was taking care of Holocaust survivors. Years earlier, when working at the German Consulate in Los Angeles, I met hundreds of Holocaust survivors, and their stories touched me. When I saw the opportunity to give back to those who have suffered so much, I knew the Guardians was an organization I needed to join.
What do you enjoy most about your job? Least?
The most enjoyable part of my job is that my success is directly proportional to how hard and smart I work. The better I do, the better the company does, and that provides me with a great deal of self-fulfillment. However, this also makes it the hardest part of my job because I feel a personal responsibility for my coworkers’ and the company’s financial success, and I don’t want to let anyone down.
Do you think that time or money more valuable?
When I started my career, money was more valuable than time because I could barely pay my own bills. Time makes you anxious when you’re broke. As I have become more financially secure and been working consistently, time has become more valuable because it is finite. The amount of money I make has changed, but the amount of time I have has not.
How do you make sure your company stays ahead in this industry?
To make sure my company remains competitive in the industry, I must be constantly learning. This entails attending conferences to see what other companies are doing effectively and ineffectively, staying up to date on technology to increase our efficiency, and never being complacent with status quo. There’s always something we can do better.
What tools do you use to aid you in your role as COO to be most efficient, organized, and focused?
What has been most effective for me has been working with my staff and not trying to micromanage or do everything myself. The best way to get the most from my staff is to let go and trust them to get things done and let them know that they can come to me anytime.
Has your role changed significantly to address the current environment?
As a financial institution, we have been deemed an essential business, which meant many operational changes to address all the concerns, risks, and the unknown that came with COVID. The health and safety of staff became the top priority. Additionally, we wanted to ensure our staff continued receiving a full salary. We staggered attendance, so we had about half our staff at the office on any given day while still providing a full salary and all the benefits. On top of that, we implemented COVID testing, followed all the CDC guidelines, and continued to have the offices professionally cleaned several times a week. At the start of COVID, many of our borrowers asked for assistance because many of them were struggling to pay back loans, so a big portion of my job became working with them to see how we could help. Before COVID, the servicing manager would take the initial calls we received regarding our borrowers’ issues, but after COVID, I have taken all the calls. I received over one hundred calls trying to balance borrowers’ and investors’ needs. I needed to understand what borrowers’ problems were firsthand, so that I could have an informed conversation with investors to create a deferment plan that worked for both parties.
What advice would you give to someone who has just started out in private lending?
My advice for anyone starting in the private lending business is to find a great mentor and start at a solid company. Often working at the wrong company or with inexperienced people can turn you away from what, to me, has been a great experience and give you the wrong impression of this industry.
Peter Steigleder, Chief Operating Officer of Fidelity Mortgage Lenders, Inc., and Co-Founder of Hudson Commercial Partners, Inc. brings with him 27 years of finance, commercial real estate, and economic development experience.
Peter served as Director of Economic Development for the German Consulate General in Los Angeles. In 1999, Peter began his real estate career at Beitler Commercial. In 2006, Peter joined Lee & Associates where his consistent status as one of the company’s top producers quickly elevated him to Principal status. In 2009, he joined Delphi Business Properties as a partner before founding Hudson Commercial Partners.