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Amidst the low roar of traffic and the lapping of Lake Michigan against the shoreline, the Chicago-based firm Renovo Financial has established itself as a trusted partner in the lending sphere.
The company’s motto, #HustleHarder, is more than a catchy slogan, however. As CEO and Co-Founder Kevin Werner told Originate Report, the key to success in growing Renovo, which offers services including rehab, rental ‘term,’ new construction, and multi-family loans, is to strive perpetually for an impeccable customer experience.
Werner, whose father was in the home improvement finance business, said that growing up in that environment – paired with buying and flipping homes in his late teens and early 20s – gave him a firm understanding of the fast-paced, multi-faceted real estate world. He added that this solid foundation gave him the necessary tools to understand deal flow and the importance of solid relationships early in his career.
“From an early age, I watched my dad and learned from him the value of customer service,” he said. “He instilled how it was always important to take the time to talk to customers and meet with people about their concerns. I remember, on Sunday nights, he would sit in the kitchen and make collection calls, and that intense communication and attention to the business is something I’ve carried with me.”
Through the guidance of his father and his Midwestern upbringing, Werner said one aspect of real estate that he wished to bring into the culture at Renovo Financial, the human element, can make all the difference when facilitating deal flow and the acquisition of new customers.
“We’re very conscious of the human interaction with our customers. We have employees in the markets we’re lending in across the country, and that, to me, is so important,” he said. “We’re not operating out of a call center; we’re operating where our customers do business. We take the time to get to know them, and that’s how we’ve built Renovo. It’s been built on that cup of coffee by cup of coffee mindset.”
Although Werner said this ‘cup of coffee’ mindset might sound easy to achieve, he added that the ‘behind the scenes’ work of customer relations – getting to know a borrower and establishing a rapport with them – is a process into which many lenders do not put enough effort.
“’Attention to the customer’ means that we take the time to get to know each borrower. I liken it to the kind of attention that you receive when checking in to a high-end hotel,” he said. “The person behind the desk will ask you how you would like the room and which newspaper you would like, and they take those moments to personalize your experience. That’s what Renovo emulates and is part of what has built our success.”
In addition to a focus on customer service, Werner said that Renovo’s physical location – the Windy City – frames the decade-old company in a way that facilitates relationships and business amongst the entire United States.
“I would say that being a Chicago native, and growing up in the Midwest, puts us in a good position to service the East Coast, West Coast, and up and down the map. There is a real estate market in every corner of the country, and what Renovo is perpetually looking for is, of course, the markets that are doing well, but also what areas of the country are underserviced or undervalued.”
Speaking to the past year, and more specifically the COVID-19 pandemic, Werner said that Renovo’s strong foundation – with an emphasis on creating rock-solid customer service, underwriting, and office morale – has allowed for the firm’s continued growth during a period of economic uncertainty for many sectors.
“We continued lending the whole time,” he said. “That is a testament to the team we have in place; we never turned off the lending activity. What the pandemic has shown, and what I think the market is seeing right now, is that the aftermath of COVID has been a large catalyst for growth. We recruited aggressively throughout the pandemic, and I think we are coming out the other side in a very strong place.”
When thinking about the Renovo team’s ability to transition to remote work in the early days of the pandemic, Werner said he has been proud of their ability to work through a difficult period with tenacity and strength.
“It was a culture shock for everyone,” he said. “We have built a very collaborative and supportive environment – a family – and many of the people who work here have really grown up at Renovo. As soon as the shift to remote work happened, we implemented Zoom meetings every morning. If not to keep everyone on the same page with business from in the office, then to make sure everyone is doing well outside of the office.”
The continuation of this team dynamic, he said, was one of the driving factors behind Renovo’s ability to grow during the pandemic. From a capital-raising perspective, Werner added that starting from day one with private equity backing has been critical.
“From the beginning of Renovo, we’ve had sophisticated, smart investors,” he said. “We’ve built an institutional-quality company from day one and have set up Renovo to be diligence-proof from an institutional investors’ standpoint.”
Paired with this private equity backing is a commitment to hiring experienced, detail-oriented members to the Renovo family. Many lenders, Werner said, undervalue the significance of seasoned professionals in the deal facilitation equation.
“Our lending team is very experienced,” he said. “And there is no substitution for that experience. The people we have in place throughout the country are well-versed in their geographies, and that’s what has allowed us to operate in over a dozen major U.S. markets. The cup of coffee approach only works if you have people there to sit down and get to know different areas of the space.”
Aside from the regulatory concerns in different areas of the country, Werner said that having the ability to walk a job site, oversee construction, and be present when situations arise is an aspect of real estate that is often overlooked in a technology-focused landscape. It is one thing, he added, to see a property on a screen, but it is crucial to have boots on the ground for every project.
“It’s everything that goes into the process of seeing a deal to its completion,” Werner said. “It’s being involved with local investor clubs, understanding specific permitting processes, and networking in that city. That involvement, the creation of that, couldn’t be more important to Renovo’s continued success.”
Where Renovo is at the crossroads of the industry, from Werner’s perspective, is the firm’s ability to unite the latest technology, best talent, and a drive for continued growth in the space.
“We’ve been able to attract top-tier talent who are experts in their locations. And with that, we’ve got a home team office that is hardworking and dynamic, and a Rolodex of lawyers and professionals who can help us with any project,” he said. “The team we have in place, myself included, have always sought mentorship from the first days of the company.”
Werner said that many bourgeoning entrepreneurs undervalue the importance of seeking guidance from experienced real estate professionals when starting a business venture. From the inception of Renovo’s business plan, he added, mentorship – both personally and from a company-wide perspective – has been of the utmost importance.
“One aspect I’ve always thought about is, ‘who do we want to be in five years?’ I’ve found a way, then, to get to the leader of that business and ask them, ‘how did you accomplish that?’ There’s someone out there who has done exactly what you are trying to do, and what I’ve found is that people are generally open to sharing information with you,” he said.
Outside of the office, Werner said his wife and two girls are ‘the most important parts’ of his life.
“I love spending time with them and love watching them grow,” he said.
In addition to building a family, Werner said he has loved sports from an early age – but not in a traditional sense. An avid runner, he noted that in many ways, business is like a sport.
“I love making connections with other business owners and find joy in connecting with them about their ventures,” he said. “You’ll see me sitting outdoors at a restaurant, often with professionals who are much older than me, of course building friendships, but also gaining insight into where they went right and where they went wrong.”
Running, Werner added, also gives him the opportunity to reflect.
“There’s a lot that I want to do in business,” he said. “And, to me, the attribute I need most in business is energy. There’s nothing like getting up in the morning and taking the time to reflect on what needs to happen on any given day, and it’s also an opportunity to be grateful. I get to work on exciting projects with smart and dedicated people, and in business you have to approach each day with an energized mindset.”
Turning to the future of Renovo and, broadly, future generations of real estate professionals, Werner said his most important piece of advice can be simply put: always have an open mind.
“If someone were to ask me what trait, in business, I most want my children to adopt, it would be coachability. From a young age, this is something I always told myself, too: to understand before being understood,” he said. “There’s innovation, of course, but for the most part everything’s happened before. What I mean by that is, what I’m working on today, many people have worked on in the past. And they have succeeded in that. It’s important to find mentors and to find those voices who will push you forward.”
This mentorship, he said, does not always have to involve grandiose topics. Even something as small as how to interact in a particular situation, he added, can lay the building blocks of ultimately having a seat at the table for larger conversations.
“At various points in my career, when I have said to myself, ‘it’s time to get to that next level,’ my natural instinct is to go out and solicit those people who have achieved the success I am trying to emulate,” he said. “Success often leaves clues.”
These clues, when studied and followed carefully, can be the breadcrumbs of success, Werner said. What has contributed to Renovo’s success – from a deal facilitation, networking, and growth perspective – is his team’s ability to step outside of comfort zones and the ‘norms’ of the business that can lead to stagnation.
“One of the things, I think, that the team does best is communicate and approach situations with a positive attitude. When there’s a problem, or when a deal isn’t going well, those lines of communication are always open,” he said.
Renovo Financial, Werner said, operates on pillars of reliability, flexibility, speed, efficiency, and local team expertise. The firm employs a one-stop-shop model that encompasses a full suite of loan programs, including single-family and multi-family rehab, new construction, 30-year fixed rental loans, and in-house underwriting and servicing.
The group’s commitment to building local long-term client partnerships, combined with its end-to-end suite, means clients experience the best products and pricing of a national financial institution, but with the attention to detail and service of a nimble startup.
If you would like to learn more about Renovo Financial, visit renovofinancial.com.