John C. Lettera
As the CEO and founder of RealFi, John C. Lettera leads a unique technology-driven, alternative investment management firm with the characteristics ingrained in him as a United States Marine. He is an attorney with over two decades of experience and a real estate investment professional with 30 years of expertise who built a company from a one-man shop into a nationwide mortgage lending company 400 plus employees strong. We sat down with John to learn more about how he got here and where the company is going.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how it has informed your success as a leader and the success of RealFi.
I attribute my leadership, discipline, and perseverance to my military background, which really instilled in me a discipline that I don’t see elsewhere in business. It’s these core characteristics that have not only driven my own success, but have also allowed me to serve my company, my employees, and our clients to help them achieve their goals.
I’ve been investing in real estate since 1990, and as an attorney, I’ve specialized in this area for 22 years, so I have a lot of insight and experience in handling complex transactions—bridge loans, equity and debt financing and investing, acquisitions, etc. Unlike a lot of global bankers or financiers, I like to think outside of the box, more like an entrepreneur than a banker. I have a 10x mindset where I’m always looking at the next disruptive idea, always keeping ahead of the current trends in the industry. In fact, we’re one of the first mortgage companies to spearhead tech, and because of that, we’re growing exponentially.
Tell us about your journey from U.S. Marine to attorney to now the leader of one of the fastest-growing real estate investment management firms.
I was born and raised in the Bronx, and I did my first real estate deal there while I was still in the military. I partnered with some local attorneys who introduced me to the business. I still remember that first deal well, it was in a neighborhood known back then as Fort Apace. I was still in the Marines and after a few tours in Iraq during Desert Storm, I was able to save a few dollars and invested $25,000 in a bridge loan, (back then deals were priced at 16% and 4 points) and I never looked back.
I soon noticed that bridge lending scenarios were very legal intensive, especially the larger, more complex transactions, so I decided to attend law school with the intention of specializing in this area so that I could do it myself. But when I finished at the top of my class, in 1999, I was recruited by Millbank Tweed, one of the top five law firms in the country, and I couldn’t say no to that opportunity. It was an amazing experience.
After six years, I co-founded a privately held commercial real estate investment firm focused in the middle market debt space. We managed over $100 million. Then the 2008 recession occurred and I very quickly turned into a workout specialist. With the bursting of the dot-com bubble at the end of the 1990s and the financial crisis of 2008 now under my belt, it was time to capitalize on the opportunity as access to capital was severely restricted and investors were genuinely panicked. Space in the capital stack was opening up as institutional lenders were sticking with safe loans. This strategy quickly morphed into RealFi, and it just took off.
What does RealFi do?
We are a technology-driven, alternative investment management firm specializing in real estate credit strategies. Through its subsidiaries, RealFi is an originator of qualified and non-qualified residential home mortgages and through the RealFi REIT, is a direct lender focused on originating commercial real estate bridge loans in major markets throughout the United States. RealFi Home Funding is a national residential mortgage bank currently licensed in 15 states and will be licensed in all states very soon. RealFi Commercial focuses on commercial mortgages, and RealFi REIT is a commercial bridge lender for real estate projects. We have five partners, more than 400 employees, and a management team comprised of legal, real estate, management, investment, and transactional professionals who lead our clients through the process from beginning to end. We also have a family of related service companies, including a wholesale department and a servicing company, among others.
In a sentence or two, tell us what makes RealFi, and you, as its leader, unique.
As a company, I would say our origin and our growth story. From humble beginnings to strong roots. The Company started with just me, and through a journey of modernization, we’ve grown to where we are today. I saw the way the market was changing, and it was clear we needed a new identity to match our modern way of thinking. As for me, I would say my unique understanding that even with this growth we needed to keep diversifying to stay relevant in this changing market. I preach this to my class, stay nimble and be prepared to change strategies and tactics. At the same time, I’m still a professor at Pace University School of Law, where I’ve taught corporate and real estate finance for 10 years.
To what do you attribute the astounding growth of RealFi in such a short period of time?
We’re constantly growing, and we’re constantly hiring to support this growth. RealFi Home Funding is on target to close well in excess of $1 billion this year, and the REIT is growing exponentially, as are all of our servicing companies. I would point to a few drivers of that growth. To succeed, you have to work hard, be disciplined, learn how to solve problems, build relationships, handle stress and be dedicated to your craft. It’s those skills that set you apart from the rest and that can turn you into a true entrepreneur. Second, surrounding myself with people who are much smarter than I am—this has always been the story of my success. I brought on a lot of key people to spearhead the growth in this company, and a tremendous amount of credit goes to my partners and employees.
You’ve recently changed the name of the company to RealFi. Why?
Our new name RealFi reflects a clear representation of the brand; “real estate” and “finance.” The name RealFi embodies our unique emphasis on combining state-of-the-art technology with our industry expertise to provide our clients with customized financing solutions. The name creates a foundation for our future and keeps everyone focused on the vision of disrupting and modernizing the way home loans and commercial loans are obtained.
John C. Lettera
CEO and Founder — RealFi
707 Westchester Avenue, Suite 305A
White Plains, New York 10604
LinkedIn (company): http://linkedin.com/company/realfi