Onetime Rivals Join Forces to Expand NYC Lender’s Reach










Veteran New York City mortgage originator Melissa Cohn has found a new home with GuardHill Financial Corp., where as its president, she’s been tasked with bringing an under-the-radar firm out of the shadows.

Cohn, who founded Manhattan Mortgage in 1985 and grew it into a prominent mortgage brokerage firm, has the experience and familiarity with the New York mortgage industry and its unique real estate market to address one of GuardHill’s biggest weaknesses: a lack of notoriety, said CEO and founder Alan Rosenbaum.

His company is well-known by the people who work at the high-end of the real estate market, but its name wasn’t as well known in other segments, including with the public as large.

“Melissa is the perfect person, with all of her qualities, to help us grow from the $1 billion company we are today to the $5 billion company we can be tomorrow,” said Rosenbaum.

Cohn founded Manhattan Mortgage in 1985, but after wholesale lenders that were purchasing the broker’s jumbo co-op loans exited the business, Manhattan Mortgage formed an alliance with nonbank lender Guaranteed Rate in August 2012. While Cohn had high hopes for the partnership, she said it eventually just wasn’t the right fit.

“I really spent almost a year doing a lot of soul-searching, trying to figure out where the best home would be for me and where the best partnership would be,” Cohn said. She met with a number of potential employers during the process of finding a new home.

In Origination News’ Top 200 Originators survey for 2013, Cohn was ranked 129th, with volume of $58 million. She does business in all segments of the mortgage market and those connections and reputation is what she brings to GuardHill in its efforts to get better known.

With Rosenbaum, “We realized that together as a team, they say one and one equals two, [but] with us, one and one equals 10,” Cohn said.

“GuardHill is the right home for me. It offers me the platform. It offers me the ability to work off an established company that is a well-oiled machine,” she said.

Rosenbaum shares the sentiment as he looks for Cohn’s experience to help GuardHill expand its reach, first in the New York metro area, and then nationally. GuardHill is a mortgage banker/broker and sells its production to aggregators.

Cohn has been a leading mortgage professional in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area for the last 28 years, said Rosenbaum who added, “I was always striving to keep up with her. We had to invent different ways and better ways to do things, because [of] her reputation and the power of her company.”

Rosenbaum has a better understanding of the operational side of the business, including secondary marketing, while Cohn’s strengths are in business development, lead generation and originations. Their new partnership allows each to focus on what they each do best, Cohn said.

In addition to its corporate headquarters in Manhattan, GuardHill has offices in New Canaan, Conn., and East Hampton, N.Y., and has plans to open more offices in the New York City suburbs. The company is also considering offices in south Florida and other places where New Yorkers migrate or have second homes.

But GuardHill plans to be strategic with its growth, not just expand for growth’s sake, Cohn pointed out. For example, the company has a niche servicing the needs of the entertainment community, Rosenbaum said. So the West Coast is a possible expansion target for the company.

Growth also includes GuardHill moving out of the jumbo niche and into other product lines. “We want to be the mortgage bank for everyone,” Cohn said, while Rosenbaum added “that is one of the directions Melissa is going to lead us into.”

“We were very comfortable in the past just doing what we do here in the New York tri-state area. But if you want to expand as a company and if you have all of the right resources for that, you should take advantage of them,” Rosenbaum said.

The challenge will be to balance that growth while maintaining the intimacy that GuardHill has within its corporate headquarters. The lender handles back-office functions like processing and underwriting at one side of the office, while the sales staff works at the opposite end of the floor.

“If we have an issue, we walk across the hallway and we deal with it in a one-on-one basis, which makes our closings seamless,” Cohn said noting that she didn’t have this level of communication while at Guaranteed Rate.

Rosenbaum added the setup allows him to speak with his loan officers individually almost every day. The one-on-one communication also applies with the back office and it allows for “an amazing family feeling and it is evident every day that we really are a team and we work together,” Cohn said.

The centralized structure also helps GuardHill adjust to new regulatory and compliance requirements and that mindset is key to the lender’s expansion plans.

“The way we feel is that everyone in the industry is complaining about these regulations, policies and procedures, with the exception of GuardHill. We have adapted to them,” Rosenbaum said.

“We can complain about them or we can adapt to them,” he added. “We embrace them. In business, the people who adapt quickest are the ones who are the most successful.”

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