Deutsche Bank’s Rosemary Vrablic and Private Banking’s Link to CRE Finance

Got a chunk of change lying around? With a book of business north of $5.5 billion, Rosemary Vrablic, a managing director in the asset and wealth management division at Deutsche Bank, can help.
Private banking is loosely defined as personalized financial services offered by banks to their high-net-worth clients. And the top providers are largely holding steady, according to 2011 year-end results from U.K.-based private wealth management consultancy and research firm Scorpio Partnership.

Rosemary Vrablic.

Rosemary Vrablic.

The firm places Deutsche Bank’s global assets under management in this area at $348.6 billion at the end of 2011—no small achievement for a German-based bank at the height of the European debt crisis and during a year that saw the United States riled by its own debt ceiling debacle.

“In 2008 and 2009, I saw real concern—even from our wealthiest clients. They were in the most defensive position I have seen in all of my career,” Ms. Vrablic told The Mortgage Observer one recent winter morning at the bank’s Park Avenue offices. “What we’ve seen in the last two years is less defense from an ’08, ’09 standpoint. And I do believe that they feel that valuations have either stabilized or increased, particularly in real estate.”

For the commercial real estate finance market, growing optimism is significant, due to private banking’s historical role as the go-to source for financing during troubled times. When other sources dry up, qualified customers with the right banking relationship can turn to it. And real estate, Ms. Vrablic said, is her “deep dive” as well as the area in which, she estimated, 40 percent of her some 50 clients have earned their wealth.

Though she declined to reveal names from that roster of clients and relationships, citing confidentiality, over the course of reporting, a few became known and were willing to discuss some of the qualities that make Ms. Vrablic their go-to private banker. One, Indiana Pacers owner Herbert Simon, confirmed that private banking has been a source of financing that he has used during this most recent economic downturn.

“It’s probably four years,” Mr. Simon estimated when asked how long he’s been a client of Ms. Vrablic and Deutsche Bank. “When she came into the picture, it was a tough time to get money, and she was able to be very creative and get us what we needed. In the toughest times, she was very creative, which made me very impressed with her.”

He said that most bankers hide when the tide is turning against the client, while “Rosemary went right up there and batted for us and got us the kind of loans that we needed to continue operations.” The Indiana Pacers owner and part-owner of the Reno Aces—who ranked No. 218 on the most recent Forbes 400, with a net worth of $2.2 billion—said Ms. Vrablic has handled sports investments.

Ms. Vrablic, who started her career in private banking in 1989, has been at Deutsche Bank since September of 2006 and runs a team of nine bankers there. “Rosemary is widely recognized as one of the top private bankers to the U.S. ultra-high-net-worth community,” Thomas Bowers, then head of U.S. private wealth management, said upon her arrival from Bank of America.

Though Mr. Bowers left abruptly at the end of the year, Deutsche Bank has steadily grown this arm of its business in the U.S., with the addition of several additional private bankers. The bank has also acknowledged that it is committed to strategically growing its private wealth management footprint in the U.S.

Ms. Vrablic has traveled a long road to her current perch in the industry, though one gets the impression that the journey was undertaken with a positive and upbeat attitude.

A native New Yorker, Ms. Vrablic graduated from Fordham University, where she studied economics and political science. When she graduated, the financial industry was in crisis—with savings and loan institutions losing money and the country in recession. Jobs in the financial sector, and elsewhere, were hard to come by.

But, she remembered, “Sometimes out of failure, good things come.” A chance encounter on a stalled Metro-North train and a conspicuously capable nature turned out to be serendipitous allies. En route to Scarsdale, where she lived with her parents at the time, she found herself talking with a fellow passenger. “We were just talking, and two hours later I get off the train, and he said, ‘You just gave the best interview of your life,’” she remembered. At the time, she was working as a bank teller. The man, Howard Ross, was then the chief credit officer at Bank Leumi.

For his part, Mr. Ross said that he remembers seeing light bulbs going off as they chatted. He went on to introduce Ms. Vrablic to the Bank Leumi team, where she was hired and became an analyst. He said that he’s not at all surprised by how far she’s gone or what direction her career has taken.

“In order to be a very good private banker, you have to be a very good credit banker, and she wears both hats well,” Mr. Ross, now the executive vice president and chief credit officer for the United States at Bank Hapoalim, remembered. “She was asking me questions about credit, and she was picking up very quickly on what I was reading. It was clear to others when she came in for the interview, and we hired her on the spot.”

By the late 1980s, she was a junior banker and a trainee at Republic National Bank. The roles and ranks of women in the U.S. workplace were shifting. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of women in the labor force increased at an annual growth rate of 2.6 percent between 1950 and 2000—rising to 66 million workers. But asked if there were other women in positions that she could aspire to, especially in those early days, Ms. Vrablic said that there were precious few.

“The only woman boss I had was the branch manager at the bank where I was a teller,” she said. “She was the only senior woman I had ever dealt with for many, many years—until, quite frankly, I got to Citibank in 1989.” From 1982 to 1989, she estimated that 98 percent of the bosses and senior people she interfaced with were men—with a few women in areas like human resources. Still, colleagues like the branch manager taught lasting lessons.

“She was an older woman, who had been through 33 years of a career at that point, so she was a great role model for me,” Ms. Vrablic remembered. The perspective was that, for her, that was the ceiling. She knew she was never going to get past that, “but she ran a great branch, took great pride in that, and she was very Margaret Thatcher-like. That was the era.”

At Republic National Bank, she said, she met another important mentor—the head of the middle-market-lending group. “‘You’re going to make mistakes, and I’m going to be here to help you,’” she said she was told. “‘But there is nothing that I’m going to put you in a position to do that will hurt you or hurt the bank.’” The message had an impact, and mentoring became something that Ms. Vrablic herself loves to do. “It all attributes back to him, because I believe that, since I got that gift, I should be passing that gift on.”

Private banking came calling—literally—when a recruiter contacted her and asked her to interview at Citibank. It was a jump that she was reluctant to make. “I visited the head of the private bank at Citibank and it was, at a minimum, six interviews. They were convinced that I was good for the position, that I could do it,” she recalled. “I wasn’t convinced, because I had never done selling on my own. I had been a junior, attached at the hip to my mentor.”

Asked what was most daunting about making the move, she referenced the heightened profile—being the face of the process—as well as the delicate balance of skills that it would require.
“I knew I had the skills. I knew I understood clients,” she said. “But doing that and being a good salesperson is a huge gap. There are a lot of people who are good bankers but not necessarily good salespeople, and I think you have to be both.”

A colleague at Deutsche Bank echoed this, and added that strong relationship management skills are a vital part of Ms. Vrablic’s toolkit as well. “She’s a really good client advocate, but also someone who can balance the interests of the institution,” the person said. “She combines that with a very strong and deep skill set—across products.”

In the course of making phone calls and conducting research, in fact, the mere mention of her name yielded descriptors you’d probably want in someone handling your money. One source said she was “tickled pink” to meet Ms. Vrablic and spoke of her in glowing terms, emphasizing her down-to-earth nature. “It was like talking to a friend,” she said.

Anyway, after some convincing, she headed off to Citibank in 1989, where she had a front-row seat, in the early 1990s, to the value that private banking could bring to commercial real estate transactions during tough times. “Many banks, including Citibank in the real estate department, had shut down and reduced the financing,” she said. “Private banking became the only place to get real estate loans, and so from 1990 to 1993, I had tremendous growth in my portfolio.”

It was a period of growth for her business at Citibank, despite the difficult economic times. She stayed until 1995, when NationsBank recruited her away. “Then in 1997, NationsBank came to me and said, ‘We just bought Montgomery Securities in California—it’s a brokerage group, and we’d like you to go out and set up a loan production office there for us,’” she said. “I moved out there for 18 months, from 1997 to 1999, which was great. I was there for a tremendous amount of wealth being created for the IPO guys.”

Still, New York had exerted its familiar pull, so when Bank of America merged with NationsBank on Sept. 30, 1998, she took the opportunity to move back East and return to New York to run Bank of America’s private wealth management office in New York.

Related Companies’ chairman and founder Stephen Ross said that it was around this time that he first met Ms. Vrablic and became a client.

“She brings knowledge—and the fact is that if she tells you something, you know it’s going to get done,” Mr. Ross said, when reached by phone. “We’ve really grown as a company, and me as a person, in terms of my business career. She’s been there and seen it grow.” He added that the majority of the real estate transactions Ms. Vrablic has secured for him have been for him personally, as opposed to Related Companies, which he founded in 1972. These included acquisition financing for land and properties and short-term cash.

Deutsche Bank called in 2006, and she left Bank of America.

With growth being a stated mission of the division, Ms. Vrablic said that she’d like to “add new names, new relationships every year”—ideally two new relationships, though each relationship can include several different clients. This was enough, she reasoned, to grow the portfolio of names while giving each the feeling she calls a “high touch.”

“You want them to believe that they’re the only client when they call up, and I think if you get too big, you can’t do that,” she said.

Asked what it is she likes about private banking, Ms. Vrablic didn’t hesitate. “I think I have the best job in the whole world,” she said. “I love my job, and if you love your job, you’re probably really good at it.” She most values the client relationships, she explained—the direct access to the decision-maker.

“We deal in relationships, so it’s sitting across from someone and saying, ‘So what’s important to you? Tell me why you’re doing this,’” she said. “That’s what’s interesting about my job. I take what the bank wants, because the bank has its requirements and their products, and the client has what they want and what they need. And I’m sort of the filter trying to make that happen. That’s kind of fun, because I get the best and the brightest ideas from the bank, and I have the best and the brightest people that I deal with. And that’s my job.”

Ms. Vrablic’s past clients include Observer Media Group publisher Jared Kushner.

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