Q&A: Sarah Marie Miller, Director in CIT Bank’s Real Estate Finance Group

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Sarah Marie Miller grew up practicing contemporary dance but forged a path into real estate after developing a passion for finance while attending college in Buffalo, N.Y. She began her career at Eurohypo AG before joining CIT in April 2014. Now a director in CIT’s real estate finance group, her team was responsible for $600 million in originations in 2017. And she co-heads CIT’s women’s initiative network, which aims to empower women in the workplace.

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Commercial Observer: What kept you busiest last year?
Sarah Marie Miller: Right now we’re managing a $4 billion portfolio. We’re trying to maintain existing relationships with clients as well as foster new relationships with new clients. It’s a competitive market, so you want to make sure the deal you’re putting out there is appealing.

Can you speak to that increase in competition in the lending space?
I think the hardest part is just working on a deal that just doesn’t come to fruition because you put so much time and effort into it and you start to build a relationship with the client. You could always end up working with them again in the future, but you have to just keep moving and advance to the next opportunity.

What are you lending on right now?
We focus on multifamily opportunities and offices. We do condominiums and a little bit of hospitality and some retail, and we are a construction lender as well. It’s amazing because each asset is unique in its own way, so you’re learning something new about each asset class and also about each market or submarket where these assets are located. We’re a participant in a few large transactions in the Hudson Yards area—one of the largest private real estate developments right now in history—so we’re excited to be a part of what’s going on there. A lot of what we do is in New York—roughly 40 percent of our business—but we’re in Boston and D.C. We do some things in Philadelphia, and we have some properties in Florida.

What’s your outlook for the mutifamily sector?
I think multifamily is a major asset class just about everywhere right now. Some say there’s too much supply, but I’ve been to a few discussions lately where economists talked about millennials and zillennials [Generation Z] and how they are nowhere near ready to move to the suburbs and start buying homes, so demand exists for that product. There’s a construction loan in Astoria [Queens] that CIT financed in 2014, and now they’re refinancing with us. It’s a 114-unit, multifamily building that was 100 percent leased up in just six months. So, the demand is there. I’m starting to see more demand in Long Island City [Queens] and Astoria because it’s a cheaper alternative to Manhattan and you’re also getting newer product.

What were some of the most memorable deals you were involved in last year?
One that I worked on that was memorable was 606 Broadway. That was a ground-up construction of retail and office at Broadway and Houston in Soho. It’s such a great location with high visibility and great sponsorship. Another big one we did was Plaza in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. That was a retail center, but the sponsor came in and retenanted it and changed the landscaping of the project, which really drove more traffic to it. It was a major success.

Are you seeing softening anywhere in the industry?
Not particularly right now, but we follow our sponsors market to market, and if we find that a certain structure works for a given asset class, at a certain price point, we can make it work and we’ll do it. Every deal is unique in itself, so it varies.

You previously told Commercial Observer that your colleague Meggan Walsh introduced you to CIT’s women’s initiative network and that she’s been very inspirational. How so?
She got me involved in the women’s initiative network at CIT, and that’s fostering and empowering women within the workplace. One thing we’ve learned along the way is that there aren’t a lot of female executives in the C-suite, per se, so it’s trying to help women have a network behind them to give them visibility in those positions. I now co-head the women’s initiative network with another female colleague who’s in a different department, and we set up different events all throughout this past year—quarter by quarter. We set up outreach events in the community. We were able to work within the community and within CIT itself, bringing in different speakers and trying to help women with their personal branding, their “elevator pitch” and how to advocate for themselves. It’s very rewarding.