Finance  ·  Features

How James Millon, Tom Traynor and Tom Rugg Turned CBRE Into a Large Loan Powerhouse

'For me, personally, it’s a generational opportunity.'

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Opportunity, as personified in Greek mythology by the youthful god Caerus, has always been viewed as fleeting. 

But for CBRE (CBRE)’s nine-person Global Institutional Debt Advisory Group — which has closed more than $47 billion in complex real estate transactions over the last seven years — the chance to reinvent itself on the fly while simultaneously strengthening the C-suite with one of its own has created a new paradigm. 

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In fact, opportunities are abundant at the 200 Park Avenue headquarters.  

For James Millon, who spent the last four years as co-head of U.S. large loans at CBRE with his longtime partner, Tom Traynor, opportunity knocked on Nov. 1 when he was appointed president of U.S. debt and structured finance at CBRE. 

“For me, personally, it’s a generational opportunity. You don’t get this opportunity very often, so it’s incredibly exciting,” said Millon, who noted that one of his predecessors, Brian Stoffers, was in the same role for 20 years. His direct predecessor, Rachel Vinson, led CBRE’s debt and structured finance business for over a year before stepping down in 2023 to tend to family matters.  

Millon takes over the national financing direction of a firm with $26 billion in market capitalization, a $395 billion loan servicing portfolio, and operating businesses within brokerage, servicing, property management, and real estate investment. He told Commercial Observer that he will divide his time in thirds, with individual slices focused on revenue generation, management, and applying the leadership skills he learned playing college football under Joe Paterno at Pennsylvania State University. 

“The way that I’m going to operate this business is different from what my predecessors have done,” he said. “CBRE isn’t a battleship, it’s an aircraft carrier; and sometimes being nimble isn’t easy in a market like we’re in right now. 

“You’ve got to create waves so that the firm can adapt to the changing environment we’re in today, and that starts with changing the culture,” he added. 

As for Tom Rugg, who spent the last 12 years at Deutsche Bank (DB) as a commercial real estate managing director, where he specialized in large loan origination and subordinate debt distribution, the opportunity to replace Millon as co-head on CBRE’s U.S. large loan team with Traynor was simply too good to pass up — especially because he previously worked with both Millon and Traynor at Deutsche Bank for five years in the early 2010s. 

“As the process unfolded, what became very apparent to me — and the two of them — was just how energized we were by this idea of pulling the band back together,” said Rugg, who began at CBRE on Dec. 4. “To bring together our combined credentials, our knowledge, all of our data and information we have here at CBRE and make that available for clients, the opportunity to grow a very successful large loan business in a meaningful way, and just the amount of energy that was feeding off each other, was incredibly unique.” 

For Tom Traynor, who has worked with both Millon and Rugg and been part of commercial real estate capital markets for 27 years, either as a lender or a broker of large loans, he knew that it would take a very specific individual to replace Millon beside him as co-head of the Global Institutional Debt Advisory Group. The duo had worked together since 2012, upon Millon’s arrival at Deutsche Bank, before forming their specialized brokerage unit at CBRE in 2016. 

Over the last seven years, the pair and their team of seven associates have leveraged a Rolodex of contacts built when they were lenders to close some of the largest deals in the industry, including a $440 million, 15-year loan for a life sciences property at 345 Fifth Avenue, and a $1.7 billion equity recapitalization for a portfolio of eight hospitals in Massachusetts. 

“This team is deeply personal to me, and I know it is to Tom, because of what we built,” said Millon. Referring to his successor, “I would not have taken this leadership role unless we got this one right,” he said.

“We’re advisers, and when you hire advisers, it’s about putting your best athletes on the field,” he added. “And we always try to go out and hire the best people.” 

The new guy 

While Millon didn’t want to leave the large loan group he co-founded with Traynor at CBRE, he also couldn’t turn down the chance to help lead the entire firm. 

Thus, a search for a worthy replacement began late last year. 

Millon and Traynor huddled together over a weekend in October vowing to arrive at 200 Park Avenue that Monday with a list of five people who carried an expertise in capital markets, had an ability to understand large loans from both a client and lender perspective, and could fit in culturally with the nine-person operation they’d established over seven years. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, both men landed on the same No. 1 draft choice. 

“The beauty with Tom Rugg is we were in the trenches with him for so many years, where you see how people behave in the good times and in the stressful times,” said Traynor. “That’s why it was such a no-brainer [to pick Rugg] because we knew the rest of the group would love him.” 

For nearly 20 years, Rugg has originated CRE loans across all property types, moving between leadership positions at Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo (WFC) and Wachovia Securities, and syndicating more than $25 billion in fixed- and floating-rate debt, as his client base ranged from debt funds, mortgage REITs and commercial banks to insurance companies, hedge funds and sovereign wealth funds. 

“He’s a leader, he’s deeply immersed in capital markets, he’s strategic, creative, solutions-oriented, and he has an incredible work ethic,” said Millon. “I think that combination of things says everything you need to know about Tom Rugg.”

Tom Traynor, James Millon and Tom Rugg of CBRE
Tom Traynor, James Millon and Tom Rugg of CBRE in their office at 200 Park Avenue. PHOTO: Paul Quitoriano/for Commercial Observer

Rugg told CO that he is eager to leverage his experience as a large loan lender to the trade of advising clients and sponsors on those same transactions in a time of generational distress. 

“Whether you’re an investor trying to deploy capital, or a lender trying to manage your portfolio, you’re looking for good advice and solid guidance on how to navigate this market,” explained Rugg. “So it’s a great opportunity and it’s very timely to be on this side of the table helping both investors and lenders navigate those issues.” 

If this ability to see the side of both sides of the equation seems unique in the swashbuckling world of commercial real estate debt brokerage, then you’re not familiar with the singular path already charted by Millon and Traynor, who have pioneered a new business model that fuses a lender’s sensibility to risk with a broker’s wealth of relationships, to create a novel formula for closing complex commercial real estate transactions across every asset class in nearly every market. 

Banker’s brokers 

When CBRE leadership decided in 2016 to play for the future and push its debt and structured finance business into the large loan space, the firm took a contrarian approach. It made the adjustment by poaching the talent it needed from an investment bank rather than a traditional brokerage house. 

The strategy proved full of foresight: Having spent years originating large loans together at Deutsche Bank, Traynor and Millon intuitively understood underwriting and the delicate financial marriages created when the biggest broker-dealers arrange billion-dollar CRE deals, many of which are syndicated among borrowers and lenders. 

Even so, after they made the leap to CBRE, Millon and Traynor didn’t have an established book of business like their competitors at other brokerage shops.    

“While our clients respected and trusted us, they had never interacted with us in a way as an adviser,” said Millon. “We built this business seven years ago from nothing.” 

Traynor noted, however, that they weren’t dropped into an entirely different industry. Many of the clients they have today were familiar to them from when they worked at Deutsche Bank, as the underwriting of cash flows is fundamental to all sides of commercial real estate finance, he said. 

“Frankly, it was just really getting to know the CBRE system, getting to know all our internal partners, and it happened pretty quickly,” said Traynor. He was too humble to mention that the duo began their run at CBRE by arranging $1.75 billion in debt to push HNA Group’s $2.2 billion purchase of 245 Park Avenue across the finish line in May 2017.  

“It’s a function of having an existing client base, knowing the existing lenders, and going out and trying to hustle and seeing how we can help people,” Traynor added.  

Prior to acquiring Millon and Traynor, CBRE’s New York office was not a large player in the national large loan space, according to Siddharth Shrivastava, head of large loan originations at Goldman Sachs (GS)

“Over the last five or six years, since they’ve taken over, they’ve firmly established themselves as a top player in the New York large loan space, and I’d say nationally, as well,” said Shrivastava. “That’s commendable in a market where client and broker relationships go back years and it’s hard to untether existing relationships.” 

Millon credits the ethos of the team, which has never lost “the banking mindset,” as he calls it, for their immediate and sustained success. This banking mindset emphasizes that any ability to effectively underwrite risk is contingent on understanding risk primarily from a lender’s perspective, as lenders are the gatekeepers to capital who decide when, where and how a sponsor can make an efficient market. 

“You have to put yourself in the mindset of a lender who is going to be financing you and think about all the critical elements they care about to get a transaction done, and once you know that you can inform your client,” said Millon. “It’s very different – when you’re actually taking risk and acting as a principal, you tend to look at transactions much differently than somebody who maybe hasn’t and is therefore more transactional.” 

Clients have been more than grateful for the duo’s decision to eschew the transactional relationship model. 

In 2022 alone, the Millon-Traynor team closed $7 billion in deals across 41 transactions and a total of $24.1 billion in deals since 2021 (2023 figures weren’t available by press time). 

Bradley Weismiller, head of capital markets at Brookfield (BN) Real Estate, said that in the large loan space, lenders and sponsors want to work with brokers who are strategic and able to take a targeted approach.  

“It’s important to know who to call for a specific loan, rather than simply casting the widest possible net,” Weismiller said. “Because the team’s background was as a lender, they can look at a deal and tell you who the highest probability five or six candidates are without calling 75 people. And I think you build stronger relationships and achieve stronger outcomes that way – certainly over time and through cycles.”  

Weismiller emphasized that in markets where borrowers and lenders have a finite amount of time or focus, “you need to have an understanding of both sides of the transaction and where you’re likely to end up” to optimize the process and generate a favorable outcome. 

“They’re thoughtful and client-oriented in a way that’s efficient,” he said. 

Millon conceded that while some of their competition in the brokerage world might use a “velocity approach,” the Global Institutional Debt Advisory Group at CBRE has always prided itself on providing guidance on the front end of a transaction that’s both personalized and accurate — bespoke credit solutions, in short — for large loans.

“Where we differentiate ourselves is our ability to provide that front-end guidance and create strategies around it,” he said. “The execution is confirming what we advised the client on, so there are no surprises, as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s just figure it out, throw it out and have people bid on that.’ To me, there’s no value-add in that. That’s a commoditized process that anyone can do.” 

Adam Spengler, a vice president on CBRE’s Global Institutional Debt Advisory Group, likened this selective strategy to “a rifle approach rather than a shotgun approach.”

“You need to know who the select lenders will be for a specific deal,” Spengler said. “We have a great feel, as a team, for example, who is doing multifamily or office in certain markets. So when a client comes to us for that type of deal, we know the five to 10 groups who are the best ones, and we’ll spend a lot of time with them on that.”  

Spengler is one of several vice presidents and associates at CBRE who make up the entire Global Institutional Debt Advisory Group. The roster includes Mark Finan, Henry Fenmore, Arman Samouk, Kayla Kaloostian, Max Chan and Jessica Stambaugh, all hand-selected by Traynor and Millon. 

“They’ve done a great job of identifying junior talent that’s strong and puts them in a position where they can excel,” said Timothy Richards, co-head of national conduit originations at Goldman Sachs. “You can tell they care about them and are focused on their growth, and you feel comfortable talking to the junior team and that they’re able to walk you through any questions we might have.” 

Rugg told CO that he is eager to add his experience to an operation that he said has made integrity its hallmark in business.  

“The brand they’ve built over seven years is extremely powerful for this team,” said Rugg. “The fact that both the owners know they’re getting good transparent feedback, and ultimately the lenders, who you’re creating the market with, have a lot of confidence in that same process … it’s different to the positive here.”  

An uncertain market 

Even integrity might not be enough in one of the toughest real estate markets in recent memory. 

For one, the economy is still reeling from the worst inflation experienced in 40 years, and from the near collapse of the regional banking system last March. And, while the Federal Reserve has largely paused interest rate hikes (as of late), since March 2022 both the 10-Year Treasury and the federal funds rate have fluctuated at levels not seen in two decades. Combine all that with wars in Ukraine and Israel and the valuations for office plunging into an abyss of confusion and foreclosure, and you have nothing left but the perfect recipe for a skittish marketplace. 

Traynor conceded that there’s not a lot of deal flow on the large loan side because of the myriad factors at play both at home and abroad. 

“By and large, you’re not seeing a lot of desire from anyone to write a large equity check, domestic, international, whatever, there’s no interest in that $1 billion portfolio,” Traynor explained. “On the debt side, the CMBS, SASB [single asset, single borrower] market is not terribly efficient … and banks still are having all sorts of issues — they don’t want to take syndication risk. And while the life insurance companies are doing what they do, providing liquidity for the best sponsors and markets, they’re limited in what they’re looking at.

“So it’s this whole combination of factors that really leads to this incredible slowdown,” he concluded.  

Millon listed the ways in which the Global Institutional Debt Advisory Group has had to adjust on the fly to ever-changing market conditions. 

He recalled watching what was once a dependable, $1 billion-plus-per-deal market for industrial, multifamily and single-asset office buildings dry up beginning in the first quarter of 2022, once the inflation readings came out at 9 percent. The team then saw investors collectively decide there was too much risk, as spreads on loans became wider and wider, so CMBS financing became viewed as more efficient, and they pivoted in that direction. But once commercial banks began syndicating out risk, that became the place to tap fresh financing — that is, until bank balance sheets got filled up and they could no longer underwrite or hold increasingly risky positions. In time, the regional banking crisis of spring 2023 all but closed off capital in that realm, as well. 

“The market entered a period of paralysis, and what we’ve been dealing with ever since is this meteoritic rise in interest rates,” explained Millon. “The six standard deviation event that occurred is not supposed to happen over 18 months. The Fed is deliberately shocking the system to slow down economic growth.”

He added, however, that even under current market conditions, his former team at CBRE has pivoted to unconventional sources of capital, like international ones, to make markets for their clients. 

“Liquidity is scarce, you have to move around all four corners of the globe to find capital these days,” said Millon. “And even if there’s a certain capital source that happens to be a little more active, that just means everyone [else] is showing them the same opportunities. So whether it’s representing a client and having a transaction that’s sitting there with a certain lender, being able to get through details quickly to get it in the queue, that’s really important.”  

To this end, the team has leaned into not just their unique lender mindset, but also their decades of lender connections to make a single phone call to any life insurance company, any debt fund, any commercial bank, or any investment bank willing to listen.  

“When we have a deal that’s out there in the market, it’s one phone call to the top to say, ‘This is what you need to know about this transaction, and here’s why you need to prioritize it,’ ” said Millon. “We don’t use those calls on every transaction or else it becomes diluted. We do it when we legitimately believe that that’s the right execution given the client and given the opportunity.” 

And as 2024 opens, the Global Institutional Debt Advisory Group appears poised to continue its march through the highest reaches of brokerage, and the largest of loans in the CRE universe — whatever that may look like, and evolve to.

“Tom, Tom and James are truly great people to be around, and that matters so much in our industry,” said CBRE’s Spengler. “They instill confidence, assurance and honesty, not just within our internal nine-person team, but also the entire external CBRE client landscape.”  

Brian Pascus can be reached at bpascus@commercialobserver.com