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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 13, 2018 5 months ago

Commercial mortgage company expands business avenues, plans for succession

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Kelly Olivieri Gilliland joined her father at Horizon Mortgage Corp. 18 years ago. Now, with the leader mulling retirement, she's about to face a new set of challenges.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

In high school, Kelly Olivieri Gilliland loved chemistry. She thought she would go into medicine.

Today, the executive vice president of Horizon Mortgage Corp. isn’t a medical doctor. But her father, N.J. Olivieri, president of the company, says the work they do in the commercial mortgage industry is similar. “It’s like being a good doctor,” he says. “You see what the problem is and try to solve it.”

Olivieri, 75, started the company in 1979 in Sarasota, and it’s grown to $250 million in revenue in 2017. Gilliland, 46, joined the company 18 years ago, and has helped her father bring the company through the recession and expand to other areas of commercial real estate. Today, she’s poised for another career challenge: take over the company when Olivieri retires and continue leading the company’s growth trajectory in what could be an up-and-down industry. 

That growth includes potentially getting into real estate sales, which could include new hires and push the company in new directions.  

Build Up

When Gilliland moved back to Sarasota after graduating from Florida State University, she worked for a year at a bank.

She started as a bank teller and was also learning about residential mortgages, an area she told bank officials she was interested in learning more about. But a combination of experiences led Gilliland to shift gears.

The first played out like a scene from a movie. Gilliland was working at the bank when a man walked in and showed a fellow teller a note. He wanted money. Gilliland was turned away from the man, talking to the teller. Her colleague showed her the note, but Gilliland didn’t believe they were really being robbed. She started laughing. The man started yelling. They gave him the money, and he left. Gilliland says he was never caught.

A couple of months later, the bank was sold to a larger Milwaukee-based bank. The combination of the robber and the sale prompted her to leave banking, she said. During the same time, Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch offered her a job. Gilliland thought it would be a good opportunity to meet people and be involved in the beginning of Lakewood Ranch’s development in eastern Manatee County. 

She worked for Schroeder-Manatee Ranch for five years, from 1995 to 2000, in several positions. The list includes receptionist, assistant and commercial sales manager. She also headed up Lakewood Ranch Realty, but learned she preferred commercial real estate over residential. 

With commercial, she says, “Every transaction is different. You’re always continuing to learn and grow every step of the way.”  Plus, she says, “You get to learn more about different businesses and how they operate.”

So she sat down with her dad and asked for his advice. He suggested she join Horizon.

Solve a Puzzle

In 2000, Gilliland started at Horizon. She says it took her a couple of years to learn the financing side, but soon she was working with a variety of clients.

Today, her projects include commercial closing, financing and refinancing on properties such as hotels, marinas, assisted living facilities and office complexes. “I look at it as I’m trying to help them put pieces together and solve a puzzle,” she says. “It takes a lot of brainstorming.”

The work is also about the personalities of the borrower and lender. “Both of them have to trust each other.” Her job is to match personalities that will work well together. The key, she says, is to know which lenders have the appetite for a particular loan.

After talking with clients about their goals, she puts together a loan presentation. “Kelly is very thorough, and she gives you a lot of offers,” says Horizon client and Sarasota-based commercial real estate developer Mark Kauffman. 

Gilliland has worked with Kauffman, one of the most prominent developers of the past 20 years in Sarasota, on several projects, including the financing of a P.F. Chang’s restaurant, State Street residences and office buildings. “She really earns her fee,” Kauffman says. “She brings good options and leads you in the right direction.”

Much of Horizon’s business is from repeat clients, Gilliland says. It also comes through referrals from clients and real estate attorneys.

She and her father work with lenders and borrowers in the area, in Florida and across the country. For all her clients, Gilliland says, “My relationships are what drive me. You feel like you’re really making a difference in their lives.”

An Evolution

From 2002 to 2005, Gilliland worked on several condominium construction loans for projects across Florida. At the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006, Horizon started to see the effects of the downturn. Two of her biggest closings fell through. Gilliland thought, “How do I switch gears?”

She started networking and talking to local businesses. She and her father went to banks and previous clients together to talk to them about what Horizon could do for them. “You try to stay ahead of what’s happening in the market by at least a year,” Olivieri says. “If you’re in this market long enough, you realize when the market is turning, so then you can say, ‘How can we help?’”

Horizon started assisting more businesses with refinancing existing debt. “That’s when I really thought, ‘I love what I do,’” Gilliland says. She liked being able to help during a difficult time. “It’s the finance and business way of helping people.”

“For more and more people, it’s about relationships versus beating the next guy. I feel like that’s why I’m here — to help with that transition.”

— Kelly Olivieri Gilliland, executive vice president, Horizon Mortgage Corp.  

Olivieri and Gilliland’s breadth of knowledge about commercial real estate allowed Horizon to continue to work through the recession. “It’s just having a complete understanding of the commercial real estate industry,” Olivieri says. “You have to stay knowledgeable in all areas.”

After the recession, Horizon continued to focus on the finance side. As far as construction went, “Things just slowly trickled back,” Gilliland says.

A couple months ago, Horizon brought on David Gustafson, who has a background in real estate, sales and land planning. Gustafson previously worked for Benderson Development Co. for 10 years. East Manatee County-based Benderson is one of the biggest landlords, property owners and developers in the country. 

“You don’t work there and not learn a tremendous amount of skills and learn how the business world works,” Gustafson says. When he was with Benderson, Gustafson, who was also previously executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, says he once asked founder Nathan Benderson what his secret was. Benderson’s response? “Exercise every day, keep your mind active and don’t ride around in a golf cart.” 

At Horizon, Gustafson’s primary role will be to help clients find potential development sites. “I’m just another tool in the toolbox who can assist with all of the development opportunities,” he says. Plus, by working at Horizon, he says his toolbox will grow, too. “I want to learn something every day. Who wants to be stagnant?”

Gilliland says for the past couple of years, Horizon focused on financing and would like to grow the real estate sales side of the business. “The two feed each other,” she says. 

Gilliland says she’s talking to other potential hires as well. “I tend to be able to bring in business,” she says. The problem is not having enough time to handle it. A bigger staff would help with that, she says.

Besides opening up new lines of business, there’s another change afoot in the industry, Gilliland says. After the economic downturn, she started seeing more people — particularly younger people in the industry — wanting to work together. She’s even seeing companies that do the same kind of work developing methods to collaborate. “For more and more people, it’s about relationships versus beating the next guy,” she says. “I feel like that’s why I’m here — to help with that transition.”

Will to Succeed

And then there's another transition in the offing: Olivieri's retirement, which he says could happen sooner rather than later.

Gilliland says her father has prepared financially and legally for her to succeed him at president at Horizon. To prepare herself, Gilliland has had conversations with other business people in the area in the same situation who could provide recommendations, such as Taylor Tollerton Collins of Sarasota-based Professional Benefits Inc. 

Gilliland has also attended a few local presentations and panels organized by law firms and trust advisers to learn more. "It’s quite complicated, so having the right team in place is important, and from what I’ve learned, it definitely takes a team of advisers working together," she says.  

Growth for the company in the years ahead, Olivieri says, will be about reading, researching and keeping eyes and ears open to different avenues of commercial real estate. Gilliland says after she takes the helm of Horizon, her father will continue to help train employees as the company brings on more people.

Since she’s been working at the company for so long, it’s almost as if the transition has been going on for years, she says. “I’ve been here longer than anybody else except him,” Gilliland says. Plus, “I would always have him as a source of advice.”

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