Exeleon Magazine

Deborah Smith: The Woman Who Makes Opportunities Count

Deborah Smith_Exeleon Magazine

One of the striking factors that differentiates leaders from each other is their ability to influence. Often held in a negative connotation, having an influence as a leader conveys one’s ability to drive people’s actions towards an aligned goal.

Powerful influence enables leaders to achieve effective results, as opposed to coercion. It is worth noting that a high level of trust and a high level of competence accompanies one’s level of influence.

A person of influence is someone who people believe in and trust to guide them in the right direction in order to attain the desired results.

Women leaders across the globe are asserting their influential presence with their ability to stand out and be the best. These leaders are going past the pre-conceived notions surrounding their gender and creating stories that are inspiring.

Deborah Smith is an example of one such influential women who has cemented her presence in the finance space by spearheading and establishing a boutique investment bank – The CenterCap Group, LLC.

Featuring as the Cover of Exeleon’s Influential Leaders to Watch, we look into the journey of Deborah Smith and how she made her opportunities count even at the face of adversity.

Willingness to Explore

Growing up as a dairy farmer’s daughter in rural Australia, Deborah stood out from her peers due to her background. She remembers, “Education took a backseat to work, and responsibility was a way of life back then. As my parents used to say, “the cows don’t milk themselves!”

For Deborah, being part of her family business as a dairy farmer was almost inevitable. However, with the help of some incredible mentors along the way, Deborah’s journey was opened to new possibilities. She was the only one in her family to go to the university after completing high school. Looking back, she mentions “I recognize that while I don’t consider myself a risk taker, it was the willingness to explore and take risks that ultimately paved my way.”

Perhaps, it was this willingness to explore that eventually led her into the finance world. Back in law school, Deborah intended on becoming a tax attorney. She explains, “I loved tax law complexity coupled with the challenge to find answers buried within it.”

Although investment banking and finance was not on her radar, she decided to take the risk, switch gears, and show up for work.

Starting out as a banker at Morgan Stanley, Deborah was almost convinced that her stint in the finance domain wasn’t going to last for long. However, once she took on the job, Deborah was determined to learn and establish her reputation by being the best version of herself.

Years later as a veteran in the industry, Deborah looks back at her early days with fond memories and a heart full of gratitude. “Turns out I had quite a knack for numbers and picked things up pretty easily, so I had found the right career for myself.”

Deborah Smith_Exeleon Magazine

Grabbing the Opportunities

In 2005, Deborah joined Wachovia with the deliberate intention of focusing on healthcare banking. “I had been a utilities banker for many years, and I wanted to try something different.”

This period also happened to be the boom for REIT transactions. Suddenly, Deborah was seen making a lot of real estate transactions and it eventually cemented her status in the real estate banking space.

The emergence of the global financial crisis in 2008 saw Deborah co-heading CBRE Investors Global M&A business and led the firm’s negotiation and acquisition of a majority interest in Wood Partners.

With real estate being at the heart of the global collapse, one would assume it would be a smart choice to change directions. However, never shying away from an opportunity, Deborah decided to co-found a women-owned boutique real estate investment bank – in the middle of the global financial crisis!

She explains, “When we decided to build CenterCap during the great financial crisis after co-heading CBRE Investors global M&A business, it was really on the back of the thought that a lot of organizations in the middle market needed an advisor who also really understood real estate itself. Our view from a client’s perspective was simple – how could anyone give us advice if they really didn’t understand what we did?”

Considering their extensive real estate knowledge, expertise, relationships, analytical strengths, and hard work, The CenterCap Group, LLC was born with the simple, yet all-encompassing tagline – All Things Real Estate.

“One assignment at a time, we built CenterCap, and the next thing we knew, we had an office, a name above the door, and a reputation for getting things done. It’s been quite a ride,” she mentions proudly.

Almost a recurring theme in her journey, Deborah recognized an opportunity, grabbed it, and ran with it. She perfectly sums this up with one simple statement, “Life is full of open and closed doors, and I am big believer that to be successful you need to be able to tell the difference.”

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All Things Real Estate

The idea behind CenterCap is built around the concept of ‘All Things Real Estate’ and the firm has committed itself to stay true to that core principal.

“We consider ourselves to be sector leaders in terms of our knowledge, expertise, and breadth of service offerings. We do take a lifecycle approach toward our clients and assignments.”

Furthermore, every assignment the firm takes upon is in the context of building a long-term relationship. This emphasis has enabled CenterCap to build a loyal client base and provide an array of services.

Deborah elaborates, “I think we are known for taking on the complicated, the contrarian, and the non “bread and butter” type assignments. Sure, we can do the easy transaction processes, but we’re not afraid of doing something different or complicated. We are pretty confident that we can spot an attractive opportunity when it presents itself.”

Based in Stamford, Connecticut with a recent expansion to Florida, The CenterCap Group is a market leader when it comes to thinking about the role of technology in real estate as well as niche sectors like cold storage, senior housing, manufactured housing, and logistics.

“Our deep knowledge translates into informed advice, which we use to provide customized guidance to companies looking to raise capital or make strategic investments. Sure, we are focused on transactions – we are bankers – but we are more focused on delivering the right advice and the right transaction as opposed to just a transaction.”

She continues, “The former is a lot harder to do than the latter. Sometimes our advice is that it’s not the right deal or the right time.”

Building a Business

In many instances, Deborah Smith has mentioned that starting her business in the middle of the global crisis was borderline crazy. However, for both Deborah and her partner, the thought of impending business failure never truly crossed their minds. They were focused on their strengths and had the willingness to work hard to make it a success – and so they did.

Amidst the positives, the early days of the firm was riddled with confusion as is the case for every new entrepreneur. She recalls, “I laugh when I look back, as there was a time in the early days when I would be making presentations and running excel spreadsheets at night and then turning around and putting on my senior leadership hat to explain it all the next day, with strategy and growth ideas along with it.”

With time and experience, Deborah evolved her leadership style and gained clarity when it came to building a business. One of her biggest learnings in her entrepreneurial journey is to not assume. She advises emerging entrepreneurs to continually evaluate their plans, modify, adjust, and improve as new information comes to light.

Always mindful of their women-owned structure, Deborah reflects on their fortune that Lisa Beeson, an industry veteran, agreed to join them in 2017. “Lisa had previously run real estate M&A groups for Barclays, Lehman Brothers, and Wachovia Securities after a long stint with Morgan Stanley’s M&A group. Her expertise with public companies, including REITs, was pretty much unmatched,” Deborah says, “To have Lisa join us, both a long-time friend and former colleague, was a truly unbelievable positive for us.”

Nowadays, Deborah oversees the day-to-day proceedings of CenterCap and the strategic growth and development of the firm.

She also mentions, “I am also intimately involved in our consulting practice. I really enjoy building relationships with companies, figuring out what makes them tick, their culture, strengths, and weaknesses, and then helping them to reposition, switch gears, or grow. It’s really rewarding and incredibly challenging. Every company is different.”

Talking about how she ensures work-life balance, Deborah quickly points out her love for running. “I run a lot. There is something calming about putting one foot in front of the other on the pavement.  I do some of my best thinking while running; when I am actually not trying to think at all.”

Being a parent, spouse, and an entrepreneur, she understands the difficulties that one can face juggling between the three. For her, it’s the clarity of determining what you want to do, making the decision, and then just going for it. It’s all in the follow-through.

Deborah Smith_Exeleon Magazine

Inspiring Change

As a female entrepreneur, Deborah Smith understands the disparity in ratio when it comes to women helming senior positions in the real estate and investment banking space. Being one of the only female-founded investment banks doing what it does, dedicated to its sector, Deborah hopes to be an advocate of change and inspire more women leaders.

At CenterCap, Deborah has built a senior team that has collectively been in the industry for a very long time. With this collective pool of experience comes the industry knowledge and understanding of what can work and what can’t.

“You get pretty wise about a whole host of topics, decisions, strategies, and deal terms over the years. We take pride in our success rate in getting things done. The ability to adapt, switch gears, change paths are critical for any entrepreneur. Being stuck in your ways may leave you in the past, focused on issues that no longer matter with a mindset that is no longer relevant.”

Being the Best

“We had our busiest year in 2022 and this year I am excited for what we have going on and the pipeline ahead of us. We are continuing to grow all of our business segments, but also a new avenue for us is to explore making principal investments ourselves.” Deborah realizes that one of their core strengths is the ability to underwrite good management teams and good opportunities. “We are now looking to make some investments in early-stage companies, a market segment we don’t spend as much time in. It’s really exciting stuff,” she concludes saying.

Going forward, Deborah hopes CenterCap continues striving every day to be the #1 advisor in middle market investment banking and be the best at every service they offer. But she also looks forward to building out an investment side of their business, too. Her grand plan – to do it all; and to do it all well.

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