Mortgage industry vet embodies spirit of International Women's Day

Melissa Cohn has had a lot thrown at her across a 40-year career yet perseveres

Mortgage industry vet embodies spirit of International Women's Day

Melissa Cohn has seen much change in the mortgage industry across her 40 years in the industry. She’s also presciently been able to spot trends and act accordingly.

When she first started out in the early 1980s, college graduates were expected to do little more than fetch coffee and make copies before eventually being given substantive roles within a corporation. 

“So I accepted [an offer] to go into the retail banking program at CitiBank,” Cohn said. “The man who was the branch manager there took me out for lunch at the very beginning of my career and told me mortgage lending was going to be the wave of profitability for banks in the future, and I should pay attention to it. So I did.”

Keen focus pays off

Her focus was keen: “I learned my banking role, but also learned what mortgages were. Mortgages 40 years ago were very different from what they are today. It was an evolving business when I started in 1982. Mortgage rates were 16%, so people complaining about 7% should not complain. I have been in my 40 years in this business through many different rate environments, and have always been able to thrive.”

As she learned more about the business, she began her corporate ascent: “When CitiBank then decided to create mortgage centers where they had a mortgage expert for each area, I became a mortgage expert for the 10 branches on the upper West Side of Manhattan, and worked with developers to sell them bulk commitments to developers.” For that latter, she would help secure financing for the condominium craze of the 1980s, she added.

She would catch the eye of a marketing and sales company for which she would help launch Mortgage Placements Inc.  Once recruited she would help “turn a call center into a profit center,” as company officials said to her.  Every buyer of a condo would have to make an application through the company’s offices so they knew they had a legitimate buyer, she said, noting the role contributed to development of the wholesale mortgage brokerage world of which she considers herself something of a pioneer.

Overcoming obstacles

Nine months in, she would become the victim of her own success as company executives informed her she was making way too much money in commissions and would eliminate her base salary – all $25,000 of it, she recalled.

She decided to venture out on her own. “I realized the idea of what they started as a call center that I turned into a profitable center was something that I could do independently and I could offer it to all real estate brokers and their buyers,” she said. “So I found an office space on Park Avenue, took my credit card out, went to Crate and Barrel, got two desks and four chairs and started the Manhattan Mortgage Co.”

She founded the company with a partner she would eventually buy out. “I pounded the pavement for real estate brokers throughout New York City and expanded later on that horizon later on and also reached out to all the different lenders and said here’s an opportunity for me to bring you business – and it worked.”

Manhattan Mortgage would operate for 27 years – from July 1985 to October 2012. Later stints would follow – including a vice president’s role at Guaranteed Rate that would last two years and a job at Leader residential mortgage brokers – before landing at William Raveis Mortgage, where she now serves as regional vice president.

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day today, it seems apt to have scheduled a phone interview with Cohn by sheer coincidence. She acknowledged having had experiences when some men were averse to working with her strictly due to her gender – one of many obstacles she’s had to overcome in a storied career. “Men don’t always like to do business with me,” she acknowledged.

Yet she’s more than persevered. And she says she feels fortunate to have landed at William Raveis for whom anachronistic attitudes are anathema.

“I work for a company owned by three gentlemen, but it’s very different – they sort of get me, understand me, and they respect what I have built and have allowed me to flourish with my mortgage practice at Raveis Mortgage.”

Here's another Cohn stat: She closed nearly a quarter-billion in volume last year alone, with herself as the sole originator. As if all her accomplishments weren’t enough, she’s also personally helping to promote more women into the still male-dominated mortgage field: “One of the biggest achievements is the fact I’ve gotten my daughter to join me,” she said with palpable pride. “So we’re moving on to the second generation.”