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From trader and PM to launching his own commercial lending startup

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When you go off on your own, you have to start somewhere. That's why they call it a startup.

Alex Cohen gradually worked his way up the ladder in private equity and banking, graduating from fixed income trading to portfolio management at a bank before breaking off on his own and co-founding commercial lending startup Liberty SBF.

Cohen cut his teeth in the debt capital markets division of a regional bank, thriving in a mortgage-backed security (MBS) and asset-backed security (ABS) trading role. He worked at M&T Bank, at the headquarters in New York City, in commercial lending side of the house, as well as Treasury management, fixed income sales and trading for the bank.

The other co-founder, Alex Prombaum, the president of Liberty SBF, previously worked at Merrill Lynch and Picerne Capital.

Eventually Cohen was promoted to fixed income portfolio manager at M&T and began to manage the bank’s bond and Small Business Administration (SBA) loan portfolios. A big part of the job was scrutinizing asset-liability risk.

“We got lots of exposure to a lot of players in the SBA space, service providers to the agency, broker-dealers who participate in the bond offers, originators, that is, banks, which laid the foundation for what we’ve created today,” Cohen said. “It gave me a good 360-degree view of how banks operate and prepared me to run a finance company.”

Prior to that, Cohen worked in the private equity of Exigent, focusing on transactions in the middle-market sector.

Expansion plans

In June, Liberty SBF announced an extended senior-lender partnership with Capital One Bank and acquired $75m in a Series B funding. Since that time, it has extended $17m in SBA and bridge loans. The firm plans to close $100m in Series C funding before the end of the year.

As the U.S. Small Business Administration has expanded its Certified Development Company 504 Loan program, Liberty SBF has expanded from its headquarters in Philadelphia to open offices in New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles.

“Across the board we are hiring both senior and junior originators,” Cohen said. “We’re currently doing off-cycle hiring – we’re a growth equity company, have to be somewhat flexible in our search and hiring protocol.”

New hires get credit training and learn the landscape of referral sources and how Liberty SBF executives develop business.

“We run new recruits through training modeled on management development programs (MDPs) we went through at M&T Bank and Merrill Lynch,” Cohen said.

Career advice

Cohen acknowledges that there are both pros and cons of joining a big financial services firm versus accepting an offer from a small to mid-size bank or buy-side shop.

“The advice I always give recent grads, you can always go to a large institution, and I do recommend getting some experience there if a candidate believes they will get the type of background and connections at a large institution,” Cohen said. “It could be worth exploring, especially if it’s a two-year program, then they can decide if they want to move over to a smaller firm or the buy side.

“One of the benefits of working at a smaller company like Liberty is access to senior-level management great experience and excellent deal exposure early on in your career,” he said. “Unlike working at a large institution, we don’t have the same layers of management – particularly if you’re working on the deal side, at a large company you usually have to work until two in the morning to make photocopies or print out slide presentations.

“Someone early on in their career might want to bypass going to a large institutional shop and instead go to a more entrepreneurial company, with the opportunity to participate in upside, get deal exposure and credit training, as well as building enterprise value.”

Photo credit: PeopleImages/GettyImages

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