Cole: The Road From Wall Street to Main Street


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After earning a master’s in economics from Columbia University in New York City in the early 1990s, it is no surprise that the first stop for Nick Cole was Wall Street. He landed a job at a securities firm working an equity trading job, but he quickly realized it wasn’t quite the right fit.

“I had an interest in getting more deeply involved with companies and their needs and their stories and their people,” says Cole. That desire moved him in the direction of commercial banking and a more than 20-year career in restaurant finance. Currently, Cole serves as an executive vice president responsible for the Wells Fargo Restaurant Finance and Gaming groups.

His first step into banking came in 1995 when he joined the Bank of Boston. At the time, Bank of Boston was an aggressive “deal bank” that had a lot of different lending specialties. The bank was entrepreneurial and liked to specialize in industries that were outside of the usual banking universe, says Cole. “They prided themselves on figuring out what other banks couldn’t and tried to do business in areas where there was less competition,” says Cole. 

As a junior banker, Cole was responsible for a general loan portfolio that included, among other businesses, several chain restaurants. He and a colleague saw the opportunity to carve out their own specialty in restaurant financing. “There wasn’t a lot of competition back then. When we got to a point where we were actually doing big enough deals that we had to syndicate, we had to go out and find banks that we could teach how to look at the business and try to become partners, because those partners weren’t readily available,” says Cole. 

Twelve years ago, Cole had the opportunity to join Wells Fargo and help grow its restaurant finance business. Today, Wells Fargo’s Restaurant Finance group has grown ten-fold and also is a diverse lender that provides financing for an individual franchisee all the way up to large corporate global brands. “We really try to create an environment where restaurant companies can grow with us,” says Cole.         

Throughout his career, Cole has watched the ebb and flow of capital into the restaurant industry. When he first started out, there were five or six lenders who were consistently doing restaurant deals. Capital has poured into the sector in recent years with about 30 different lenders now active in the sector. 

Yet borrowers do need to remember that it is a cyclical business – both in terms of the performance of restaurants and available capital flowing in and out of the sector. The U.S. is now in its second longest economic expansion in the country’s history, and there are signs that the end of this economic cycle is nearing with rates that are starting to rise, a flattening yield curve and oversupply in the restaurant world. 

“Companies that are borrowing money should think about where we are in the economic cycle, the opportunities that they see and the bets that they make with their own business,” says Cole. Restaurant operators borrowing money on a 5-year loan face a greater likelihood that there will be a recession sometime within that 5-year period. “You have to understand how to think about your balance sheet to weather that storm,” he says. “So, think about what is important to you and how much you want to stretch today knowing that risk exists.” For more information, contact Nick at nick.cole@wellsfargo.com.

 

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