Cristin O’Hara: Long-term Strategy Is Recipe for Financing Success

Cristin O’Hara appreciates a good story. The fact that restaurant operators often have an interesting story to tell is one of the reasons that drew her into restaurant finance in the first place.

O’Hara currently serves as the managing director and head of the Restaurant Group at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The Restaurant Group works with clients ranging from large corporate restaurant chains to franchisees with 20-plus units. 

Her own story into restaurant finance has an interesting twist. She was following a typical path to go into investment banking when she changed strategy. O’Hara had started out in the School of Management Honors Program at Boston College. It was during the early 1990s, and at the time, the country was going through a recession and jobs were tight. "My friends who were already in investment banking were telling me that candidates with writing skills were getting hired over folks with just the analytical side," says O’Hara. So, in her junior year at Boston College she switched from the School of Management Program to the Arts & Sciences Honors Program.

That move was spot on. It helped her land her first job in the industry at Kidder, Peabody & Co. The combination of finance knowledge along with her writing skills also was a good combination in her early years when she was writing a lot of financial reports, prospectus documents and offering memorandums. And it was that first job that put her on course to specialize in restaurant finance. 

She initially started out working in consumer and retail sectors, and as her career progressed she gravitated towards syndicated debt products. "I thought debt was a little bit more of an art than a science, and there was definitely story telling that needed to be dealt with and getting the right story across," says O’Hara.

The story line in restaurant financing tends to change through up and down cycles. These days, there is still a huge amount of capital available. "People are starting to get a little more critical, because I would argue that we are in the middle of a down cycle for restaurants and it’s not just one sector, it’s across all sectors," says O’Hara. "So, we all have to be a little more careful about where we choose to pick our spots, but we are definitely very open for business."

Smaller operators do have interesting opportunities to tap into some alternative sources of equity in the early stages, such as high net worth individuals and family offices. Once an operator gets to the debt stage, having the right equity partner also can help get some of those debt deals across the finish line. For those established restaurant operators that might be considering adding a brand or diversifying, the best advice is to talk to their banker about what sort of capital needs might be required beyond bank debt, she adds. 

It also is important for operators to recognize that debt is not a commodity. "Going for the easiest, cheapest, most flexible option may not necessarily always be the right recipe for success for your business," says O’Hara. "Partnering with somebody that has been in the business through a lot of cycles is something that can be advantageous. So, think long-term and not just short-term." 

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