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In Her Nature: Lunelle Siegel

©2022 James Luedde, Fotoset Photography., www.Fotosetbyjames.com

Q: How did you become involved in deals involving turnarounds and restructuring?

Siegel: That question made me think back. In my first lending job, I received a loan application for a retail store that supplied local dancers: toe shoes for ballet dancers, tap shoes, costumes, and those sorts of things. They had expanded quickly due to customer demand, but they had lost control of their finances.

I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do this at the time—lender liability hadn’t come to the forefront yet—and I worked very hard on analyzing that business. This was in the ‘80s. I didn’t know what a turnaround practitioner was. Cash flows, financial spreads, ratio analysis—I showed my analysis to the company, and they were so grateful for it. They were unaware of how lenders look at things, and they really didn’t know how far out of control their finances had gotten. But the analysis showed them the problem in black and white.

That encouraged me to try to find a way to help them. They did get back on the right track, and they made good decisions based on that information I provided them. I remembered that experience, and over the years I was looking for ways to help people do better.

Q: Do you do exclusively turnaround-type deals?

Siegel: No. I didn’t then, and I don’t now. During the Great Recession, I was working with a consulting practice that worked exclusively with troubled banks. We spent four years helping banks that were in the ditch, trying to pull them out. Now, I’m back in the lending world, and I work primarily with fast-growing companies. I’m seeing some customers with 1,000% growth right now. I do work with some distress. I’m working right now with a client whose sole owner died. It’s not pleasant watching the daughter try to continue a business that was promised to her by her mother but that she doesn’t own because the mother’s
final affairs were not in order. That’s a tough one.

A few of my clients now are in the unhappy space, but my experience with such clients has varied from gig to gig, year to year, and position to position.

Q: You’ve worked with both healthy and troubled companies. Is that unusual in your profession?

Siegel: I think most of what I’d call mainstream bankers run and hide from any kind of distress because they’re probably not going to get them approved. Very few banks have an origination group that will work with troubled companies or companies in a turnaround. Most turnarounds are effected with either equity or a type of debt, like factoring and asset-based lending, where the providers are more prepared to manage the risks. I have also been something of a workout lender.

In my role now as a portfolio manager, I’m not originating loans. I’m on the back end, servicing loans. There are different roles in a lending institution, and your role determines how involved you are.

Q: What have been some of your most gratifying or favorite deals?

Siegel: It was a bank on Florida’s East Coast that was on the short list for the “men in black” to come and shut it down on Friday afternoon. This was when I was working with the consulting practice I mentioned earlier. I met the owner through TMA. We really pulled out all the stops. We brought in a new CEO, and he then gave us permission to bring in a new chief credit officer. We upgraded all their policies and procedures. We brought in a team of special assets officers. We found capital in their problem loans, and we were able to save that bank.

It was a small bank, just two or three branches, not a big bank whose name anybody would recognize. But there were stockholders, borrowers, and all sorts of stakeholders that benefitted—as well as, of course, the taxpayer—from protecting that institution.

Q: It sounds like a community bank, so a lot of small businesses were probably relying on that bank as well.

Siegel: Absolutely. They did.

Q: What key milestones in your career have helped make you the professional you are today?

Siegel: A couple of things come to mind. Meeting (former TMA Florida President) Chris Curtin, who asked me to get involved in TMA, was a milestone because that brought me into a community of people who had worked in this space a lot longer than I had. It allowed me to find a home with other people who have similar experiences and to share information, “war stories,” to experience other people’s successes and failures and learn how things work when you really get into the thick of things without having to skin my own knees. That was important to me.

Another milestone that was important in my career was signing up for Sandler Sales Institute, a sales training program. My trainer was Mark Fitzgerald, who has spoken at several of our TMA functions. He’s out of that business now, so this isn’t a sales pitch. He helped me focus on communication to elicit from someone sitting in front of me their true concerns—their deep, underlying fears and drivers. And that has helped me to communicate efficiently with customers, prospects, and people I work with in the industry.

For me, that was a real turning point. Nobody likes to talk about their money problems. But he created for me a structure for having those difficult conversations with empathy and to knock down barriers to those difficult discussions.

Q: When did you undergo that training?

Siegel: I took a baby step when I first joined Riviera Finance, so I guess that would have been around 1995. It made such an improvement in my personal and professional life that I went back and joined the President’s Club a couple of years later.

It’s a way of thinking about communication rather than purely a selling system. It is a selling structure that’s applicable to everyday interactions, like getting your spouse to take the trash out. It’s a different way of communicating.

Q: You touched on this briefly earlier, but what role has your TMA membership played in your career?

Siegel: Myers-Briggs grades me out as an introvert. Talking to strangers isn’t my favorite thing to do, whereas some people are energized by that. Yes, I’m curious, and yes, I like to meet people, but I have a bit of an internal barrier to doing so because of my personality type.

TMA gave me an excuse to go meet strangers. As membership chair of TMA Florida years ago, I had a reason to call people I didn’t know and introduce myself. It expanded my network and my friendships in the industry. Some of them have become good personal friends as well. Just because I had to do it for my TMA job in membership, it opened my world to a whole host of new contacts for business development and life enrichment. People in our industry have so much in common, and we interact in the ecosystem. It is great to have a place to share experiences and where we can learn from each other.

Q: You’ve been a TMA member for some time now. Do you find TMA as valuable now as when you first joined?

Siegel: I do because those people are still my friends and contacts. “They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s Lunelle. I haven’t heard from you in a while.’” It’s like going home—it’s always there. And, you never know when you’re going to meet somebody who will have an influence in your life if you just are open to it.

Q: What advice would you have for someone who was new to the industry or was thinking about getting into it?

Siegel: My advice is if you’re thinking about getting into this industry, you really need to join TMA. Reach out, meet people, volunteer, attend the meetings, be curious, and ask questions. Get involved in TMA and take full advantage of that check you wrote. Don’t just be on the membership rolls. If you don’t use your membership, you won’t get much benefit from it. It’s like buying a ticket to the Super Bowl and not going to the game. You can say, “I have a ticket to the Super Bowl,” but unless you go the game, you’re not going to have a Super Bowl experience.

Q: What are you passionate about outside the office?

Siegel: I do enjoy nature. I like boating, going to the beach. I like walking and experiencing nature.

Q: What kind of boating do you do, and how long have you had your boat?

Siegel: I grew up on what’s now called the Emerald Coast of Florida, so I’ve enjoyed boating and swimming from an early age. My boat, the Dixie Girl, is a pontoon boat. It’s really a floating living room. I live on the Hillsborough River, which offers what I call “the real Florida.” It’s turtles, alligators, birds, and trees. It’s a getaway in the middle of an urban area. I’m blessed to live in a place where I enjoy recreating. Just stepping out the back door provides a whole different point of view.

Here’s a fun fact: The Hillsborough River is fed by the spring that Zephyrhills uses to bottle its water.

Q: Living on the river, do you ever have alligator problems?

Siegel: Oh, yes. My mother’s gone now, but when we first moved in, she had to shoo one off with a broom. But speaking of alligators, one of the best things I feel I’ve done was to take a wounded warrior on an alligator hunt. You can’t just go out and hunt gators; you have to get a permit. For a while, I was getting annual permits. I have a friend, Capt. Phil Walters, who is a trophy gator hunter and got me into it.

Through a friend, I signed up with a group that grants wishes of wounded warriors. They hooked my friend and me up with a soldier who had suffered a brain injury in Iraq when a vehicle in which he was riding was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade). His lieutenant and another soldier riding in the same vehicle were killed. His wish was to participate in an alligator hunt. We used my permit. He had a great time and left with about a five-footer. I got him a bottle of champagne at the end, and he got to take the meat home.

Q: What’s involved with an alligator hunt?

Siegel: He used a crossbow. Most people use a harpoon. An alligator’s skin and exoskeleton are very tough, so you have to be very precise with your aim.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Siegel: I just can’t say how much I have enjoyed building relationships in TMA and how satisfying the work has been over the years. I was dissatisfied as a mainstream banker that I had to say “no” to loan applicants so often. I saw so many companies that for one reason or another didn’t fit in the box. I feel like part of what led to my migration to the turnaround and restructuring industry was looking for a way to say “yes,” to help people out of the jam that they’re in. In the factoring and asset-based lending world, I could say “yes” to whole lot more people who are neglected by the bank on the corner.

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