Real estate industry titan Tom Meade is dominating the Boston market, becoming the king of local capital.
Born and raised in Quincy, MA just a few miles south of Boston, Tom Meade and his three siblings were children of working parents—his dad a nursing-home administrator and his mom a registered nurse and clinical director of programs for autistic young adults.
“I like to say I never missed a meal as a kid, but we didn’t have a lot of extra money. We went to Disney World once as a family, in August (the cheapest time of year to visit Florida),” he recalled.
His childhood home was a two-family house; his aunt and grandmother lived on the first floor, and Tom’s family lived upstairs. When he was in 5th grade, his parents bought “a serious fixer upper,” an 11-room Victorian house built in the late 1800s. That’s how Meade got his first real estate and construction experience. He saw the major remodeling work his parents did on their new home, and throughout his formative years, Tom helped his dad do small projects around the house.
In high school, Meade participated in a foreign exchange student program and lived in Argentina for a year with a host family, an experience that affected his life perspective.
“As a 16-year old kid, I moved to a foreign country in a different hemisphere (Christmas falls in the Summer!), learned a new language and culture, and attended school and church fully immersed in Spanish. Coming back from that year, I had a new outlook. First, I had a greater appreciation for my family and friends. It’s true what they say about absence making the heart grow fonder. I had really missed them. But at the same time, I had gained self-confidence and independence. I saw the value in learning things literally from the bottom up. I had to re-learn everything about day-to-day life. Beyond the obvious language barrier, they had bidets and they ate dinner at 8 or 9 p.m. every night!”
Meade didn’t know at that time that learning from the bottom would turn out to be the strategy that helped him build his successful career.
Right out of college, Meade went to work for Merrill Lynch where he had interned in the mailroom when he was still in school. This time, he was full time at the Boston office of their institutional money market fund. It was 1999.
“Money market funds were not nearly as common,” Meade said. “[They were] mostly used by big corporations to manage short-term cash balances. To give you an idea, the Merrill Lynch Premier Fund had a $10mm minimum investment, and at that time was yielding in the mid- to high-five-percent range!”
Meade worked his way up and transferred to a sales job at the Merrill Lynch asset management headquarters in Princeton, NJ. As a 25-year-old, he was making a good income with title of Assistant Vice President, but he was miserable.
“I realized that I’m not really built to work for someone else,” he said.
He wanted to move back home to Boston, so he bought a house in Braintree, while still working at Merrill Lynch in NJ.
“This was in the early 2000s before Dodd Frank, and we got really creative with how to buy the house. The realtor rolled in his commission as my down payment, and I had pre-negotiated with a neighbor to subdivide and sell off a portion of the land at the back of the lot. I did my first creative real estate deal and I was hooked. Back then, I bought a set of Carlton Sheets audio and video tapes to learn about how to invest with no money down,” he said.
To learn the business from the ground up, Meade quit his job in financial services and went to work for a friend of his family who had a small residential contracting business.
“I went from making pretty good money as an AVP at Merrill Lynch, to a laborer on a construction crew, making a $100 a day. I learned a lot about both the trade and the business. I went on to get my General Contractor license and start my own contracting business, although I invested in a few deals on the side during these years.”
In 2008, he went to work for Boston Capital, one of the largest owners of affordable housing in the country. They raise tax credit equity funds and partner with the developers who build the apartment complexes.
“I looked at this opportunity to learn how the big guys do it, as far as partnership structure, syndicating real estate funds, and asset management. At this same time, I went back to school at Boston University, and earned a certificate in Real Estate Finance. After a couple years at Boston Capital, I got a call from a recruiter and went to work for CW Capital, which was then a national mortgage banking shop. They were a big FNMA/Freddie/FHA lender on the multifamily side. CW Capital was subsequently bought by Walker and Dunlop, an even bigger national lender.”
In his years there, Meade held roles in asset management, underwriting, and originations. Then, on New Years Eve 2014, Meade received an unexpected call that, at the time, seemed like a low point in his career, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise. Walker and Dunlop was heading in a different direction and Meade was told there wasn’t a spot for him. Once again, Meade gained life-changing perspective and learned that what hurts at the moment almost always provides a valuable lesson.
Meade had formed Touchstone Capital Partners, LLC in 2010, when he and some partners were buying distressed debt from the 2008 downturn and doing small volume fix-and-flip lending. During that time, Meade met his business partner Ray Loughlin in 2010, and together they continued doing one-off deals until 2014 when they launched what has become Touchstone’s flagship fund, TCP Fund II, a pooled mortgage fund. After that distressing news on the last day of 2014, Meade went all in with Touchstone Capital in 2015.
“Looking back, that’s how my life has gone—I have gained perspective and life lessons from negative situations,” he said.
A Local Game
Touchstone Capital is a flexible, full-service capital provider. And, with the current economic situation, flexibility has been imperative.
“During this pandemic, instead of tightening down on leverage, increasing cash requirements, and lowering LTVs, we are leaning in. We see an opportunity to provide liquidity into the market; we are looking for ways to help borrowers recapitalize their projects and put them on firmer footing coming out of this crazy time,” Meade said.
The markets in Meade’s hometown are not unlike other markets across the nation in that values are not dropping. Demand is high and supply is lacking, which has prices increasing and bidding wars escalating. Touchstone is answering with solutions in ways other lenders are not.
“While everybody else is raising money for funds to buy distressed debt, we are raising additional funds for our existing pooled mortgage fund, which has the ability to invest up to 20 percent of its assets in mezzanine debt and preferred equity. We think putting some money to work deeper in the capital stack provides an excellent risk-adjusted return for investors, and some much-needed relief for borrowers,” Meade said.
Meade attributes much of Touchstone’s success on lending locally, especially when it comes to small balance construction and bridge loans.
“In my view it’s very difficult to do this well at a national scale. There is the obvious issue about ‘knowing your market’ and understanding that you cannot underwrite based on zip codes. You can find very different values from street to street in a given city/town/neighborhood. Hopefully we learned some lessons coming out of the 2008 debacle as far as ‘desktop underwriting’ and relying on appraisers. Beyond that, with construction and bridge lending, you need boots on the ground. We do all our own construction inspections and the majority of our deals come from referrals. We know our borrowers, we know our markets, and we know our deals. I hope the example Touchstone has set is that as a lender, you can scale intentionally and build a successful, sustainable business, right in your own backyard.”
Success Comes from Starting at the Bottom
Three values Meade admires in others is perseverance, integrity, and success and to him, these qualities are intertwined.
“When I talk to potential borrowers or partners in real estate deals, I am very skeptical when they tell me ‘I have never lost money on a deal.’ This is a very difficult business; there is no easy money, and when you fail (and lose your own money), it should make you a better investor/lender/business owner. Especially in real estate, which is a cyclical industry, having been through previous downturns is a big asset (perseverance). Integrity to me means being the same person and having the same set of values at work, at home, and in social settings. Do the right thing, whether anyone is watching or not. If you can get through some adversity with perseverance and integrity, you are bound to find success.”
The definition of success is subjective, what it means for some is different for someone else. Meade qualified his definition to the real estate industry and then to himself as an individual.
He said, “success in the real estate industry to me means proving you can invest and preserve capital and survive a full cycle. Touchstone has now operated and invested through a full cycle. Certainly, we’ve taken our lumps, but we’ve come out the other side better and smarter, and I think our partners appreciate that—whether that be borrowers who appreciate the straightforward way we do business, or our capital partners who have enjoyed outsized risk-adjusted returns. I attribute my success to curiosity and perseverance. I always want to know how stuff works, and I’m always willing to dive in and start from the bottom.”
Advice from a Titan
Like any profession, real estate investing takes hard work. Meade acknowledges the valuable resources out there that help investors build a good foundation of research.
“But for me,” he said, “I have learned by doing. Both doing deals on my own, and by actually working for other companies in the industry.”
“Despite what you may see or hear in slick online marketing and radio commercials, you can’t take a free weekend seminar and become a real estate investor, flipping houses with other people’s money. The way I think about it is this: if it were that easy, then everyone would do it, and there would be no margin in it.”
So, does a titan ever stop doing what he has proven to excel at? Does a titan have an exit strategy?
“As far as exiting, that’s what I love about this business, I don’t feel it’s ever one I’m going to exit or retire from.”
For Meade, it’s more about evolution than an exit.