If you happen to run into John Ockerbloom — at an airport or investment conference or hotel lobby — he is likely to have an acoustic guitar in his hands. That would be a Taylor GS Mini manufactured by Taylor Guitars.
Ockerbloom isn’t a virtuoso, but he is a romanticist, having started taking lessons on the instrument at age 48 with the intent of singing the Elvis Costello arrangement of the song “She” to his wife Amber for her 50th birthday. That gave him a few years to become conversant with the instrument and get his vocal cords attuned to Mr. Costello’s distinctive pitch and delivery. (Some of you might remember the song as the number played during the ending montage of the movie Notting Hill, staring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.)
A party of 100 gathered for Amber Ockerbloom’s 50th birthday soiree in Charlotte, N.C., when her husband started strumming his six-string and crooning the anthem for her milestone birthday and their enduring relationship.
She may be the reason I survive
The why and wherefore I’m alive
Amber reacted with tears. John soon followed.
“It totally worked,” he recalls. “It is one of my proudest accomplishments. I have been married for 32 years. Trying to impress your wife after that long is a full-time job.”
The Taylor GS Mini has become somewhat of an appendage for Ockerbloom, carrying the acoustic instrument most everywhere he goes these days.
“It gives me something to do recreationally,” he explains. “I don’t drink alcohol, and I can only watch so much Netflix, so I fill the hours playing everything from Irish rebel songs to country and western music. Last night I was playing Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.”
Bob Seger and Waylon Jennings are also members of his repertoire.
THE FRUITS OF ASCETICISM
When he isn’t trying to advance his playing and singing skills, John Ockerbloom, a long-time investment banker, is head of U.S. real estate at Barings, responsible for the firm’s real estate debt and equity platform, supporting more than $40 billion in assets under management.
He rarely takes a break from those duties, even to refuel. Lunch is a workday distraction to Ockerbloom, who consumes water, 20 ounces of coffee, and a banana or two each day, rather than sitting for a full-scale lunch (with the exception of the occasional noon business meeting at a local dining establishment).
“I get to work and I don’t leave my desk,” he says. “I eat at night.”
There’s a bit of a backstory to this. Ockerbloom confesses to having spent the early days of his professional life worried about succeeding as a lawyer and a banker, driving him to work relentlessly, skipping meals along the way. Gratefully, that sensation has been tempered with time and professional attainment.
“When you’re nervous about succeeding your appetite is sort of suppressed,” he says. “I think that is where the habit started, and it just sort of carried over.”
He’s similarly ascetic about his personal finances. One of his favorite books is the 1996 bestseller The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley, in large part because of its simplicity. The book teaches lessons that endure over time, including living within one’s means, understanding the difference between producing assets and depreciating assets, and the power of compounding. It also argues that many truly wealthy people don’t live in Beverly Hills or on Park Avenue — they live next door in relative obscurity.
If one needs any evidence that Ockerbloom walks the talk, observe him behind the wheel of his automobile, a Korean sedan dating back to 2013.
“I take a tremendous amount of satisfaction at achieving financial goals,” he says. “That is a rush to me.”
It’s also source of security. Ockerbloom expresses confidence that his saving and investing habits have put him in a position to confront any eventuality that might befall his life or those of his two adult children.
BANKING ON THE FUTURE
Ockerbloom and his wife Amber, a southern woman hailing from Merigold, Miss., were married in the Magnolia State and immediately moved to the groom’s native city of Boston, where he was employed by a local law firm. That was 1991, and the couple stayed put through 1997 while bringing two children into the world. Ockerbloom wrestled with 70- and 80-hour workweeks while helping raise two small children.
When an opportunity in Charlotte, N.C., came along it worked for the couple on multiple levels. First, was the opportunity for a change in lifestyle, by doing the less intensive inhouse legal work rather than the titanic workload as an attorney with a law firm. Secondly, it positioned his family within an hour’s drive of his wife’s family, a priority when raising young children.
Ockerbloom was sitting at his desk when an executive search representative rang and pitched a job at a rival Boston law firm. He wasn’t interested in the move, but happened to capriciously spout that he would be willing to have a conversation regarding career options in the Southeast.
“I hung up the phone and never really thought anything of it.”
Days later the headhunter was back on the phone with Ockerbloom touting a half-dozen interviews for positions in the so-called Queen City. He had never been to Charlotte and wasn’t clear about its precise geography. Still, the interviews sounded interesting. He jumped a flight to Charlotte, met with a handful of law firms and received several offers of employment. In the interest of applying some due diligence to the situation, Ockerbloom phoned the general counsel at one of the city’s big banks to get a local professional’s assessment of the law firms in play.
After giving the caller his professional assessment, the general counsel surprised Ockerbloom by inquiring about his potential interest in coming to work at his place of business, which happened to be NationsBank, a fast-rising financial institution headed by banking star Hugh McColl Jr., who built the bank into the country’s third largest by 1995 through a flurry of almost 50 acquisitions. McColl and NationsBank rocked the banking business when it merged with Bank of America. BofA was considered the dominant player in the marriage by many banking observers, yet it was McColl who was crowned CEO under terms of the deal. Though the Bank of America name was retained (given the title’s national scope), McColl moved the bank’s headquarters from San Francisco to Charlotte, shocking those who considered BofA’s long history (it started business in San Francisco as the Bank of Italy in 1904) and presence in one of the nation’s premier gateways markets.
The merger made the new Bank of America the nation’s second-largest player in the space.
But before that colossal deal was discussed, let alone consummated, the integration of commercial banking and investment banking was under way at NationsBank and other big banks at the time, and the organization needed lawyers with backgrounds in financial securities. Ockerbloom fit the formulation.
“That was the job I was hired for,” he says. “Like so many things, it was just great fortune that this headhunter happened to call me, that I happened to express the interest I did.”
It didn’t work out.
“I was a really good investment banker but a terrible in-house lawyer,” he confesses. “It wasn’t the right fit for me. I was a complete failure.”
He deemed the experience a failed experiment and contemplated a return to Boston and a law firm with grinding work schedules. Before he could advance that thought experiment to fruition, the head of another business unit at the bank contacted Ockerbloom with a request that he join his team of people originating commercial mortgage loans intended to be bundled as securities, or CMBS.
“It seemed like an interesting opportunity, a different discipline to learn,” he says.
He began originating CMBS loans in 1998 and learning the finer points of the real estate business and how it was financed. That was followed by nearly 20 years in the bank’s investment banking division, working on M&As and IPOs.
LET ME COUNT THE WAYS
Ockerbloom acknowledges he was distraught over his initial challenges at NationsBank, having never struggled professionally prior to that. He cited a memo in his personnel file containing a list of all the ways he was “terrible at the job.”
That memo sits in his desk today.
“I still have it,” he says. “I take it out sometimes, particularly when I have to have a tough conversation with a struggling junior professional. I have them read the memo and let them know they can recover from whatever challenges they’re confronting, that everybody struggles, and that sometimes the best you can do is hang in there. That memo felt like the end of the world to me once; now it’s like an old friend.”
Once a Bostonian always a Bostonian for Ockerbloom, who still considers Beantown home. Still, he has no regrets about having landed in Charlotte, which has become an epicenter of the banking and financial services business.
“I love it here, I raised my family here, I am delighted to have been able to live here, but Boston is home,” he asserts. “That is where my father is — he is 93 years old and I get to spend some time with him when I go — that is where my siblings are, where my nieces and nephews are, and all the sports teams I root for. All of my ancestral roots are back in New England.”
It’s also where he and Amber have a part-time home, in Ipswich, Mass., 30 miles northeast of Boston, to be precise.
Ockerbloom was raised in Winchester, Mass., eight miles northwest of Boston. His father supported the family during a 45-year career with the Boston Globe, retiring as president and COO of the newspaper, after a classic start to his career in 1953 in the newspaper’s mail room. Along the way he instilled in his children the principles of loyalty and becoming part of something that matters.
His mother was a full-time homemaker until age 60, when she attended graduate school and became a mental health social worker at the renowned McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. The psychiatric hospital is distinguished by its clinical staff expertise, neuroscience research and the many famous people it has treated. Ockerbloom says his mother was an inspiration to her family for demonstrating that it’s never too late to pursue one’s aspirations.
Ockerbloom wasn’t a great high school student, though his intellectual efforts blossomed during his years at the Northeastern University School of Law, which he attended after Westfield State College, where he studied philosophy and political science, and where he delivered the commencement address to the 2022 graduating class. His topic: The role fortune plays in one’s career, and the importance of regarding one’s privilege as a serious obligation.
THE JUDGE’S CHAMBERS
While at Northeastern studying law, John Ockerbloom participated in a handful of internships arranged by the school. He also did an “externship” at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Seattle in 1991. (Like an internship, an externship is a short-term professional learning experience, but rather than completing job tasks, externs shadow professionals to learn more about the field, and tend to function less formally than internships.) This was a prestigious assignment, serving as a summer clerk in the chambers of judge Eugene Wright, a senior magistrate appointed by President Richard Nixon, giving Ockerbloom access to a high level of jurisprudence operating just one level below the U.S. Supreme Court.
He worked on cases involving commercial transactions, habeas corpus petitions, environmental issues and matters related to criminal proceedings. Ockerbloom recalls being wowed by the qualifications and intellect of the legal professionals circulating around him.
“That experience informs me to this day, that you need to strive for near perfection in everything you do, because it has influence on decisions that were being made by the court that could influence huge swaths of our population for years upon years to come,” he says. “The judge I externed for was a longstanding judge on that court, highly esteemed and a wonderful person, in addition to a brilliant judge. I would see him every day, and he would give me feedback on my writing and would incorporate me into meetings as if I were a regular staff member.”
Post-externship, Ockerbloom emerged from Northeastern with his law degree in 1992 as the U.S. economy was recovering from a significant economic downturn. He was fortunate to immediately find employment practicing real estate and business law by facilitating transactions. One of his big breaks was working on low-income housing tax credits, which led to his specialization in real estate-related securities, and eventually being hired as an in-house lawyer at NationsBank, supporting its CMBS division and leading him into the broader finance realm.
Ockerbloom and his wife of 31 years met during his senior year at Westfield State College as part of what he likes to call a “foreign exchange program,” during which she came from her home in Merigold, Miss., to spend one semester at Westfield, after which they began dating long distance for two-and-a-half years before getting married.
He dubs the move to Charlotte one of the smartest (and luckiest) decisions he ever made, moving Amber closer to her family and his own working situation away from a grinding 75 hours per week to something more sustainable. Call it a gesture in favor of lifestyle and a better family dynamic, he says. What he didn’t realize was that Charlotte would turn out to be a market teeming with opportunities.
“It turned out to be not only the best decision I could have made for family, but also the best decision I could have possibly made for my career.”
He counts being named managing director of BofA Securities in 2006 as a career turning point.
“That was a real accomplishment because I made it as a managing director in investment banking, having come from a period seven years before that where I didn’t own a calculator. To be able to scale that learning curve was a real milestone,” he says. “I worked for an incredible leader, a guy named Ron Sturzenegger,” now a board member at both Conversus and KBS Realty Advisors.
From BofA, he eventually moved to Wachovia Securities.
“What I learned from Wachovia was that you can get a lot of things right, but if you take your eye off the question of risk, all the things that you did right won’t save you. Wachovia was a tremendous institution, had a tremendous business, made a lot of money, but it doesn’t exist today.”
Wachovia was the fourth-largest bank holding company in the United States, based on total assets, when the global financial crisis struck and — much as BofA was pressed by the Fed to take possession of the financially hobbled Merrill Lynch — Wells Fargo took possession of Wachovia in a transaction brokered by the Fed.
That implosion is what eventually led Ockerbloom to a 10-year stint at Jefferies, a continuation of his trajectory as an investment banker. Then came the fateful call from a recruiter in 2019 suggesting a buy-side assignment with Barings. Ockerbloom, who had spent his career on the sell side, reacted by saying, “Sounds like a tremendous job, but I am not sure it is for me. I’m a sell-side guy.” Still, he was persuaded to give Barings a full hearing.
“My first two interviews were spent trying to understand why I would be a useful candidate for this role,” he recounts. “What I came to find out was that what was needed was leadership, capital-raising capability, and the ability to identify and nurture great investing talent. I didn’t have to know everything. I became convinced that I could be useful.”
Indeed, Ockerbloom not only succeeded, he found a career-ending assignment.
He set about rallying the team, adding outside talent and growing the real estate platform’s capabilities to include a dedicated hotel strategy and a new focus on investing in life sciences and STEM office space. His role recently expanded to include the debt side of the business, which has grown increasingly active as banks have reduced their lending activity, and he aims to deepen the integration between debt and equity teams to unlock value.
“Today, the greater opportunity is in debt, but real estate is cyclical and compelling opportunities in equity will surface,” says Ockerbloom. “This may include distressed properties, but also in asset classes such as residential that benefit from strong macro tailwinds.”
The evolving and expanding assignment is evidently agreeing with Ockerbloom.
“This is my last job, no question,” he declares.
One gets the sense John Ockerbloom — his Taylor GS Mini in hand — might one day put those sentiments to music.
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn (linkedIn.com/in/mikeconsol) to read his latest postings.