Among his career achievements, Willy Walker has launched an airline in Argentina, built out the Latin American and European operations for a global call center company, worked in private equity and worked on Wall Street for Morgan Stanley. So when he landed at Walker & Dunlop in 2003, many predicted he would sell the commercial mortgage finance firm founded by his grandfather and great-uncle in 1937.
"I’d spent my entire career abroad, including a decade in Latin America and three years in Europe," he tells The CEO Magazine. "I think most people at the time expected me to move up the ranks of some multinational company, not join my family-owned, 46-person business."
Instead, as Chair and CEO, he has turned Walker & Dunlop into one of the largest commercial real estate finance companies in the United States, transforming a business worth US$25 million at the time into one that surpassed US$5 billion in market capitalization in 2020.
"When I joined we had no brand, no capital, and we had very limited ability to compete with the large players on the landscape, such as Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan," he says. "You wouldn’t even joke that we were on the same playing field as them."
Yet in 2020, the company surpassed both names as the largest provider of capital to the apartment industry in the United States. The firm works with names like Cortland Partners, which Walker names as its biggest client, and has supported the growth of the Atlanta-based apartment community developer to such a degree that, to date, the firm has facilitated upwards of US$10 billion in financing for it.
We’ve created direct relationships with real estate borrowers in all 50 states. It’s been a pretty neat ride.
From less than 50 employees and one office in Washington DC, Walker & Dunlop now has 45 offices and more than 1,400 employees.
"The most fundamental shift is that, from only having relationships in DC, over this period of time we’ve created direct relationships with real estate borrowers in all 50 states," he says. "It’s been a pretty neat ride."
An incredible resource
Walker acknowledges that he came back to the family business with little interest in commercial real estate. But he had enough experience to have figured out that what he really liked was building businesses and great places to work.
"I was always wanting to talk about strategy, the go-to-market, the clients, and how you build the company," he says.
He also knows there’s a certain irony that he is now considered one of the experts on commercial real estate in the country – a status that was boosted during the COVID-19 pandemic when he launched a podcast called the Walker Webcast.
"The idea at first was to communicate with our clients and our bankers and brokers," he explains. "But we soon brought in outside speakers so we weren’t just talking about our own book of business."
Guests have included baseball legend Alex Rodriguez, extreme skiing champion Chris Davenport, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan and renowned real estate professor Peter Linneman.
"It’s taken a life of its own and we get somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 watching it every week," he says.
The webcast also proved to be marketing gold.
"It has fundamentally changed the persona of the company and the number of people who know about Walker & Dunlop," he says. "It has become this incredible branding and market intelligence resource that our clients, as well as our team, rely on every single week," he says.
The sweet spot
Despite the growth he has overseen, the business still remains relatively small with the capabilities of a large business, he says. And therein lies the real selling point, or the "sweet spot" as he describes it.
"What we can provide to the market is very different from some of these big-scale global businesses, and we sell that every day," he says.
"We’ve gone from basis points of market share to being the largest multifamily lender in the entire country. Not because we created a better brand than the big players in our market, not because we had a bigger scale, but because we went to clients and made them realize if they work with us they’re going to get something unique."
After all, he adds, Walker & Dunlop’s money is no greener than anyone else’s. The difference lies in their bankers, team and customer service.
"Clients know we’ll respond when they need it, that we’ll take care of them in a unique manner," he claims.
What we can provide to the market is very different from some of these big-scale global businesses, and we sell that every day.
For the firm, this point of difference is also a handy recruitment tool.
"When we bring a team across from a competitor firm, they say that, even though we told them how it would be, they never really believed it," he says. "All of a sudden, they’re getting support and they’re feeling a unique relationship with the customer and their sales are going up and they are enjoying who they work with. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects to me."
With 93 percent of employees saying it is a great place to work, Walker & Dunlop is a certified Great Place to Work 2023–2024.
The company’s approach to diversity, equity and inclusion is also industry-leading. In 2021, it launched CREUnited, an alliance of commercial real estate (CRE) firms committed to increasing minority participation across the sector. Since its launch, CREUnited partners have closed more than US$500 million of transactions, and six minority-led firms in the network have combined for a 75 percent increase in transaction volume between 2019 and 2022.
Partnerships are also where Walker & Dunlop has a leading edge; the business can claim to be Fannie Mae’s largest apartment lender for eight of the last 10 years.
"Because we are such a small company that has become a large one and hasn’t been sold, we have relationships spanning that entire period of time," he says."They know they are important to us."
And when times are tough, the strength of these connections come to the forefront. Walker says he’ll never forget the US$25 million lifeline PNC Bank gave Walker & Dunlop when everyone else was cutting off lines of credit during the global financial crisis in 2007–2008.
"It’s a favor to us that has paid dividends ever since," he explains. Last year, when the firm undertook a massive multi-billion dollar financing, Walker didn’t hesitate to go straight to PNC to warehouse the loan.
Walker is showing no sign of slowing down. In the last two years, the firm spent US$1 billion in acquiring new companies, along with continued investments in technology.
The two go hand in hand. With an average loan size of US$22 million, Walker explains that the firm recently made a decision to enter the US$1 million to US$10 million market. And he’s turning to technology to scale these new businesses in these new markets.
Clients know we’ll respond when they need it, that we’ll take care of them in a unique manner.
As much as he has his eye on the present, he’s also looking to the future and his legacy.
"I always joke about the fact that the first generation typically creates it – and if the second generation doesn’t ruin it, the third generation always does," he says. "We’ve been really fortunate to avoid that pattern.
"It’s my responsibility and challenge, for however long I stay in this seat, to make sure that when it’s time for me to hand over the baton, that it’s going to a next generation of leadership who can continue to expand upon the brand that we’ve been able to build."