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COLUMBUS-James Merkel, formerly managing director and principal at the locally-based Rockbridge, has been promoted to president of the financial firm. The company provides capital to the hospitality industry through its Rockbridge Hospitality Funds and First Mortgage Investment Program, with nine investment funds totaling nearly $1 billion.

Merkel, who started at the four-person firm as an intern in 1995, tells GlobeSt.com that the collective ownership of the business continues with Merkel and principals Ron Callentine, Steve Denz and Ken Krebs, but that it was time to change leadership styles for the firm, which now employs more than 50 people. “We needed to go to the typical corporate structure, instead of the partnership model, in order to position for the next phase of growth. The chaos in the market creates a lot of opportunity.”

He says his firm is very disciplined in its lending and investment structure, and conservative on the capital structures of deals. “We’re in great shape, though things have totally changed in the past six months. Every deal needs capital, but that has slowly leaked out of the market and is now totally frozen. In a very-limited transaction environment, we have to make adjustments. We make sure we’re out in the marketplace, and that we’re pricing our capital appropriately, and trying to interpret the market.”

As the rest of the economy goes, so does the hotel industry, Merkel says. “The trending rate of growth is down, I think the industry is starting to show some signs of weakness,” he says. “At the same time, hospitality is an extremely viable business. It’s gotten more efficient, and as long as people have good capital structures and didn’t overpay for properties, they’ll do jus fine.”

His company has completed a few deals in the past few months, including the acquisition of a four-hotel portfolio for $45.9 million in August and investing $14.2 million in the development of a 114-room Hyatt Place in Sarasota, FL in September. The company has invested in more than 325 assets in 40 states, with aggregate transaction capitalization of nearly $5 billion.

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