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FORT LAUDERDALE, FL-A former Wachovia Bank official has started an independent commercial real estate advisory and investment group. The CREF Group was launched by Steve Russo, former managing director and Florida regional executive of real estate with Wachovia, now part of Wells Fargo & Co.

Russo says the CREF Group will work with developers, investors and financial institutions with interests in commercial and multi-unit residential real estate. The firm will assist with financial restructurings, modifications, debt renewals, equity raises, acquisitions and dispositions.

The idea behind the CREF Group came from numerous calls from previous clients seeking help in restructuring securitized and balance sheet or portfolio commercial real estate loans. “Most of the people I have talked with are not having success because that’s not their level of expertise,” Russo tells GlobeSt.com.

So far, the company has been successful and is finding greater flexibility in restructurings, Russo says. He mentions a $40-million CMBS restructuring now under way in Palm Beach County that is moving forward after bankers and lawyers were unable to gain traction in their negotiations.

Restructuring of CMBS debt primarily involves reducing interest and principal on loan balances, along with loosening amortization, Russo says. “It’s a two-way street and it has to make sense for everyone involved,” he says. “The owner has to bring something to the table.”

Russo spent the past 15 years with Wachovia and its predecessor, First Union National Bank, and most recently managed its Florida, Caribbean and Latin America commercial multi-unit residential real estate lending operation. While with Wachovia, he oversaw a multibillion-dollar real estate loan portfolio as well as production of fixed- and floating-rate CMBS, construction lending, bridge and mezzanine loans, preferred equity and agency debt.

Russo is also a founding principal of Cynergie Group LLC, which assists financial institutions in maximizing their return on distressed assets.

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