Kashiyo Enokido, a young Japanese woman, and Tom Crouse, a young banker from Maryland's Eastern Shore, met in 1969 while they were working for Citibank in Tokyo. They fell in love, got married and then moved to the United States, where they raised two children.
Their cross-cultural partnership has yielded another, commercial offspring: CIG International, a D.C.-based real estate financing company founded by Crouse in 1987 and now owned by the couple together with two management executives and the U.S. subsidiary of the Osaka-based Sanyo Electric Co.
The logo for CIG -- originally the Capital Investment Group -- depicts a bridge. On the surface, it signifies bridging a financial gap, which is what the specialty finance company does for small builders. It could also symbolize a bridge between East and West, since the bulk of the money for financing these mostly local real estate projects comes from Asia.
Using Asian money, CIG provides credit for small builders in the Washington area and other U.S. markets to augment what commercial banks offer and what builders need to complete residential real estate projects. The company looks for builders doing projects of between 50 and 500 houses a year, mostly in-fill residential projects in urban areas. CIG likes to make loans in the $500,000 to $5 million range.
CIG's specialized services don't come cheap. Borrowers pay up to 5 percent of the loan amount in upfront fees, plus a management fee, which enables CIG to pay investors a 20 percent to 25 percent annual return, Crouse says.
Over the past 15 years, CIG has provided this "gap" financing for more than 60 residential real estate projects, most of them in the Washington area. About two years ago, mostly following local builders, the company also moved into the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., market, as well as into Florida, Iowa, Georgia and the Chicago area.
Most of CIG's financing has been supplied by wealthy Japanese and Hong Kong Chinese families looking to invest in U.S. real estate.
In the early years, Crouse and Enokido flew to Asia several times a year, project drawings in hand, to look for backing.
But last year, Sanyo Electric, through its U.S. subsidiary Three Oceans Inc., bought a 49 percent share in CIG for $40 million. Sanyo's involvement has meant steady funding for the lion's share of the company's projects.
And now, with Sanyo's backing, CIG executives are ready to take their homegrown finance company on to the next level. An initial public stock offering, a merger or other moves are being considered in an effort to raise more capital and expand the business.
The opportunities for gap financing are expanding as commercial banks lower their exposure to mid-sized commercial projects, CIG says. The company estimates that some 10,000 builders in the United States need its kind of help.
"It's a huge underserved market," says President Jon Abbett of his company's financing specialty. "The returns are very good. We don't know why more people aren't doing it."
But it's not quite that easy.
What Crouse and Enokido had to start with were connections. And not just any connections.
Crouse, 61, was an international banker with Citibank in Asia for a decade, five years in Hong Kong, one in Tokyo and then another four in Jakarta during the 1960s.
While on the job, he met many of the wealthy investors -- particularly in Hong Kong -- who later provided money for his CIG projects. Citibank Hong Kong, with Crouse as its general manager, provided credit lines for Chinese clients' forays into exports, textiles, manufacturing, real estate and other business ventures. And many of those clients got rich on those investments.
When the U.S. real estate market got hot in the late 1980s, these very same investors wanted to get in on the action. What better way to invest half a world away than through your old banker from the Citibank office down the street?
"These Asian investors were mainly old friends from my Citibank days," says Crouse, a tall, thin man with sandy gray hair and a self-effacing manner. "It's a wonderful connection." But he points out that these Asian investors were used to quick, good returns. If he hadn't been able to provide that, no amount of friendship would have kept them investing, he says.
And connections even played a part in the business right here in Washington. A $9.5 million loan from CIG helped Terry Eakin and Bob Youngentob to finance their first real estate project in Alexandria. Eakin/Youngentob Associates Inc. has since done several large residential projects in the area. Eakin was a parent at Sidwell Friends School in the District, which Crouse and Enokido's children also attended.
"I'm delighted that human relations still play a role in business," says Crouse about his business connections. "And Kay has built the Japanese connection to a new level."
Enokido, who took the Americanized name "Kay," is a former journalist. She was working with CIG part time, doing her freelance writing on the side and raising the children, when the need arose to help out with her husband's Asian clients.
When the Iue family of Osaka sought to buy the Hay-Adams hotel in the District 10 years ago, they turned to Enokido. The Iues, one of whom is the chief executive of Sanyo, bought the Washington hotel in October 1989 for $54 million. After the purchase, Crouse asked Kay to come on board full time. Now Enokido represents the Iues at the Hay-Adams hotel, keeping tabs on everything from personnel to decorating projects for their faraway clients.
In 1989, CIG also brought in Abbett, now president, mostly for his real estate expertise over two decades in the Washington area. Senior Vice President Bruce Levin, the remaining member of the company's quartet of owners, has managed and marketed multifamily properties throughout the United States.
And it is CIG's real estate expertise that sets it apart from other money providers, clients say.
"CIG is our equity source of choice," said Steve Porten of Porten Cos. builders, who has financed several deals through CIG. "There are a lot of people who want to invest in real estate. But often they don't know anything about it. CIG's knowledge of the process makes them invaluable."
Besides providing financing, CIG will also advise a builder who may be having trouble marketing or selling his units -- or just provide advice in general.
"Bruce [Levin] came up with an apartment design that has become our best-selling unit," Porten said. "Rarely do you get that kind of insight from a capital source."