2022 StackSource Summit Playback: Zach Wagner’s Journey to StackSource

Tim Milazzo
August 15, 2022

StackSource Director of Capital Advisory Zach Wagner has been with the company since March 2020, joining just days before COVID lock-downs. But Zach is no stranger to adversity and took on the challenge of building his book of business as a Capital Advisor as he approaches everything in his life: with energy, focus, and a smile on his face.

Press play below to hear more about Zach’s personal story and what led him to StackSource.

Not able to listen? Read the full transcript from Zach’s talk here:

Okay, so Tim had asked me to present my story coming to StackSource, and me sharing my story is a couple of things, to get to know me a little bit better, but also to maybe use some things that you guys can use, maybe, in your guys' business practices. So my name is Zach, I live in Dallas, Fort Worth right now. I joined StackSource in March of 2020. In fact, it was almost the day that COVID hit. Well, not that it hit, but the lockdown started on the day that I started at StackSource. So perfect timing to get into the commercial real estate industry, especially on the finance side. A little bit about me, I love hunting. So this is me and my brother-in-law in Wyoming. We were going out hunting. That's the gilly suit. You lay there, you look like a bush and you reach out and get your animal. I also grew up on a ranch called the Antlers Ranch in Wyoming. So this was one of the most remote ranches in Wyoming. It's south of Cody, Wyoming, and borders Yellowstone. We've got about 40,000 acres and we've got about 1500 buffalo on the property. So I love the outdoors, love to go out hiking, and experience things. Never thought that I'd live in a city with a population of over 5000. 

When Tim asked me to share my story of StackSource, coming to Stack Source, two things drive me in life. Number one, and probably the most important to me, is my family. my wife, who is actually my high school sweetheart. I met her in 9th grade and basically, she helped me through high school. I cheated off a lot of her tests, to be honest. She always gave me the pencil that I needed. Transparency! That's right. Thank you. Teamwork. Teamwork. So she is the driving force behind me waking up every day. These two little girls, we've got Scotland on the left-hand side here. Charlotte is the new one, three, and ten months old. And if you ever talk to me on the phone, you'll always hear them in the background. They are my partners in my business. They are the reason I do everything that I do. But life is not rainbows and fairies. 

So I kind of want to take you guys back about ten years ago and walk you through some of the things. When we're running a marathon, when we're, and I've never run a marathon, by the way, but the marathons of life, when we're starting, when we have goals, we have aspirations, when we want to be something, we always picture that end goal, but we don't understand, and what we don't usually pay attention to is all the trials and tribulations we have between here and that end goal. So when we're doing some goal setting, for me personally, there's someone that has really made a big difference in my life and his name is Peter Nakaji. 

So back in 2010, I had graduated from high school. Going through high school, by the way, school was not a priority to me. I was growing up being told by everyone that “you will play football and you will go to college and you will play football”. That's all I knew. And my junior year, starting out, I had ten options to go play football. And these were scholarships, full-ride scholarships, to great colleges across the US. In my junior year, I tore my ACL, MCL, PCL, LCL, and left knee. And things kind of changed a little bit, but I said, you know what? Let's power through. And I still have my dreams. In the first play of my senior season, my right knee, I tore my ACL. So at that point in my life, I had no clue. I had never gone to a career workshop. I didn't know what I was going to do. This is where, for me, I really had to say, maybe football is not in the cards for me, what is in the cards? So I spent the next ten years trying to figure out what I'm going to do with my life. 

The reason Peter Nakaji was such an inspiration for me was in 2011, July 8 actually, it was 2010, I started having seizures, and these seizures affected me pretty regularly. It was hard for me to carry on a conversation. I'd loop a lot. My memory was going downhill. I was having a lot of issues. And I remember the day when Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head. There was a news program that flashed across the screen for Tucson, Arizona, and they said, hey, the best neurological institute in the world is where Gabrielle Giffords is going. And I told my mom, I said, you know, I think we should give them a call. Shoot, if the senator goes there after she was shot in the head, maybe they'd take me as a patient. So I had two brain tumors that were removed by Peter Nakaji. I'll never forget the words that he said to me. "People will comment, Zach, you smile all the time". Well, number one, I have what's called laughing seizures. So one of my seizures, I actually laugh, and I still have those today. They're called gelastic seizures for the medical terminology. But it's a laughing seizure, and they always happen at the times that I did not want them to happen. So it'd be at a funeral, and I'd start laughing. It's awkward, but it also reminds you to smile, even in the darkest times, to smile. And so that's what Peter told me. He said, look if I fix your seizures, I want you to promise me in life you will always smile. So you don't see me any day without a smile on my face, no matter what the situation is, rain, sunshine, I'll always smile. Fast forward, and after this surgery, I have things called epilepsy, seizures, dyslexia, and I had some ADHD, really bad. The medications that they put you on to control those sometimes have even worse side effects. So I try to do a lot of self-management with the doctors and things like that, but it definitely made a career choice even harder. 

So I found where I shined or where I really found a fit was door-to-door sales. I remember one day this guy showed up at the ranch in Wyoming and he said, Zach, come and do door-to-door sales. I thought, what a joke. Someone shows up at my door and usually, we greet you with a gun. This is kind of a different way of looking at life. Who would ever buy something from a guy at your doorstep? He said, "look, I promise you, if you come out, you will make $100,000 in your first summer". So I went out, I did it and I made $100,000. And it changed my life in a couple of different ways that changed my perspective. Number one, it taught me to do hard things. Now, this is a guy that lived in the town where I grew up in was 300 people. We went to school about an hour and a half away in a town with 5000 people. And here I was the first place to drop me off. In the background, there is Bakersfield, California. Now, this is a third-world country for me when I get there, I mean, it's just completely different than anything I've ever experienced, and Bakersfield sucks, by the way. I'm sorry if anyone's from Bakersfield, but that place sucks. But it was the best time I've ever had. And I learned how to talk to people. I learned how to stress your mind and your body. When you're on a doorstep trying to sell someone, you have to be on it thinking all the time. 

And so if we go back to Peter Nikaji, he told me, he said, the way that you overcome these challenges is you stress your brain as much as you can. So when it comes to schooling, I'm a little slower. When it comes to testing, I'm not that great. But when it comes to talking to people, I'm good because I had all the repetitions. I probably knocked on close to 30 to 40,000 doors over my career talking to people, and I've got some great stories. I've been bit by a dog. I've been chased off with a gun. Police called on me. I did pest control. Everything was legal. I did pest control. I just want to make sure you know that. Pest control, solar, and I did a little bit with alarms, but it just wasn't my favorite. So probably the best story that I can share for this is I knocked on a door, he opened it up, and there's a drug deal going down right there. He said, if you call the cops, we're going to kill you. And I'm like, oh, my goodness. Well, my wife, believe it or not, wanted to do the door-to-door sales, too. And she'd always kick my butt because everyone wanted to buy from a woman and not a six-foot three-man standing at your door. So she walks over and sees it and calls the police right there, and they said, we're going to kill you. We just took off running. It's scary, crazy stories in Bakersfield, but we enjoyed it. 

But then one day, my wife was like, hey, you need to get a real job. So where do people, at that time, I did not have any education, go to work, Wells Fargo. All you had to do is find someone with a heartbeat and set up a bank account. So I started at Wells Fargo, and within a year, I was actually managing a branch there at Wells Fargo. Our branch in Gilbert, Arizona, grew the deposits, the highest amount anyone had ever seen in Arizona. And part of that is because we really focused on the relationship. That's what mattered. The bank is going to make fees. We waived a lot of fees. We took care of people, but we sat with people, and it wasn't about selling checking accounts. It was about getting to know them, their family, and celebrating their birthdays. So we made a point of that every single time we sat with someone. How are you? How are the kids? We had some great clients, too. So some of the clients that I worked with, Donovan McNabb, and Bob Sanders was a client. Jay Feely was a client. We had some really cool people that we got to meet with and interact with on a regular basis. This is a marijuana field if you guys are wondering. 

After doing Wells Fargo for a little while, I found out that I was not fit for corporate America. So I was always trying to figure out, how can I make more money. So I was doing business plans at Wells Fargo for people, putting them together, went out, left Wells Fargo, started a company where I was doing business plans, and went back into door-to-door sales and ultimately sold my company. And having Epilepsy, I had kind of aspirations to figure out how to use hemp and hemp oil or CBD to help people with Epilepsy. Being Epileptic myself, knowing the side effects of the drugs, I thought, hey, this makes sense. Let's do it. And I'm a good fit for Texas because I have the belief you go big or you go home. So I put everything into this hemp field in Colorado, and I had aspirations of it looking like that, when it really looked like this, I lost everything. And this was in 2019. 

Now, I had not just invested in the field but purchased everything. I did a ground lease. So that was one mistake that I made, but I look back on this and I realize I took a risk. And outside of losing butt on the property, I also had my bank account. This is a screenshot from my bank account. Now, I remember this moment, I was driving up to meet a client for a business plan, to do a business plan for them, and I got this notification, and I went in, and the bank, because I was dealing in hemp, and they found out, they shut down all my accounts. So this is November of 2019. And at this point, we have money, but they locked it up. So we were broke. I remember an eviction notice coming and trying to explain the story to my landlord. Hey, I have a hemp field, I've just got to liquidate some tractors, some stuff, it was a story, it was crazy. But I did get the tractor sold, at a very deep discount, some farmer in Colorado, super happy. And I did the next logical thing. 

I found a company on angel list, and I thought, what the heck? Let me apply for them, I like commercial real estate. I just learned about it a little bit, where not to put your money. And I also learned you have to do your due diligence. I had been doing quite a few business plans for people, and financial models, and they kept coming to me and saying Zach, you're doing these models, you're doing these business plans, can you just find us the debt and the equity? Sure, I'll do that. The first deal I did, I put together, it was a mega-mansion in Los Angeles, and the guy ended up not paying me. So I learned the hard way, went through the entire process, found a capital source, a hedge fund out in New York that funded it, and never got paid. 

So I looked for something like this and I found StackSource. Now I first started by connecting with two capital advisors that are in this room. We've got Beth and Huber. Huber might not remember this, or maybe he does, but I sent him a hemp deal and it was someone who was trying to buy some of my hemp as well as the equipment and we were trying to find financing for them, didn't go anywhere. So not Huber's fault by the way. Great capital advisor, even better capital markets guy, not his fault. The next was a senior living project and through connections and knowing people and meeting with people, I ended up going to work for a hedge fund based out of Minneapolis, but they had a real estate arm in Phoenix, so we started working in opportunity zones. And so these opportunities zones were in central Arizona where there is nothing. This is about 2 hours north of Phoenix, right in between Phoenix and Flagstaff. There was one specific opportunity zone that we ended up writing about ten business plans for, financial models, and then found the equity. And the equity was really the hedge fund putting in all the money, but it was pretty straightforward, pretty easy. Through that though, they asked me for help with the debt and I thought let's give this little website a trial. So I sent the deal over and Beth was connected, connected with me as the capital advisor, and I was awed by the process.  

Being on the borrower side, I thought it was great seeing the technology. I started wanting to upload more deals and finally, I just reached out to Tim, I think it was on Angelco or LinkedIn, but I said, Tim, I'm uploading deals, why don't I just work for you? I think it would make sense. So this was when I was hired, and I thought that this would be such an easy job and granted my family, this whole time they're telling me Zach “you just need to find a nine to five. Why can't you just go like every other person and go get a job at the bank and put in your hours and get a paycheck?”. That's just not how I operate. My brain is always striving for more. How can I do this? Maybe we can do that, by the way, Wells Fargo does not appreciate it when you give them advice on how to run things. I found that out the hard way. They do things their way, and you need to fit into their culture. 

So as I looked around for a culture that I wanted to work with, as I looked around for a company that I wanted to work with, I found StackSource, started with StackSource, and that's how I'm here now. I share all of this as a crazy story, but at the same time, not a day goes by that I don't remember that moment right there when that eviction letter was on my front porch. That gets more emotions out of me than any of my goals or aspirations. I may want that Lamborghini, I may want the big house or the cash in the bank, but that's not enough to get us through the day. As a capital advisor, it takes remembering the hard times. And for me, I know I won't be beaten in this business because my back is against the wall. I have all of these.  And the only way forward is forward. So we think about the marathon and again, my wife gave me this analogy. She said, I signed up for my first Iron Man, and I imagine we'd always watch the people finish. You watch them come through, you're like, oh my gosh, this is great. The energy is high. You go and you sign up for an Iron Man. And then about halfway through the first quarter, you get a blister on your foot and you're thinking, what am I doing? Did I pay for this? And then your shoelace comes undone and you get another blister, and you fall over here and you swallow some water when you're swimming, you don't realize how many things, problems, trials, it's not easy getting from point A to point B. And it's not a straight line. 

You're going to experience trials and tribulations. I'm not talking about brain tumors or things like that. I'm talking about a borrower that tells you to screw off, a lender that won't get to the proceeds you're looking for. You see that paycheck? Well, you think you could see that paycheck, but it's slipping away at times. And so we have to remember and we have to figure out how to navigate through the journey of life to get to the finish line. 

So for me, throughout the day, people ask, how do you do it? I told you about what drives me. I also recognize that there are things that can overcome us, that can make it difficult, as a capital advisor, I don't know, do you guys ever find yourselves being overwhelmed as capital advisors, as analysts? Yeah, there's a syndrome called the lion syndrome. That's where if you've ever seen a circus where the guy would hold up, I don't know if he's called the magician or whatever, he'd hold up a chair and it would frighten the lion because the lion tried to focus on all four legs at the same time and it would calm the lion. And so people would always think, wow, that's amazing. But ultimately he's becoming distracted, overwhelmed, and that the paralysis of his mentality. This happens to us on a daily basis. So number one, you have to visualize what you're looking for. But number two, we've got piles of paperwork, unread emails, phone calls, and blogs. I mean, I've missed twelve phone calls right now during this presentation. My anxiety is through the roof. This is everything, a real estate agent, and I'm sorry I didn't do this for commercial mortgage brokers, but when I used to train real estate agents for sales, we'd go through and they'd tell me all the things they need to do all day. Guys, this is just stuff. Yeah, you have to do that stuff. But when you break it down, this is overwhelming. This would make everybody want to quit their job. I read this and I want to cry three in, okay? 

But if you break it down to the three things that are the most important thing that we can do in our job as capital advisors, this is what I came to. Underwriting and pitching a deal, that's pitching a deal to capital sources, that's pitching a deal to other capital advisors, however, you want to look at that, negotiating a term sheet and prospecting. You keep those three things going at all times. Focus on those three. Now there are a lot of nuances to that. You'll do more prospecting, there's a lot to it. How could you do it? But at the end of the day, that's what gets you paid. By doing these all day long you can feel busy, but it's this that puts a paycheck in your bank account. When I started, I realized pretty quickly that there's a lot that you could be doing all day, every day. 

So I read this book by Warren Buffett and he had this advice in here. He said, “write down the priorities you have to focus on throughout the day, in your business, everything. Narrow it down to the top three things and throw the rest of the list away”. Exactly what I did here for myself. And you guys' list may look different. I would say when it comes to this list, what's helped me the most is delegating collaboration and teamwork. I'm not good at underwriting. I mean, every time you guys have seen me approve a deal at StackSource, Tim's got ten messages in five minutes over there telling me that it needs to be better. But, I'm good at negotiating. I'm very good in person with people. I know what my strengths are. But I also know that Beth and Omar are phenomenal at underwriting. I know we've got an analyst team. I can delegate these things. When it comes to a term sheet, when it's signed, probably the hardest part of the deal is getting it to the finish line and now we've got Azurdee. 

So StackSource has provided all of those resources for me to really focus on these three things and not just become good, not mediocre, become great at what I do. So a couple of things that I do, I do a 90-minute jam session and this is when my girls go down for a nap. I recognize I get the most productivity out of my day when my girls sleep, and in 90 minutes I could complete the work for an entire day. So I do a bubble of silence and also listen to some music that gets you upbeat and gets you going. And I also recognize that the pendulum of life swings both ways. So regardless of where you are, if you over here on the left, you're on the right, however, it is, it's going to come back the other way. Just keep going, trekking through the mud and life gets better but most importantly, keep a smile on your face. 

So what I do, I visualize every step of my day, both the good and the bad. You can visualize cold calling someone and thinking about them saying yes, but the reality is that only happens about one out of every 1 call. Think about all the times that people say bad things on the phone. “Who is StackSource? Why are you calling me? Where did you get my number?”. When those things get said to you, you'll be able to respond better to those comments, those questions, whatever comes up. But visualizing, every time I go into a meeting with the client, I listen to "Down With the Sickness" and I visualize the entire thing in three minutes. So I can summarize the meeting in three minutes. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses to improve yourself, and delegate and collaborate with people who have the strengths to your weaknesses. Surround yourself with people who are going to take you higher. If you fail to prepare, you're prepared to fail. Always smile. Remember the journey, both the good and the bad, while looking into the future. And one of the quotes that I learned from a client “if a business plan is worth pennies, an execution is worth millions”. 

So I have a lot of people, they say, Zach, where did you go to school? I don't like to talk about it because I didn't go anywhere fancy. I found an online school and got my degree quickly. But what I do tell them is at the end of the day, in our business, the only thing that matters is execution. “Mr.Client, Where I went to school, doesn't matter. Where I grew up, what I look like, none of that matters. What matters is we get you to the finish line and we get you paid”. And so that's typically my closing line and I share that with every client and I share that for a couple of reasons: I want them to know, look if you're giving me a business plan, I want you to execute on this business plan because I'm going to do my part. I'm going to bring you a term sheet, but I expect you to sign that term sheet when I bring it to you. 

So that's me in a nutshell. I know it's a weird story, all over the place. I'm a little quirky, I smile all the time and I seize. You wouldn't know the difference between the two. Do you sing out loud? Well, a little bit, yeah. Nice try. I don't know if you guys have any questions, but I appreciate this opportunity. StackSource is really for me, it was a place where I could be myself, I could do what I love. I could help people around me succeed in their goals. And for me and my family, the most important thing above all of this was being with my girls. I did not grow up with a dad that was ever home. So that was one thing that I always told myself above all else, I will be able to be with my girls and be at home. And so this does allow me that opportunity, allows me to find success. Last year was phenomenal. This year is going to be phenomenal. And if you believe in yourself and you keep pushing, everybody in this room can do it. Everybody can achieve their goals.

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