First National Financial LP

Get to know our leaders

A culture is built by leaders

Meet our leaders: a conversation with Leigh Knowles

Leigh Knowles is First National’s Senior Vice President, Residential Servicing. In her role, she oversees a professional team charged with important borrower-facing functions in accordance with mortgage servicing agreements. Leigh joined First National in August 2020.

Leigh, you have an impressive resume. Please tell us about your career highlights.

Thank you. I started my career in public accounting in Toronto in the 1980s, which gave me the opportunity to work at a variety of client companies, getting to know different industries and cultures. I worked for everything from a manufacturer of elbows for construction scaffolding to a developer of real estate subdivisions. I really enjoyed the experience, and the accounting firm gave me the opportunity to transfer to their office in London, England. I was assigned to their banking group which gave me my first taste of the finance industry. After a year in London, I transferred to Los Angeles and worked in Century City, mostly for entertainment clients.

What happened next?

After a year in LA I returned to Toronto to move from public accounting to the banking industry. For the next five years, I worked for the Industrial Bank of Japan in Toronto as Assistant Controller. It was an interesting environment and I enjoyed experiencing a different culture. The next logical step was to accept the opportunity to take on a broader role at JP Morgan.

What did you do at JP Morgan?

I started as the Assistant Controller for JP Morgan Canada in 1994 and was fortunate to be there at a very exciting time. The trading floor was bustling with activity, and I was involved in helping it become the first foreign bank in Canada to obtain Branch Status.  It also had a great office culture and I sometimes wonder if that is because up to that point, JP Morgan had always grown organically, never by acquisition.

You progressed at JP Morgan to the position of Chief Financial Officer of the Canadian operation.

That’s right and the company changed a lot in my eight years there. During this period, JP Morgan merged with Chase Manhattan and that led to an integration-led shift in the culture and a business retrenchment. The integration was a great challenge for all of us, but after working what felt like 24 hours a day, seven days a week I needed a break and resigned to spend more time with my family.  It turns out they were all busy at school or work, so after four months I jumped at the chance to join Deutsche Bank to help strengthen their AML and accounting processes. That led to some client-facing work and after that I was offered the position of Head of Operations, which was a welcome change from straight Accounting.

How so?

I like how Accounting when done well provides management with good indicators of a business’s past performance and current health, every month, quarter and year. But in Operations at Deutsche Bank, I got the chance to plan for the future and to work with really smart people to identify and solve process issues to help our business constantly improve. Every day was different, and I found it very rewarding. In my role, I oversaw institutional bond trading, commercial loans and all aspects of processing from setting up loans to making sure transactions were booked appropriately. I loved going in every day. The challenge was we were a relatively small part of an international bank so key decisions were not made locally. I spent the last year overseeing a retrenchment that saw the entire Canadian operation transition to the bank’s operations in other countries, including eventually my own role.

When did you leave Deutsche Bank?

I actually say Deutsche Bank left me, not the other way around but the answer is December 2015. I started at Street Capital on January 1, 2016 as Director of Treasury. That opportunity came about because my colleague at Deutsche Bank worked closely with the Treasurer at Street Capital and he recommended me. I really enjoyed moving to a Canadian-headquartered company where decisions were made thoughtfully and locally. Street was entrepreneurial, teamwork-oriented, growing and an excellent place to work.

Why did you choose to join First National?

First National is a great success story, with great people and amazing results. While I was with Street, I worked with the First National residential administration team and even previously at Deutsche Bank when we started a mortgage aggregation business. I knew from firsthand experience that First National’s corporate culture would be a fit with me.

Based on other companies you’ve worked for, what are the significant differences that you’ve seen with First National so far?

I am extremely impressed with the level of collaboration.  The training, job tools and career development available to all staff through Arthur and our Learning Centre are outstanding.  HR, IT, Training, Marketing and the business group really seem to wrap themselves around new hires by providing all the support to succeed.  It speaks to the culture that I witnessed from the outside looking in and is a big reason for the success of the company.

What are some of the lessons you learned along the way in building a successful career?

Your team is everything.  Collaboration and teamwork foster positive attitudes and positive attitudes lead to better, stronger results.  Also, if you don’t know something or you’ve made a mistake speak up and learn from it.

You have achieved a number of professional designations; how important has continuing education been to your success and how did you go about choosing those designations?

I think it is really important to have a thorough understanding of the important aspects of your role.  So where possible, I take advantage of relevant learning opportunities. 

What would you like future First National team members in Residential Servicing to know about your management style?

I roll up my sleeves and get things done.  Teamwork is critical and I want everyone on my team to enjoy what they do and who they work with.

What is the culture you are creating in Residential Servicing?

First National is a great place to start and grow your career. Each year Residential Servicing welcomes many recent graduates and team members relatively new in their career. I am proud that so many of our team put the time into learning our processes, mortgages and customer relations skills that truly set them up for a great career within First National.

What would you like to accomplish in Residential Servicing?

As a management team we focus on challenging the status quo and looking for opportunities to improve processes eliminating or reducing mundane tasks so that the team can spend time on the more interesting aspects of their jobs supporting their career aspirations.