Aaron Cameron: How creating his own opportunities helped him succeed

First National Financial LP Mar 26, 2024   mins

One of First National’s points of distinction is experience. Many members of our team have been with us for years – and in a few cases since we began operating in 1988. Today, we salute Aaron Cameron, Vice President, Commercial Operations on his 15th work anniversary.

Aaron, what were you doing before joining First National? 

Teaching English in Korea. I was there for a year and had to come home early because I hurt my knee playing soccer on a beach during the annual Mud Festival. I had no direct experience in lending or business. I simply wanted to work in downtown Toronto in something to do with finance. It could have been insurance, mortgages, bonds or mutual funds, it didn’t matter. 

So you had no background in finance but obviously enjoyed sports.

Correct. In university, I studied political science, economics, biology and had a minor in psychology. I also had weak knees from years of playing hockey and figure skating. The Mud Festival knee injury was a fluke and something I will always remember because the beach where I was injured also happens to have the world’s fastest moving tide next to the Bay of Fundy. As I was rolling around in pain, the tide came in. We were using our backpacks to demarcate the nets and sure enough, they floated 30-feet out into the ocean meaning lost car keys and wallets. We were a good two to three kilometers away from home, so I hobbled back on one leg. Then the skies opened up to a torrential downpour. I finally got home and discovered I didn’t have my apartment keys. That was July 2008. 

What happened next? 

When I returned from Korea shortly after the injury, I needed to start a real career so I applied to Career Edge, a placement service, on say a Tuesday morning. On Tuesday afternoon, I was notified that First National was interested in interviewing me. On Wednesday morning, I interviewed and on Thursday, I got the job. It was super simple and First National checked my two boxes: the office was downtown and it was a financial services company. I started September 8th in Residential Underwriting as a funder.

Was it smooth sailing from there?

No. A few weeks after I started, the financial crisis hit. Bear Stearns went bankrupt, the whole industry shut down and there was no need for me in funding. However, my manager said there were other opportunities within First National if anyone was interested. I put up my hand and volunteered to go to a different area. First, I went to insurance and when that work finished, I moved to Residential taxes. I became a permanent employee in February 2009.

How did you end up moving from Residential to Commercial?

Funny story. I would always have a copy of The Economist on my desk. The head of the department saw me and I guess thought to himself, here is this kid who is currently underemployed, maybe he would like to work in Commercial mortgages. Scott called Steve Crane, the head of Commercial administration at the time, and said I’ve got this kid named Aaron, do you want him? That was probably early February 2009. Steve called me to his office for an interview. I recall two key questions he asked: did I know anything about commercial mortgages and did I know anything about CMBS? I said no and no. But Steve said, I like you anyway, you start next Monday in Commercial administration. About a year after that, I was made Team Leader. A year after that I was moved to the role of Commercial analyst and spent three or so years working with and being mentored by Dru McAuley. With that experience, Jeremy Wedgbury moved me into Commercial credit working with Dave Morrison. Those experiences gave me insight into the business and the commercial real estate industry that serves me well in my current role in Commercial operations.

What was the lesson learned?

Keep putting your hand up to volunteer and read The Economist! Truthfully, the theme of my story – and it’s probably consistent for many people at First National – is to create your own opportunity. Keep your head down, work hard, be available, keep contributing and show initiative.

How did you show initiative?

One of the things I did even when I was a Residential funder was to write a procedures manual for my job. No one asked me to do it, but I thought it would add value, so I took the initiative and shared the manual with my manager. I did something similar when I was in servicing. I stayed late at night, learned how to build fancy charts to track some specific trends and presented a revised information package. In every role, I tried to find things that needed to be done and did them. I didn’t ask and I didn’t let my day job suffer. I just tried to add value and it paid off. 

Are there still opportunities at First National to add value like that?

Absolutely. An open, creative culture where initiative is encouraged is a mainstay of our approach in Commercial. 

Four workplace principles define First National – always striving for better, earning trust, encouraging autonomy, and emphasizing accountability. Of the four, which one resonates most with you and why?

Really all four but emphasizing accountability and striving for better. In both of those traits, the idea of creative problem solving comes through. My attraction to this business is that it’s complex. No two transactions are identical and that’s what makes it fascinating.  

What is your proudest or favourite career moment?

I get the greatest pleasure from problem solving and creating efficiency. In operations, I like to find things that need fixing and fixing them. The more complex the problem, the more rewarding the solution. The journey we are on today to become a more sophisticated institution has offered the opportunity for thousands of small wins and favourite career examples – really too numerous to mention. 

The commercial mortgage industry has a reputation as a man’s world. 

It does or at least it used to. It probably takes a generation to break the mould, but it is being broken. My generation is much more diverse than the previous generation. And similarly, my era is less diverse than the generation that follows me. If I take my team, there are more women than men and more equal representation of Toronto society than not. 

For someone new to First National, what advice do you offer?

If you are willing to put your head down and contribute with a pure motive of problem solving, you will succeed. I know for a fact that here in Commercial, there are opportunities available today to contribute. So show initiative and participate even without being asked. 

What keeps you here?

The journey to become a more sophisticated institution. I need to see this through to the end. It’s my mission and motivation. 

Final question: you do a podcast that generates thousands of downloads at a time, why?

My day job is very internally focused, so the podcast is a great way for me to keep tabs on the industry and do so in the most enjoyable, educational way possible: by interviewing the industry’s foremost leaders. We produce about 40 episodes every year. The podcast idea came about through sheer luck and I am incredibly grateful to be part of it and to be part of First National.

If you’d like to join us in congratulating Aaron on his career milestone, you can reach him at aaron.cameron@firstnational.ca. If you would like to listen to his podcast, you can do so at https://commercialrealestatepodcast.com/hosts/aaroncameron/

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