Jason Ellis shares his key to success in his career

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 Jason Ellis, President and Chief Executive Officer on his 20th work anniversary.

Jason, what brought you to First National?

A happy coincidence. Before joining, I served in a corporate role at Manulife Financial within their Asset/Liability Management group in Toronto. I was starting to feel that I wanted to do something different and at that point, I received an unsolicited call from a recruiter telling me about an opportunity at a small private mortgage company. The recruiter described the role as transactional in nature, capital-markets focused and the company as entrepreneurial. I didn’t know anything about mortgages, but I did know I was keen for a change and that the transactional aspect appealed to me because I spent the first seven or eight years of my career with RBC Dominion Securities in Toronto and New York where I was a fixed income trader. 

Who interviewed you?

Stephen Smith to begin and then a second interview with Stephen and Moray Tawse. Moray took up a position on the sofa in Stephen’s office behind me as I sat in front of Stephen at his desk. I felt somewhat surrounded. After a couple of minutes, Moray stood up and said to Stephen, if you like Jason, I’m good if you hire him. From there, Stephen and I went to a local restaurant called the Whistling Oyster and I signed back my offer letter on the bar over a beer.

What was your first role and do you remember your first day?

My first title was Director of Treasury. As for the second question, I had two first days. The Canadian Securitization conference took place a couple of weeks before my official start date. It was a who’s-who event of industry people I needed to know, so I travelled with Stephen to attend the conference in Banff. It was a whirlwind of meetings with our peer lenders and securitization people at all the banks. It was a great introduction to the industry.

What about your first day in the office?

I remember it well. Back then, we used to do a monthly NHA-MBS issuance. Stephen came into my office and said we’re issuing on Friday so prepare the pool, set up the tender and send out the notice to the dealers. I didn’t know how to do any of those things, and I was flying solo because the only person who worked on the pools until that point was Stephen himself. I remember sitting there plagued by a memory of Stephen saying to me, during the job interview, that he didn’t like people who lacked independence. Wanting to make a good first impression, I remained long after closing hours going through old deals, finding templates for past tenders and building a spreadsheet from scratch to replicate the surprisingly complicated pricing of an NHA-MBS pool. As best as I can remember, the issuance went smoothly. 

Did you celebrate?

We finished the week going to an office Karaoke party. So the abject terror of being told to do something I didn’t know how to do followed by the curious experience of sitting at a bar as a new colleague belted out an Aretha Franklin song were the themes of my first week. I sat quietly in the corner thinking, what have I done? 

Presumably that feeling didn’t last.

I’ve never regretted my decision to come to First National. It’s everything I wanted and hoped for and today the growth and complexity of our business fascinates me. 

When you think about your job then and now, what moved your career forward?

The environment and the empowerment within our culture. I’m speaking of concepts like accountability, autonomy and independent thought that underpin First National’s entrepreneurial approach. Maybe said differently, I care about what I do, and I want to do it well. I believe this to be true for everyone: if you care, it will promote progression throughout your career. Beyond caring, I also believe in context. I was curious not just about how to securitize mortgages that our Commercial and Residential teams originated, but the context of how those mortgages were originated, what competitive advantages allowed us to originate and how I could contribute in my job to those advantages. If you care, if you ask questions and look for context, you don’t have to chase success. It will find you. In fact, if you care about what you are doing, there’s no hiding from success.

What is your favourite career moment?

When an all-company announcement was issued naming me Chief Operating Officer in 2018. It was a moment of complete self-actualization. I remember the stream of congratulatory emails coming in from colleagues and co-workers and people in the industry. It was very special for me to be recognized and to be given the opportunity to succeed Stephen as President in 2019 and CEO in 2022.

Your appointment as President took place right before the pandemic.

Yes it did. That was a challenging time and how the First National team rallied together was pride-inducing. It reminds me of how we came through the 2008 global financial crisis. We pivoted, created new opportunities in CMHC multi-family lending and became stronger than ever. Many companies responded well to the pandemic, but I think the people of First National did an exceptional job, especially in the context of a housing industry that defied all predictions. It was a great example of entrepreneurial collaboration across all parts of the business. The collaborative spirit that was so attractive to me in 2004 still shows itself today. 

What’s it like being CEO?

I can tell you it’s not Groundhog Day. There is not a moment that goes by when I’m not absorbed by some detail and those details change every day. I have ultimate accountability to 1,700 employees, our customers, partners and shareholders. I used to think a CEO had the best job in the world: a nice office and the ability to delegate. I’ve changed my tune. It’s not as easy as it appeared to me looking in from the outside. But that said, I will not classify my stress or my job as harder than anyone else’s. If you care about your job, you think about it.

What do you find most enjoyable about your job?

One of the great things about possessing this role is the unique opportunity it provides to have interesting engagements with the people of First National. For example, I enjoy riding the elevator with team members who don’t expect to run into me.  I like that spontaneous interaction. People are so generous and kind, even if they have a problem they want to discuss. 

What’s the most challenging aspect of being CEO?

You’ll probably get the same answer from other CEOs, but we deal with a disproportionate amount of negative news, challenges and problems. Back in my first role, I only had to think about liquidity. The capital markets were my whole world. Now, I’m here to help problem solve wherever and whenever there is an issue.  If I thought of this as an analogy, CEOs are like the people in the basement looking after the pipes. The building’s foundation stands strong, but somebody has to be looking for cracks. It’s why it’s important to ride the elevator, come upstairs and be reminded of the amazing people who work here and the incredible work they do. 

How do you measure your own success as CEO?

My success is measured by a whole series of independent successes by people throughout the organization. I try to help everyone pull in the same direction and when we do, First National wins and so do we as individuals.  

Some CEOs like to have very few direct reports.

Not me. We have an amazing group of leaders at First National and working with the executive leadership team is one of the joys of my job. It’s also comforting that Stephen and Moray are here for guidance. 

In your career, what’s been more important: experience or skills? 

Experience. Skills are important as building blocks and they open doors. But everything you need to know is learned on the job over time. End of story. You learn from the people you work with, and you learn from doing. Take me for example. When I joined First National, I didn’t even know mortgage brokers existed. And I had no experience with securitization. What I had was a knowledge of fixed income principles and I knew how to work with people. Everything after that I learned by doing at First National. 

You said you had no experience with mortgage brokers? 

Yes, and to show how naïve I was, my wife and I made an offer to buy our first house before we sold our condo. The real estate agent congratulated us on being the highest bidders and then said we had to come up with a $30,000 downpayment. I thought, what do I look like, Howard Hughes? We don’t have $30,000 and won’t until we sell our condo. Fortunately, our parents helped us cobble together the downpayment. I then trotted off to a bank to get a mortgage and came away with what I thought was a great deal only to discover after arriving at First National that a mortgage broker would have negotiated a much better offer.

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?

They all resonate with me, but I would say striving for better is the core principle. It means caring about improving your job. Empowerment comes from embracing autonomy, which is critical to driving the spirit necessary to strive for better. Trust is the byproduct of caring and accepting accountability. It all fits together.

What about advice for someone new to First National?

I recommend looking at our four values. Everything you need to know is in those values for a successful and meaningful career at First National. I would also say that it’s important to recognize that no one performs their role in a vacuum. You will never succeed if you don’t recognize what happens to your work after you are finished with it.  So give thought to the knock-on effects of your job to stakeholders to your right and left and learn about the organization as a whole. Because as soon as you understand how your job affects others, your opportunity to improve it expands exponentially.  

Why stay and build a career here?

There’s no doubt that there are great careers at large financial institutions in Canada. I worked at two of them. However, my personal experience is when you find a community like First National that empowers autonomy and accountability and gives you the opportunity to feel and measure the impact of your contribution – as opposed to perhaps being lost in a much grander organization – it makes it an easy decision to stay. When you consider the statistics on mobility within our organization, there are multiple stories of people who started in entry-level jobs who have gone on to highly successful careers including in management. My personal feeling is that you need to grow roots somewhere to develop the passion that leads to real success. To me, First National is that place. 

Do you plan to celebrate your 20th anniversary in a special way?

The Whistling Oyster is gone but there is a restaurant in its place so I might go back to the beginning and see if Stephen is available to join me for lunch and a celebratory beer.

Any final thoughts?

I’m grateful for the ongoing opportunity to work with incredible people who do great things for First National’s customers, partners and each other every day. It’s a privilege to be part of this team.

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