Jeremy Wedgbury shares the keys to success in your 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 Jeremy Wedgbury, Executive Vice President, Commercial Mortgages on his 20th work anniversary.

Jeremy, why did you choose to join First National in 2004?

I was at Merrill Lynch at that time serving as managing director with responsibility for Ontario originations. The business was performing really well and I enjoyed my job but I had an underlying discomfort with the direction of the market and how a downturn in the United States, where Merrill Lynch was based, would affect my career here in Canada. I started entertaining job opportunities and one of them came from Moray Tawse at First National. I didn’t really know much about Moray or First National, but he persuaded me to join. For me, it was a huge move.

What were your first impressions of First National?

Great company, great people and absolutely amazing clients, but at the time it didn’t have the institutional structure I was used to in my previous roles at Merril and Manulife. Which makes perfect sense since First National was, at the time, a fairly young organization. If you will, it was entrepreneurial without an institutional wrapper on it. Over the years, we kept the entrepreneurial culture but added the lending structure that we needed to become the $140 billion mortgage servicing business we are today. 

What was your first role?

My title was Managing Director. The plan was to take on some of Moray’s role, but at first, I focused on one specific objective: make First National a bigger player in Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities. First National had been in the CMBS market for about 12 months at that time and we felt confident that if we put a more concerted effort into it, we could grow our presence pretty substantially. I set out to do that by first selling the idea of participating to our originators. It required an adjustment for them in how they interacted with borrowers. They made that adjustment and First National captured a very significant share of the market.

How did that first assignment test you personally?

At the time, we had about 25 originators and I didn’t know any of them particularly well. My experience suggested that about a third would listen to me, another third would learn to listen to me if I gave them a tangible reason for doing so, and the final group would probably never listen!  My test or task was to show the whole group that there were definite financial advantages to listening and in the case of the CMBS, adopting a new approach. In the end, what won them over is that our CMBS deals became increasingly well received in the market. It showed that maybe I knew what I was talking about! 

Several years into your tenure, the world experienced the credit crisis. How did that impact you?

It killed the market for CMBS and forced us to pivot to the CMHC market. It also represented a sea-change for me because I took on more of Moray’s role. I started to look more holistically at the entire commercial department, not just origination. This period culminated in the launch of what we called Project Rethink around 2011. Rethink was an apt descriptor because we began to rethink how we could improve every aspect of our business, including funding and servicing. By being better everywhere, we reasoned that institutions would give us more capital to manage, and commercial borrowers would give us more opportunities to lend. Through a planned evolution, Rethink helped First National bolster its reputation as being the best lender in the market. 

What skills or personal qualities are most important in your job today?

Empathy and a recognition that there must always be something valuable available to the other party if you want them to play ball with you. Call it a quid pro quo. It’s far better to have a balance than to try to impose your thinking on others in a heavy-handed manner. Through Rethink, we upended a lot of traditional, legacy ways of operating but we did it strategically and respectfully.

First National seems to set new records every year for mortgages under administration but for you, what is the most important accomplishment?

In my first decade here, I would have said the development of our CMBS program to the point that the major players, including Merrill wanted to work with First National. But looking back on the full 20 years, what makes me most proud is the work our team has done since the launch of Rethink. We’ve kept its entrepreneurial culture but added the institutional sophistication demanded of a large market leader. Today, First National is respected by our clients, by CMHC and by our peers. Our opinion counts and our lending is standard setting. The reputation we now enjoy with everyone – call it our 360 degree reputation – is impressive.

What do you find most enjoyable about your job?

Because we are not a bank or an insurance company, First National has access to many different solutions. As a result, we can bring new thinking to every deal we do. That’s both challenging and rewarding and for me, means no two days are the same. It makes my job more interesting, exciting and rewarding. It’s also rewarding to see my colleagues excel in their jobs and top people in the industry choose First National as a career destination. 

If there is such a thing, please describe your typical workday and how you measure your own success?

Right now, I’m spending more time on what could be called regulatory affairs: understanding various government initiatives and advocating on behalf of our clients. But what I love most is meeting with clients. We’ve recently added Regional Vice Presidents as part of long-range succession planning and in recognition of the need for more resources. Their presence changes my day to day but means overall we can do more. Personal success comes from overall growth in our business and the advancement of our team and capabilities. Growth means we are doing our jobs well. 

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

Experience and if I could add a third factor, luck. I’ve been very fortunate to work for three great organizations with different cultures and I’ve learned along the way from really smart people. I learned about things I wanted to replicate in my own career, and just as important, the things I didn’t want to copy.

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?

All four are important and relevant. But always wanting to be better has special meaning to me because I’ve seen it play out firsthand at First National over the past 20 years. Every year, we’ve just gotten incrementally better at what we do. The desire to constantly improve is grounded in a cultural need to be more and more competitive in the marketplace. We are always willing to face down challenges, make changes and improve. Complacency has no place here.

How does equity, diversity and inclusion factor in to First National’s approach?

We’ve certainly cultivated it, but diversity has honestly happened naturally in sympathy with Canada’s changing population. When I started in this industry, there were very few women and that has changed fundamentally. Similarly, it was once a very white industry and now it’s not. It’s really refreshing to see the changes and to know First National is a welcoming, equitable and inclusive business for all.

Why stay and build a career here?

We put a lot of time, effort and thought into the growth of our people. From a career standpoint, this is the place to learn and succeed. And I would say without reservation that if you want to be in commercial mortgages, you will get more exposure to it here than almost anywhere in Canada.  The opportunity to learn is very, very high. It’s a great place to build a career. Mind you, there are 100,000 jobs in commercial real estate in Canada so I would always encourage young people to be open minded. Sometimes that means they leave us and come back. Other times it means they leave us and become clients and that’s a good thing too.

What keeps you at First National?

I love my job, I work for and with really great people and I think we’ve got a lot more opportunity to cultivate. 

What about advice for someone new to First National?

The more you put into your career, the more you get out. So take the opportunities presented to you to learn and engage. Come into the office. Get close to people. Get involved in industry events. Put your hand up for new assignments and participate. We’re a company that is always open to new ideas and participation at all levels.

Any final thoughts?

I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my career. But it’s the team that counts. Everything we’ve discussed today – every accomplishment – is because of a team approach. I am especially grateful to be a long-term part of that team.

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