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Abby McQuire celebrates 20 years of service at First National

One of First National’s points of distinction is experience. Many members of our team have been with us 10, 15, 20 and 25 years – and in a few cases since we began operations in 1988. We salute those committed individuals who are celebrating a milestone anniversary by presenting their stories in their own words. Today, we profile Abby McQuire, Director, Commercial Financing.

Abby, congratulations on 20 years with First National. Do you remember your start date?

Yes, it was October 2, 2000.  After graduating from Queen’s University with an Honours degree in economics I took the summer off to reflect but it was time to focus on my career path.  I met Stephen Smith in my first interview, who had also attended Queen’s.  We had that link in common and I was really impressed by him and the other managers I met that day.

Why did you choose to join First National?

To tell you the truth, I put my resume online in September of 2000 and by chance First National happened to come across it.  My educational background in economics and summer and part-time jobs in banking were a good match for them. They called me in for an interview and it went very well.  At the time, they had an entry-level position available.  My conversation with Stephen led me to believe that First National, only 12 years old at the time, was growing and there was good potential for future career development at the company.

What was the company like in 2000?

Back then, First National was not a household name.  Given the size and scope of the industry, it was a very small company.  None of my peers, no one at Queen’s or anyone else I knew had heard of it. First National was, at the time, just starting to take off. We had originators, funders, accounting, customer service and one person responsible for IT whose desk was located in a supplies closet.  That was it. There was no HR or marketing departments and not even our own internal legal department.

How many people worked here when you started?

At the time, there were about 50 of us on the north side of one floor in our Toronto office tower where we now occupy seven floors. On my first day at the office, I saw a surprising number of empty desks and I started getting nervous wondering if I had made the right decision. I finished the work day, went home and when my parents asked how my first day went, I told them I met some great people but with all the empty desks, I wondered if the company was going to survive. My parents advised me to stick with it and see what comes of it. I’m glad I did because we all know what happened next.  Over the next 20 years, First National would be at the forefront of innovation and become the gold standard of the mortgage industry.  Today, First National is a widely recognized household name and the company has been featured in countless articles as a Canadian success story.   By staying, I experienced our first $1 billion of mortgages under administration party.  Then the $5 billion dollar celebration and more recently our $100 billion milestone. Thank goodness I took the advice of my parents, because I would have missed out on working for one of Canada’s best employers and greatest entrepreneurial success stories.

What was your first role?

Initially, I worked with the administration group discharging residential mortgages. I would walk in every morning and my desk would have a tall stack of paper files on it. I’d go through the files and complete the necessary paperwork for each one. But that wasn’t all. I would work wherever work was needed.  One of the tasks I was assigned involved reporting company profits and losses on a monthly basis and reviewing that information with the Senior Manager of Residential Mortgages. This is long before we were a public company.  Because we were small, there was an opportunity to become a jack of all trades.  It was an excellent way to broaden my knowledge of the company.

How long did that last?

Eight months of processing the paperwork for discharging residential mortgages and then I moved on to customer service. In that role, I was on the phone providing customers with a good overall experience, making sure their contact with First National was a positive one and ensuring their mortgage needs were met. But I was still working on the monthly financial reporting, so that responsibility carried over.

How many people worked in customer service at the time?

Just four. I know, it sounds incredible given the size of our customer service operation today. I loved that experience because it was an effective way to learn more about the business and the people I worked with were great. In fact, one of the reasons I’m still here is I’ve never had a bad experience in any role I’ve held at First National.  Everyone I’ve worked with has been friendly, knowledgeable and supportive.     

How long were you in customer service?

Approximately one year, and then, based on some good advice, I moved to the commercial side of First National.  By this time, the empty desks were starting to fill up with new employees.

What did you do when you started in Commercial operations?

I became the first ever commercial analyst at First National. At the time, the commercial originators had decided they needed analytical support for future growth and the role was born. At that point it was a great fit with my background and my experience.  It was also a matter of being in the ‘right place at the right time’.  Presently, we have over 40 analysts so it proved to be a very necessary position. Peter Cook really spearheaded the idea of creating the role and I worked with Peter and his group for almost 10 years. I originally sat in the same office as Peter and just from listening to him on the phone and in meetings I acquired a great education on the market, the industry and how to get things done efficiently and effectively for our clients. I really enjoyed and was thankful for that opportunity. 

What role does an analyst perform?

In the commercial department, analysts perform a critical role. Initially, they are the first eyes on a transaction, they go through the numbers, analyze the asset, look for anomalies, research the market and advise on preliminary loan amounts.  Analysts compile complicated CMHC and conventional loan applications and they are involved in negotiating the terms of the transaction.  They also have a hand in creating finance offerings for new and existing clients.   Once a deal is approved, they write commitment letters, take the project to funding where they work closely with the funding department to ensure the transaction closes smoothly and on time. One of the many interesting aspects of the job is attending property inspections. Meeting the owners, interviewing tenants and assessing areas of a building that need investment provided a real ground-floor learning opportunity for me.

Did you originally envision being in commercial financing?

Growing up, my grandparents owned a couple of walk-up apartment buildings in the Yonge and Eglinton area of Toronto, which meant I had some knowledge of what it was like to own and operate a commercial property. That exposure, as limited as it was, gave me additional appreciation for the industry from the owner’s perspective.

Did you move from analyst to your present role?

No, after eight years as analyst, I took maternity leave and returned as an originator. Title-wise, I moved from analyst to senior analyst to manager and then senior manager and now Director, all within the Commercial department and all without leaving my desk! It actually bears noting that when I started, less than 5% of people working in the commercial real estate industry were women. It’s still a male-dominated business today but it’s come a long way in 20 years. First National has been incredibly supportive to their employees in many regards but particularly by providing excellent forward-thinking leadership that has no parallel in the industry. 

How would you describe the role of an originator?

It’s challenging. It requires a lot of thoughtful balancing and creative solutions.   Anyone who has worked as an originator for a long time would say the same thing…that, despite the pressure, they enjoy the challenges and the complexities of putting together a complicated transaction. But we work as a team, so the challenges and successes are shared. When I came back from my second maternity leave in 2012, I joined Andrew Drexler’s team which has been a fantastic experience. We’ve worked on a number of exciting deals together and done some trailblazing work.  We also have the pleasure of working with Moray Tawse who has been a tremendous mentor and leader over the years.  Everyone at First National thinks they work on the best team, but I am certain I do. In recent years, I’ve particularly specialized in CMHC insured commercial construction loans.

What’s that like?

It takes years to complete the construction of a high-rise apartment project.   There are several moving parts that have to be considered with the risks mitigated or managed during the process.  We take great pride in our clients’ projects like some of the apartment towers that have been built near Yonge and Eglinton where my grandparents once owned their small walk-ups. One of those construction projects has won several industry awards and served as a showpiece for CMHC. It was a massively successful collaboration for the borrower, CMHC and First National.

You do a lot of work with CMHC.

Absolutely. Our relationship with CMHC is incredibly important to us.  Two years ago, our team delivered the single largest CMHC loan in Canada at over $200 million for a high-rise construction project. Since then, there have been larger projects but at the time of CMHC approval this was the biggest.  First National is the largest CMHC commercial lender in the country and we take pride in our relationship with them, the expertise that we bring to our borrowers and our ability to structure financings that lead to better returns for our clients.  Our team and our company have also been at the forefront of financing affordable housing in Toronto.  There is an urgent need for affordable housing in the province of Ontario and particularly in the City of Toronto and we are excited by the work we’ve done with CMHC and our borrowers to make that happen.

It must be rewarding to see clients succeed.

Absolutely, there are so many success stories. It makes us proud to see clients, some of whom started with nothing, build their way up to owning substantial real estate portfolios.   It’s most rewarding to know that we played an important role that helped them get there.

Final thoughts?

When I think back on 20 amazing years, I believe I owe a great deal of gratitude to First National. I get emotional thinking about it. I love the company and I’m grateful for all the opportunities and mentorship I’ve had over the years. It’s rare to work at a company like this one where I got to experience all of their successes and milestones.  Now, in 2020 on seven floors of the same office tower, there are no desks available, so much so, that we have to move to a new office building to accommodate growth. We’ve come a long way from my first day at the office.  As I speak to my friends from Queen’s who are now familiar with First National and also its connection to the Smith School of Business, they tell me I made the right decision back in 2000.  I think so too. 

If you’d like to join us in congratulating Abby on her important career milestone, you can reach her at Abby.McQuire@firstnational.ca