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Barry C. Gidney celebrates 25 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 Barry C. Gidney, Assistant Vice President, Commercial Financing.

Barry, congratulations on 25 years with First National. Do you remember your actual start date?

I do, it was September 28th, 1995. I remember it well because of the circumstances under which I joined.

Please elaborate.

When I got out of Acadia University, I worked in the mortgage investment department of a large insurance company in Halifax and they promoted me to Toronto. I didn’t really want to work for a large company and I didn’t really want to go to Toronto either, but I thought a change of environment would be good. As soon as I arrived in Toronto at the head office of the insurance company, I started doing deals with Moray (Tawse) and Stephen (Smith) at First National. I got to know them well and I liked their style and energy. One day I looked around the insurance company and thought to myself, I really don’t want to be here. So I called Moray and asked him for a referral that I could use to help in my job search. Moray said come over and we’ll talk about it. I walked across the street and he hired me on the spot.

What was it like when you joined?

By the numbers, it was a fair-sized company. It had $600 million under administration and 15 employees. But in terms of personality, it was like a two-man operation working across a milk carton. Very entrepreneurial, lots of latitude for creativity and a lot of work. Originators had to find the loan, underwrite the loan, check the insurance, find the money, and fund the loan. There was no administrative help. No one knew First National back then, so ice breaking and trust building were big parts of what we were doing every single day. 

Were you prepared?

Not really. At the insurance company, I was analyst-manager. I didn’t do sales. I realized quickly that I had to be sales oriented. I had to be on the phone to generate business. So I adopted a routine. I made five cold calls in the morning and five cold calls in the afternoon and I promised myself I would never end the day on a bad call so I just kept calling every afternoon until I got to end the day on a positive note.

That couldn’t have been easy.

It wasn’t but I’m a very stubborn guy. I don’t give up. I’m one of those type A personalities who is driven for success. I just kept dialing for donuts, pushing ahead and pushing for leads. The thing is, the group of people I work with then and now are just incredibly supportive and lots of fun to be around. It’s the kind of environment that just draws you in and keeps you going. First National always feels like home. There is no other place I’d rather be and it’s definitely a reflection of the guys at the top.

What do you mean?

Well Moray Tawse for example. He’s fun to be around and funny. He’s also tough but fair. I like that in a boss. There were times when I would come into the office in those early days ready to choke someone and then 10 minutes after talking to Moray, I was smiling and back to normal. We’ve always clicked on a personal level. And I respect him not only for his sense of humour and humility but because he has a photographic memory. I can have 20 or 30 deals on the go and he comes in to my office and without notes, starts asking me about each file by name. He remembers all the deals I’m working on, which is really impressive because he does the same with all of my colleagues.

First National sure isn’t a small company anymore.

I know, and it’s hard for old timers like me to believe that we’ve had this amount of growth and success. We’re up to a thousand employees now. I think the fact that we fly under the radar screen by refraining from beating our chests is one of the reasons we’ve managed to come this far. The secret of our success is that our success was a secret; competitors didn’t really know what we’re doing so they didn’t take shots at us while we were building our foundation. Humility is a characteristic of our firm and it’s one I really like.

What motives you to stay?

I love to work in an environment with people who are smart and want to solve problems. That’s where we’re at as a firm and problem solving is what we do. We’re entrepreneurial. We work together with no hidden agendas. We have a great deal of autonomy. We’re trusted to make deals happen.

So it’s about freedom.

It’s about the accountability and the confidence that the company has in each of us to make the best decisions. Unlike other companies in our industry where the layers of bureaucracy are stifling, we have a flat organization where decisions happen close to our clients. It’s also an inbred characteristic to lend money like it’s our own. To use an analogy, if I put my soldiers out there, I’m going to make sure they come home.

It can’t possibly be as laissez faire as it was in the past.

Of course not, but I can tell you that First National is more entrepreneurial than any company in our industry. We’re still deal junkies, and still working as hard as ever to prove ourselves by funding the next deal and the next and the next. As I get older, I also welcome the structure we do have as it keeps us on the rails. I also appreciate the innate integrity in our firm. We do what’s right, end of story. The lesson is honesty and hard work will get you everywhere.

About five years ago, your biography said you had originated financings worth more than $6 billion. You did more than $1.0 billion in 2019, so what’s the grand total now?

I don’t track what I did yesterday. To me looking at the past is inefficient. The way I run my career is to focus on the future. I want to know what I’m going to do to get where I want to be. I remember one year a colleague came to me and said, ‘you did $400 million of loans last year which makes you our top producer.’ It was kind of a shock because I wasn’t paying attention. To me, success is determined by what you do for customers on each deal; that’s what matters. You can do a great job on a $1 million deal or a great job on a $400 million deal and what counts is the great job part.

Barry you are based in Toronto. Do you have a defined territory to serve?

No, one of the great things about First National is we aren’t hemmed in by geography. We go wherever a relationship takes us. I help customers all over Canada, from the East Coast where I grew up to Vancouver, Montreal and ports in between.  I like that because it means I’ve gotten to see the country and meet lots of people. People, competition and money are what lending is all about – and they are my three favorite things.

You grew up in Nova Scotia.

That’s right, I worked off the back of a fishing boat to pay my way through university. I always knew I wanted to be in business. Back then, my dream was run a seafood company because I come from a small fishing village. Funny thing is, I did get to make that dream come true. In my spare time, I operate a company that exports lobster to customers all over the world and I also own my own real estate portfolio.

What sort of real estate do you own?

I bought my first property with friends and family in the 1990s and we’ve acquired about 67 since then throughout Atlantic Canada: apartments, office, industrial, you name it, we own it. Being a commercial real estate owner really makes me appreciate what my clients go through because I borrow a lot of money too. Unfortunately, I’m prohibited from borrowing from First National, so I’ve been to all the banks and all the lenders and I shake my head because it’s brutal to borrow from people who don’t know what they’re doing. I can totally understand why First National is successful.  Being on the other side of a deal is an eye opener for sure. Real, responsive service is rare. And value really isn’t created or defined just by the interest rate you pay on a loan. There is much more to it.  

This spring, Canadian society, not to mention the world’s economy was struck by COVID-19. Does your past activity in real estate and lending somehow prepare you for something like this?

Well we’re definitely operating in unchartered territory. But we’ve been through bad times before. I started my career in 1990 which was also the beginning of a severe recession. I was so bitter about real estate at that time because I spent five years at the insurance company taking people’s properties back. Downtown Toronto in 1994 was a ghost town, office vacancy was 30%. It was spooky. Then we got the 2007 recession. Living through these things isn’t fun, but the experience absolutely did make me a better underwriter and I think it’s made First National a better and more resilient company. We kept our heads about us, we had liquidity and we went to work. That’s what we’re doing now.

After 25 years, any plans to retire?

Absolutely not. In my family, the only way to retire is in a wooden box.

 

If you’d like to join us in congratulating Barry Gidney on his important career milestone, you can reach him at barry.gidney@firstnational.ca.

 

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