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 Jody Comeau, Assistant Vice President, Commercial Financing at First National in Halifax.
Jody, congratulations on your anniversary. What was your actual start date?
August 15th, 2020 will be 15 years since I walked into the 12th floor of First National’s head office in Toronto.
You were recruited rather than applying for your job, is that correct?
Yes back at the time I was an underwriter for a large trust company. One day I was driving home from work in Halifax and the phone rings. It’s a 416-area code. I pick up the phone and it’s the national residential sales director at First National at the time. He introduces himself and then says, ‘when are you starting?’ I said, excuse me? He repeats himself but with a little more elaboration by telling me First National wants to recruit someone to run their Atlantic Canada effort and a variety different brokerage firms have said I’m the guy for the job. He wanted to cut to the chase and offer me the position on the spot. It was flattering but I told him that I was happy with the trust company so thanks for the offer but no thanks.
Then what happened?
He told me he would follow up, which I assumed meant he would call again in six months or a year. He waited a week. The same time, one week later, I was driving home, the phone rings and it’s him again. He says ‘have you picked a start date?’ I guess he caught me at a good time because I said I would be willing to listen. He told me First National was doing very little business in Atlantic Canada and what business they had was being run out of Ottawa. They wanted a local presence. He also told me he’d call more brokers since we last spoke and brokers just kept saying to him, ‘hire Jody’. I went home and thought about it. At the time, I was 25-years old and had been in finance for all of two years, one as a broker and one as an underwriter. Long story short, I thought why not? What have I got to lose? I accepted the offer.
Why was your first day spent in Toronto instead of Halifax?
First National asked me to fly up, spend a week in Toronto to get to know the team. So I did that. I rode up on the elevator, the door opens and it all starts. The first thing everybody said to me was, ‘wow, are you ever young!’ The other thing I remember is being told, ‘look, we don’t know Atlantic, we want to be big in Atlantic and we’re going to let you lead the way.’ The commitment made to me was if things work out, no one would ever get in my way and if they didn’t work out, First National would work beside me to make it a success. I thought that was a pretty great commitment. And in my time with First National, it’s a commitment that’s never been broken. I probably skinned my knees a few times but having that support was comforting.
So you started on the residential side.
That’s right, I spent over nine years in residential before moving to commercial. My title on the residential side was Account Manager.
Do you remember the volume of single-family mortgages underwritten in Atlantic Canada when you started?
Around $30 million and nine years later when I moved to commercial, we did $511 million.
That’s quite a success story.
It was a lot of fun. We started with a handful of relationships and now First National does more broker business in Atlantic Canada than any lender. I always felt proud going to brokers and telling our story because I knew if I made a promise to them, it was a promise our team would keep. I would say ‘we’re good, we’re fast and we’re efficient’ and we were and are all of those things. It was easy to open doors because of First National’s reputation. My job was just to find the doors to open. Once a broker tried us, our service sold itself. And we invested back into the broker community to support their growth, which is always important.
Are the originators/underwriters you worked with when you started still at First National?
Yes. We’re all older now and the folks I served with are all team leaders or department managers. There is a lot of loyalty to employees and vice versa.
What made you move to the commercial side in 2015?
That’s a bit of a funny story. I was at a CMHC golf tournament in Halifax in August 2014. Jeremy Wedgbury was at the same event because our commercial team was the head sponsor. When I saw Jeremy at the golf course, he was wearing suit pants and dress shoes. I asked him if he planned to hit the links? He told me the airline lost his bag and he had nothing to wear. I offered him a pair of shoes and I found him a golf shirt. When the day was over, we shared half a beer and he told me his department was looking to recruit in Halifax and wanted to know if I could recommend someone. I said sure, we’re a family after all. So I put the word out about the opportunity with people I knew. I even did some interviews. After about two months of this, one of the candidates I interviewed asked me what the position paid. I sent the question to Dave Scapillati. He told me and I wrote back jokingly saying that if that was the compensation package on offer, I would take the job. About 20 seconds later, the phone rings and it’s Dave. He says to me, ‘that took forever, the job is yours if you want it.’ I actually realized that Dave and Jeremy weren’t interested in recruiting outside First National; they wanted me to take the role. I was so naïve I didn’t realize that they were interested.
Why didn’t they come out and ask you directly?
At the time, no one had ever gone from single family to commercial before and they felt bad about the idea of poaching. They were very respectful of the residential team. In early November, I made the decision to finish out the year on the single-family side and start in commercial on January 1st.
When you think about your career, what episodes or accomplishments stand out?
I think the east coast is amazing place and the opportunities I’ve had at First National to run my own business with the support of the broader team have been just amazing. It’s really easy to get up early and stay up late to make things happen for this company. Jeremy is the kind of leader who just inspires me. I want to impress him. I remember attending my first commercial sales conference. Jeremy talked about the performance of each originator across Canada and I remember after leaving that meeting saying to Lisa McFarlane, my colleague here in Halifax, that I wanted to be at the top of that growth chart nationally. I think by my fourth year, we were number three in Canada. Being from the east coast, a smaller market, it was a very proud moment.
When did Lisa join your team?
Within a few weeks of me. I’ve got to say Lisa was one of First National’s best hires. She’s legendary in our business. She and Jenn Horne are just incredibly good at what they do. Jenn just eats, sleeps and breathes First National. I couldn’t ask for a better team.
When you think about the future, what do you want to accomplish?
We want focus on quality and on sustaining great service for our clients. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about five or 10 or 15 years from now; all I know is that quality is important and having fun helping borrowers is as well.
Have you seen much change in the local market since you first started?
We don’t see a lot of property trading or sales going on. This is more of a conservative buy-and-hold market so not a lot of great change over the years. What I would say is we have really exceptional borrowers, many who are second and third generation owners. The quality of everything they build is at the highest level, rivalling anything you would see in the rest of Canada. I sometimes walk through apartment buildings with owners. They might have a thousand units, but they know every tenant by name. They are really involved in the day to day and it’s impressive. In my estimation, we have the best owners in the country.
Are you originally from Halifax?
No. I was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick and moved to Halifax when I was 23. We’re a tight-knit community for sure.
First National is a place that makes all of us look like stars to our clients. The team is incredible; it’s fast, it’s flexible and it’s smart. Personally, I feel like I started yesterday. Fifteen years ago I would never have imagined having the life I have now. I owe it to First National.
If you’d like to join us in congratulating Jody on his important career milestone, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org