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 Robert Fleet, Assistant Vice President, Commercial Financing.
Rob, what brought you to First National?
Peter Cook. Peter was my best buddy growing up in London, Ontario. Only two other employees started before Peter at First National.
So Peter sought you out?
You could say that. Prior to joining First National, I was partner in and Vice President of Operations for Prime Restaurants. We owned East Side Marios, Caseys, Fionn McCool’s and Bier Markts in Canada. We took the company public and I decided to sell my shares. Peter knew this so one day we were out on a boat fishing and Peter says, “Fleeter”, which is what he calls me, “what are you going to do with yourself now?” He explained his growth plan and the role he had in mind for me as a business developer and it sounded like a perfect fit.
How did you go about developing business?
I joined 11 of the 17 apartment associations across Canada where First National operates and put in the effort to attend meetings and participate in events. I also served on the Board of the Hamilton & District Apartment Association for 10 years. These associations are important and I enjoy the opportunity they afford me to give back to the industry while developing new friends and clients.
Do you remember your first day at First National?
September 25th, 2006. It sticks out because instead of going to the office, I represented our company at the Greater Toronto Area Apartment Association’s golf tournament. A pretty nice way to start.
Back then, did landlords and apartment owners know First National?
Not really and certainly not like they do today. Today, we’re number one in the market and First National is a household name.
When you were in the restaurant business, did you have a background in mortgage financing?
No. Although we had 165 restaurants, 35 of which were corporate, our business model was to lease properties, not own them. In my position, I was involved in locating sites but my overall responsibilities were at the corporate P&L and budgeting level not negotiating leases. Most of what I know about commercial mortgage financing, I learned at First National.
To use a restaurant term, is there a secret sauce for being successful in your role?
People do business with people they like. It all comes down to relationships. We have deep, deep relationships with our clients which allows us to be value-added advisors and strategists. If you asked me to be clinical about this, I would say we strive to get into their world to understand their objectives, and build trust based on real insight. I think the other ingredient for success is teamwork.
How does teamwork factor in?
Put it this way, when I joined Peter 15 years ago, there were four of us. Now there are 12 and our team recently hit $6 billion in mortgages under administration. I always say that success isn’t just about doing one big thing well, it’s about doing a hundred little things right. Teamwork is the key to make that happen. Not to sound boastful, but we have an amazing group of superstars driving that success. Teamwork also extends to the outside world in that we make a lot of strategic introductions for our clients. For example, we introduce clients who have vacant land to developers who have significant construction experience so they can team up for mutual success.
What do you like best about your job?
A few things. Mentoring the younger members of our team stands out. I take great pleasure in it. We wouldn’t have been able to grow without our next generation of originators. I get my energy from people and growing things and making them better. I also like working on large portfolio acquisitions and big construction projects where I can use my knowledge to help clients succeed. While it’s true a lot of apartments were built in the 1960s, it’s also true that new buildings are coming on stream in a significant way. It’s very rewarding to provide support and expertise to get shovels in the ground.
Sounds like you love the apartment sector.
Definitely. Apartments are the lowest-risk commercial asset class in Canada, and properties have continued to appreciate in value every year since I started at First National. By specializing in the sector, we’ve positioned ourselves to participate in a great industry.
What advice do you have for those starting out at First National?
Ask five questions every day. If you do that, at the end of the year you will have the answers to 1,200 questions you will never have to ask again. Ask for constructive criticism. When I send a file, I ask the recipient for feedback. If I didn’t nail it, I want to know so I can be better next time. I would also suggest being greedy about taking on new responsibilities but always keep your own backyard clean. Close the loop on all projects and then put your hand up when someone is looking for a volunteer. And be sure to share your personal and business goals with your boss.
Do you see yourself being at First National for another 15 years?
I’m only 61 and I have no desire to completely retire. Because of the nature of our business, I can pick my spots and continue on. Peter and I are really entrepreneurs at heart. We’re always looking for new ways to add value so that keeps us engaged and hungry for more.
If you’d like to join us in congratulating Rob on his important career milestone, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.