First National’s commercial team is now some 200 people strong and includes many skilled professionals like Aaron Cameron, our Assistant Vice President, Commercial Operations whose efforts make us a market leader. Aaron talks about the role he plays in this interview.
Please describe your responsibilities.
At the 10,000-foot level, my job is to improve efficiency by providing coaching, improving communications processes, fostering/growing our culture and leveraging technology. The knowledge and skillsets of our people are critical to First National’s success so one of the areas I spend the most time on is our training programs. At the 30-thousand-foot level, my vision statement is to empower our team through accountability.
What does that mean?
It means ensuring our different departments within Commercial Operations – about 90 people in total – work together independently but also collectively to be productive as one large group. We define Operations to include servicing, funding, renewals, quality assurance and training and this is distinct from our sales, credit, technology and marketing departments which, in people terms, are about the same size as Operations. Ultimately, all sides of our business need to push in the same direction if we are to be successful for clients in an increasingly complex, increasingly competitive industry, which is why we created our Empowered 360 initiative.
What is Empowered 360?
It’s a way of thinking and acting. By way of background, empowered advisors are advisors who think critically and thoughtfully to find smart solutions and then go above and beyond to do the right thing by making it easy for the recipients of that empowerment to realize the benefits of those solutions. We often talk about First National’s empowered advisors in the context of helping borrowers achieve the goals and dreams that are important to them. Clients are the ultimate recipients of our empowerment. But Empowered 360 broadens the concept to include any and all relationships that we might have, whether it’s with a co-worker, a manager, or a with an investor, lawyer or consultant. In my position, when I see how all the different First National departments interact, there is a great opportunity for us to step back and ask if there is a way to be more empowered? Maybe it’s as simple as picking up the phone to solve an issue rather than passively sending an email but big or small, it’s about attitude and behaviour.
What does empowerment mean for you personally?
Empowerment to me means to give my team the tools, support and comfort they need to solve their own problems. All of my managers are strong and so letting them work things out on their own is exciting for them, meaningful for First National and helps me to grow as a leader.
How is Empowered 360 beneficial for First National clients?
In our business, no two commercial borrowers are alike and no two commercial properties are alike. Consequently, there is no way to build a linear, one-size-fits all approach or process. Empowerment is the only way to achieve the creativity in problem solving and the responsiveness that sets First National apart as a lender for our clients. The bottom line is that by fostering creativity internally, we fuel more customized and responsive service for clients.
In your role, what is on the horizon for Commercial operations in the near to medium term?
We’ve recently embraced a step-wise approach to achieving what we envision will be highly sophisticated, end-to-end processes that will help us drive market-leading behaviours, decisions and client interactions, all while allowing our team room to be creative. We’ve already completed step one which involved making changes to management structure. Step two, now underway, is to achieve greater alignment between Operations and the other departments within First National’s Commercial division.
What do you bring to your position in terms of skills and experience?
I’ve worked in virtually every department at First National over the past 14 years. I started in our single-family department after teaching English in Korea and having to come back home because I blew out my knee playing soccer. When I recovered, my entire ambition was to land a job in finance in Toronto. First National made that possible in our Residential department. Within weeks of starting, the financial crisis hit and I was no longer needed in Residential. Scott McKenzie, who leads our Residential team, made a call to First National’s Commercial division and asked if they could use me. Fortunately, the answer was yes and I was transferred to Commercial Servicing. From there, there were movements and promotions from Commercial Servicing Team Lead to Commercial Lending Analyst to Senior Analyst to Manager, Senior Manager and now AVP of Operations. These experiences were very helpful in understanding the importance of each role to First National’s success as well as the responsibilities that go along with each.
You’ve also spent over five years co-producing and co-hosting a commercial real estate podcast. Has that been helpful?
I’ve co-hosted about 250 podcasts that have been downloaded something like 440,000 times and yes, they have been a big factor in my personal and professional career development. I’ve interviewed almost every major executive in the real estate space, along with every major analyst at professional service firms serving commercial real estate. I try to bring all of these experiences and perspectives back to my team. Ultimately, I discover trends through the podcast series and am better able to recognize the importance of trends like ESG and diversity advancements to our industry.
What sort of temperament is necessary to do your job?
My style is to be relaxed. I was an only child raised by two parents who were both very successful in business. Whether intentionally or through osmosis, my parents taught me to solve my own problems and to avoid highs and lows. Being positive, optimistic and even-keel are probably important characteristics for everyone in every job but they are certainly important to mine.
Many clients work with more than one lender; what differences will they notice in working with First National?
If anything, I hope our clients note our willingness to adapt, to find unique solutions to every unique problem and to execute well. We take feedback from clients to heart and want to improve every day. As empowered advisors, we would be foolish to do anything less than to constantly learn and grow.
I love my job and two of the big reasons are our culture and the premium nature of our brand. These factors are why the average tenure of First National’s commercial workforce is still something close to 20 years even as we’ve continued to recruit and develop the next generation of empowered advisors.