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Building value: a profile of First National’s Zach Vanier

  • First National Financial LP

First National’s commercial origination team has one goal – to help clients grow their property portfolios. In pursuit of this goal, we employ empowered professionals with diverse skills and experiences that add relevant and meaningful depth and breadth to our business. Zach Vanier, who was recently promoted to Director of Commercial Financing in Vancouver is a perfect example. In Building Value, Zach tells us about himself and what he brings to his client relationships.

Zach, before you joined First National, you had your own business.

That’s right. I grew up in the construction industry. My Dad served as a site superintendent for large developers throughout the Lower Mainland so from an early age, I joined him at work on weekends and picked up skills along the way. I was never afraid to try a new tool and I always liked the challenge of learning something new. That experience ignited a passion for construction and throughout high school and beyond I worked on various projects as a handyman. After one job came to an end, I decided to open Vanier Construction in 2010. I intended to go back to school so I thought it would be a great way to earn income to pay tuition with the freedom to pick and choose where and when I worked.

What kind of construction? 

Renovation projects to start and then I subcontracted to a firm that specialized in building large sports venues. At Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, my job was to make sure all the seats were properly configured and to manage logistics supply. It was a combination of supervisory activities and installation. Eventually, I lead a team across the country on different projects. It worked out really well for several very enjoyable years.

Why did you stop?

My main aim was to attend business school to study finance so operating the business was really a means to another end. I earned enough in construction to attend Douglas College for a Bachelor of Business Administration. As I was winding down in school, I joined RBC as a part-time Client Advisor and kept the construction business going a couple of days a week. RBC provided my first opportunity to learn more about banking and as I did, I got interested in mortgages and that led me to a full-time position at First National and the wind up of Vanier Construction.

How did you hear about First National?

I saw a job posting online and a friend happened to know First National because she worked for a mortgage broker who liked our firm. She put in a good word for me and that really helped. When I first joined, my parents would tell their friends that I worked here. The response was that I should feel lucky to be employed by such a great company. That reaction reinforced the decision I made to jump from construction to lending.

Is there something you learned from owning a construction business that helps you serve developers in your current role?

I would say the number one thing I learned is the importance of developing dependable relationships and connections with others that I could count on to get jobs done on time and on budget. Finding the right partners made operating so much easier and I think there is a parallel in commercial financing. When a lender and a borrower develop a trusted relationship, it’s the recipe for success. Seeing construction from a developer’s perspective is also key for a lender. My background helps me to speak the same language as my clients and to understand their motivations and points of pain.

After starting as a residential funder, you accelerated up the ranks quickly and moved from Single Family to Commercial Financing. What was your secret?

Curiosity, being prepared for next-stage career opportunities and simply being in the right place at the right time. When I started, the market was very busy and within a few weeks, I got a chance to work on a huge number of files and that certainly helped as did the fact that I became a licensed mortgage broker. That training was invaluable and put me in line for a promotion to residential fulfillment specialist within about four months. I spent nine months in fulfillment and when I had downtime, I made a point of volunteering to help on projects that were outside my day-to-day scope. Russ Syme, who leads a Commercial Financing team at First National, has an office on the same floor as residential fulfillment. One day, I stuck my head in Russ’s office to introduce myself and say I was interested in knowing more about what he did. Russ not only told me, he shared some files for me to read and gave me some activities on top of my other duties. When Russ needed another Analyst on his team, he offered me the position.  

What did you do as a Commercial Analyst?

Reviewed condo construction financings, CMHC term loans for apartments and the occasional industrial property project for clients. Analysts are involved in every aspect of underwriting from assessing risk to making sure the funding is completed. Once I got accustomed to that role, I used any spare time I had to expand into business development which led me to my current role as Director.

During your time with Russ, you developed some proprietary analytical tools.

That’s right. It’s a model that allows me to analyze the pros and cons of three common financing scenarios for apartment buildings. The tool makes it possible to quickly identify the best financing alternative for clients so they can decide early on what’s most advantageous for them. 

Do you use the tool often?

Definitely. As part of Russ’s team, I had the chance to work on some very large and complex financings. I think the largest was valued at $100 million. Large or small, the spreadsheet was very helpful and it continues to be.

It must be satisfying to see a large financing through from start to finish.

Absolutely, I take great joy in it. The size of the project is secondary, it’s the sense of accomplishment you feel when you see a client envision a project, finance it with our help, put shovels in the ground, build it out and lease it up. I think having a construction background really allows me to appreciate the beauty of real estate in a different way. Working with developers on a building project makes me feel that in a small way I’m also putting my mark on a city.

The past six months have been marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. How has it affected you?

It has been challenging in different ways, but it has forced me to think outside the box. I continue to stay in regular contact with clients and the lockdown has caused me to resort to more video calls, as well as some virtual lunches in order to mimic past interactions. For example, I had food delivered to clients so we could have a conversation over a meal together. As things started to open up however, I have slowly started returning to more in-person meetings.

At this point in the economic cycle, what is uppermost in the minds of your clients?

A lot of builders in the Lower Mainland are contemplating switching from condo to apartment construction because of land-use policies and less favourable economics for presale activity. That’s been a big topic of conversation and has been further supported by the demand for rental and the low interest-rate environment.

Some developers have reported that they have had trouble closing their financings with other lenders. Why?

Because of market uncertainty and it’s opened the door for First National because we have ample liquidity and a strong appetite to continue lending whether through insured or conventional mortgages. A huge strength of ours is that we fund our commitments even in times like these.

What should clients expect when working with Team Vanier?

Transparency and honesty in every interaction. I make it a point of explaining every option available – insured and conventional – and providing my opinion about each option. If something is not viable or won’t align with the client’s future goals, I say so and I think clients appreciate that.  I do my homework so that I can present alternatives. And I try to stay current on best building practices and trends. When I was part of Russ’s team, I did some investigation into the use of mass timber in apartment construction as an alternative to concrete. Being a construction guy myself, this was a natural assignment for me and subsequently Russ’s team led the way in underwriting a mass timber project. I see this as a material of the future, and it was exciting to be able to combine my construction knowledge with underwriting expertise to contribute to this client.

What do you want to accomplish in the years ahead?

I want to develop deep relationships with clients and work together with them early on in order to provide the most value for their projects. The earlier I’m involved in a project the more I can understand the client’s needs and wants and make sure there are no problems from a financing perspective along the way. Ultimately, I want to make personal connections and understand their true passion for development and building ownership.

What’s next for you personally?

I’m planning to take a diploma in urban land economics from UBC as I think it’s a good way to add more depth to my practice.

Final question: do you have any aspirations to start another business or are your entrepreneurial tendencies satisfied at First National?

This is a very entrepreneurial business and my role demands that I trailblaze by building new client relationships. But at the same time, I would say that my love of construction is not dead. At some point, I’d like to work with my Dad again in development. I think it can only help my career here at First National because as a lender, it pays to really understand the challenges a developer goes through to find success and there’s no better way of gaining that insight than by being a developer myself.

To discuss your next property financing, you can reach Zach at zachary.vanier@firstnational.ca or 604.488-5455.