First National has invested in the Quebec commercial real estate market for decades under very capable leadership. This year, with the retirement of one of our key local leaders, we implemented a succession plan to organize ourselves for an exciting new journey of business expansion. This plan saw the recruitment of Michael C. Williams to the newly created role of Vice President, Quebec Region for First National's Commercial Division. In this interview, Michael updates us on progress to date.
Michael, you joined to lead the Quebec team in February with a mandate to grow. How are things going so far?
Tremendously well. I would say we are well ahead of where I thought we'd be after seven months. I joined a great team and they welcomed me with open arms, so the acclimatization or get-to-know you period was remarkably quick and easy. During this period, I learned the First National way…or the set of processes used to underpin the great level of customer service that we offer and introduced myself to our investing partners to better understand their objectives and investment preferences. These activities basically allowed us to identify the strategies for growth we want to pursue and align ourselves for growth.
Speaking of processes, now that you've experienced First National's approach first hand, what do you think of it and has anything surprised you?
I've always followed First National from a distance because it was a formidable competitor of mine in the multi-residential market in Quebec and I thought they were strong and disciplined. But experiencing the culture from the inside, learning how First National develops deep relationships with clients and hearing clients validate the value of what we bring – whether it's through thoughtful advice or quick execution – is something entirely different. There is no way to know any of this unless you are here to experience it. This is a machine that really runs and the surprise is how remarkably well organized and dedicated the team is to its client service vision. It's very impressive.
Other than organization and passion, is there anything else you would say differentiates or distances First National from other commercial lenders?
Absolutely. First and foremost, we have a fast-paced environment and that is not typical of commercial lenders. For example, when we get CMHC approval, our clients receive their commitment letters in 24 hours. At other lenders, it's a process that can take up to three weeks. That's a huge advantage for First National clients because it allows them to lock in their interest rates as soon as the commitment is signed back. With interest rate fluctuations, the risk posed by a 3-week delay is very meaningful. First National takes away that risk.
Have you made any refinements to your processes to become even better or faster?
Yes, we've worked to develop an even stronger esprit d’équipe. I believe in the power of teams. I think teams can be stronger, smarter and faster than any one individual. So while we still benefit from taking personal responsibility and having both autonomy and accountability, the over-arching theme here is teamwork. We share knowledge, we share market information, we share best practices and we look to learn from each other, all of which supports business and personal growth.
Can you talk about your growth strategies?
In our business, growth starts with people so I'm very pleased to say we've added two analysts to our team so we now have six analysts in Montreal and in October, we welcome Yohan Kadoch as Director of Commercial Financing. Yohan has over a decade of real estate lending experience having worked most recently at a Schedule I bank as a Senior Manager in their Quebec Real Estate Finance Division. These additions support our ability to spend more time with clients, to enhance our market reach and penetration and ultimately to originate higher mortgage volumes in an efficient, analytical manner.
So you've made additional investments.
Yes and this also includes expanding the physical space in our Montreal office, which is quite exciting. We always want to be well resourced even as we grow our book of business and this expansion ensures we are.
When you talk about market penetration, are you referring just to the Montreal market?
No, we serve all of Quebec and we envision doing even more business in communities such as the Quebec City region. We're developing relationships there and we're starting to add additional volumes. It's always important to be front of mind with clients where they do business and our expansion is supporting that goal.
You are well known in the Quebec market, having led commercial mortgage groups at two banks. How have clients responded to your presence at First National?
Really well. When you start at a new organization, there is always some anxiety about your ability to be accepted by clients. First National clients have been nothing but supportive. When I put my change of employment information in social media, my LinkedIn page just blew up and many of my old clients wanted to know more about First National and reached out to me, which is fantastic. I would also add that while the two Schedule I banks I worked for had very significant brand name recognition in Quebec, which is very important in supporting market share growth, the First National team has done a great job of building awareness of our brand. A lot of that great work was done by Robert St-Pierre and the team before he retired. They got the word out by doing an exceptional job and it's up to us to carry on that work and build upon that solid existing foundation.
Have you added new clients?
Yes, we have and the momentum is building, which is evidenced by the number of opportunities that are coming our way. In lending, word of mouth is the most important form of advertising and when you do a good job, it gets noticed. I would say the wind is in our sails, we expect to finish 2018 in a strong fashion and most important, we will have a great foundation to grow in 2019.
Speaking of growth, how is the Quebec commercial market performing and what's driving that performance?
The Quebec market and Montreal specifically are red hot. Relative to the rest of Canada and other international cities, Montreal's commercial real estate is trading at a discount. We are doing a lot of catch up and there is still runway ahead of us. From an economic standpoint, the job market is great, unemployment is low, Quebec's finances are in the black and as a result of that combination of factors, there is an unprecedented level of investor interest. So the backdrop for lending growth at least for the next 18 to 24 months couldn't be better.
Are there specific assets that are popular?
Definitely the apartment sector. There is significant demand for cash-generating rental assets. A lot of the stock is old, so investment dollars are being deployed for renovations and property repositioning to improve rental rates. The market is pushing rents higher and higher, testing and breaking through new levels regularly. Happily, First National is Quebec's leading lender in this sector.
What about other assets you lend on?
The same story is true with industrial properties. We have one of the lowest if not the lowest industrial vacancy rates in Canada. It's an asset class that excites us and we do have sources of funding in place and available to grow in this space.
What sort of lending products do you have to offer?
We have a full range, from insured CMHC products to a variety of conventional financing options including term debt, construction and short term bridge financing options. I find borrowers don't always know about the breadth of our solutions, particularly our conventional offerings for multi residential, industrial, office and retail because they may have only experienced one type of financing and many times that's insured product for multi-residential. So it's our job to be more vocal about the many financing solutions we offer, including features such as early rate lock which allows borrowers to mitigate the risk of rising interest rates that everyone is concerned about.
What's ahead for First National in Quebec as an organization?
I would say we have three priorities and they are all related to growth. First, we're working hard to assimilate our new hires so we can hit the ground running in 2019. Second, we're looking to grow our base of investors for the Quebec market. And third, we're focusing on getting the message out about the breadth of lending options we have available to help our clients. These priorities are designed to really support and drive our ambitious growth plan for 2019. Beyond that, it's about maintaining a positive, can-do attitude within our team. That's an ever-present objective of mine because it supports our philosophy of going deep to deliver great service and value for our clients….service and value they are willing to pay for.
Any other thoughts you'd like to share?
We are determined to continue to service our clients well, to grow our portfolio and to help borrowers navigate the economic and market landscape that will evolve over the next 18 to 24 months. We're monitoring the interest rate environment and keeping close tabs on dynamics like construction costs and land costs so we can be informed participants in our clients' decision-making process. It's when costs escalate, and market conditions tighten that having a strong, knowledgeable lending partner becomes even more valuable. To sum up, we're striving to be exactly that kind of partner to our clients and we're on a great path toward a future of growth built on a legacy of exceptional service.
A Montreal native, Michael is a proven commercial real estate financing executive with an enviable 16-year track record of client service. To meet Michael and other members of the First National Quebec commercial team, please call 514.499.7920 or email Michael.Williams@firstnational.ca