As our Senior Vice President, Commercial Mortgages, Jeremy Wedgbury is responsible for First National’s market-leading commercial mortgage business. In this interview, we ask him to share his perspectives on the company’s commercial mortgage growth strategies, performance to date in 2016 and future opportunities.
Tell us first about yourself.
I’ve been with First National since 2004 so over 12 years and prior to that I served at Manulife Financial and Merrill Lynch Financial. So my career is commercial real estate: it’s been my home for about 26 years. In terms of school, I attended Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of British Columbia where I studied Urban Land Economics.
You joined First National having served some very large commercial mortgage lenders.
Correct, but one of the facts that surprises a lot of people in the industry is that First National is the single largest commercial mortgage lender in Canada with, at last count, over $21.7 billion of commercial mortgages under management. Including renewals, we originated over $4 billion of commercial loans in just the first nine months of 2016.
What’s First National`s share of the commercial market?
Market data are hard to come by, but most of the estimates I’ve read from market participants suggest about $40 billion of commercial mortgage transactions occur annually in Canada. Using that number, First National has the leading share at about 11%. I recently attended a commercial real estate conference in New York and while just about every participant knew First National, they were shocked by our scale and growth. I don’t think they expected a non-bank lender to be as large.
What factors have driven First National’s leadership and the high rate of origination growth?
I would say there have been two catalysts. The first is a First National factor and it’s the entrepreneurial delivery of service. As entrepreneurs at heart, we are hard wired to respond to opportunity quickly, take smart risks and think big. This non-institutional lending approach really sets us apart and enables us to see challenges as opportunities to evolve or to set new precedents. We’ve shaped our processes so that the turnaround times from request to funding are extremely fast by industry standards and borrowers really appreciate it. To achieve that, we’ve aligned ourselves with over 70 funding partners, including lifecos, pension funds and banks that trust in our process to identify and scrutinize proposals and develop mortgage structures that address their capital deployment needs. By having a large funding network plus our own capital, and the drive and systems to succeed, we typically close transactions faster than anyone in the industry.
What’s the second catalyst?
It’s somewhat related but during the 2008 credit crisis, a number of sources of capital left the market. When that happened, some of the largest real estate companies in Canada went looking for new sources of liquidity and they found First National which at the time had just become an NHA MBS issuer with capital to place. That was a tipping point for our business, and after the credit crisis ended, those borrowers chose to stay with us rather than returning to their old lenders because they liked our service and responsiveness. Without naming names, one of those customers now has about a half billion dollar portfolio with us; before the credit crisis, all of their business was with other lenders.
What type of borrowers do you typically work with?
Our borrowers tend to be sophisticated real estate industry participants who have the skill sets and knowledge to operate successfully. For example, we work with some of the largest REITs in the country and the largest developers.
How do you keep this entrepreneurial spirit working as a much larger business?
It’s really part of the DNA of our organization. Remember that First National was founded by two entrepreneurs who are still leading us today and their attitude is infectious. We’ve also kept our organization flat so that complex decisions can be made quickly and accountability is never diluted. We get to the point of execution quickly so that solutions are timely. It’s also possible to be entrepreneurial when your team is well tenured and ours is across origination, underwriting, credit, funding and AML.
When you say a flat structure, talk about your origination and underwriting resources in commercial.
Today, we have 31 originators and 40 underwriters located in five offices across Canada.
What kind of commercial transactions do you engage in?
Our commercial loan product platform is the broadest in the industry and includes CMHC-insured fixed and floating rate loans, second mortgages, bridge loans, construction loans and CMBS loans. The breadth of our platform ensures we can provide a solution that’s right for different borrowing needs. Of note, within our $21.7 billion commercial book, more than $15 billion is CMHC-related, which makes First National Canada’s largest CMHC multi-residential lender.
In terms of the market, is now a good time to invest in commercial real estate?
The answer is that if you have a long-range plan, commercial real estate in general has typically generated a higher rate of return than other types of investments and tends to be a very stable way of generating income. That’s the reason we see many smart investors including pension funds and life insurance companies taking an active ownership role. That said, there are different commercial real estate assets to choose from so it’s a matter of making informed choices.
For those building or buying an apartment building, why do they choose First National for financing?
For a variety of reasons, but to offer three, they prefer to deal with the biggest commercial lender in the industry, they want to avail themselves of our knowledge of CMHC lending – we know that space perhaps better than anyone – and they value our ability to act as a strategic partner and debt strategy advisor.
Recently, the Department of Finance announced new mortgage rules. Do these rules affect your commercial operations?
No, there was no impact whatsoever to First National’s commercial lending operations. We continue to provide all of the same commercial lending services our customers have come to expect.
So no change to your access to funding or your growth prospects?
Correct, there has been no change to our substantial and steady access to capital to fund our commercial and multi-residential lending programs including CMHC-insured lending on apartment properties. The Government’s changes to date have focused on single family lending which includes rental buildings with four units or less. So the growth trajectory that has made First National Canada’s largest CMHC multi-residential lender and largest commercial mortgage lender will, in our view, continue for the foreseeable future.
When you look to the future, what are your business goals?
Clearly, we want to maintain our service advantage as we grow, that’s our first objective. That means, for example, hiring professionals who share our passion for finding appropriate financial solutions for borrowers and funding partners and doing so expediently. We also operate with a number of financial goals for ourselves, such as growing our conventional book. We’ve made great headway on this front over the past four years. Our conventional book now stands at around 7 billion. We also want commercial to become a bigger contributor to First National’s overall earnings.
Since you joined First National, commercial operations have experienced close to 300% growth. Is it possible to do more?
That`s certainly our intention.