In mid-March, First National’s commercial team retreated to home offices across the country to do their part to stop the spread of COVID-19. Now, more than a month later, we touch base with the members of our origination teams to see how they are coping with the pandemic and what type of work they are doing for clients. Our first Words of Wisdom come from Dru McAuley, Assistant Vice President, Commercial Financing at First National in Toronto. Dru spoke to us from home on April 14, 2020.
A personal question to start: what’s it like working from home?
I’m the least techie person you’ve probably ever met so I’m amazed that all of our technology works as well as it has in keeping me connected with my team and clients. I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to go to the office. Working at home didn’t excite me. At a very personal level, it’s a revelation that working remotely is as functional as it has been.
What about workflow for clients?
I’m really impressed with the quality and volume of work we’re getting through on a daily basis right across the country. Between funding loans, responding to new business and all of the detailed administration involved, I would never have guessed that it would work out as well as it has. It’s remarkable under the circumstances.
How are your clients coping?
Depending on their circumstances and their financial position heading into this period, it’s challenging but in general, I would say they are faring pretty well. Remember that no one could have planned or predicted this and there was little advance notice given by governments before the lockdown. Those who entered this period in a well-capitalized position with good tenants are relatively less stressed than those who didn’t have these advantages.
Has anything surprised you so far?
Yes, the number of people who are coping well so far and managing through this period and the amount of liquidity they have in place to support ongoing operations. We’re all aware that the longer this runs the more stress it’s going to cause but there is a lot of resilience within our client base. And a lot of professionalism. It’s impressive to be able to sit back and watch clients demonstrate best practices under these conditions. If you want best-in-class results, you have to be best in class and I’m seeing that within our client base as borrowers put extra effort into their properties, tenant relations and tenant communications. This is a period when you can absolutely see, in real time, the benefits accruing to those who invest time and effort.
Are you sharing best practices with your clients?
Yes. Organizationally, First National has issued emails with advice and created a special COVID-19 section of the website and I pass on other information via email when I think it’s relevant. Beyond that, each member of our team is available to provide advice and support on a personal level to our clients. Borrowers who want to use us as a resource at this point tell us that they really appreciate what we’re able to provide. In normal times, we’d be chatting with clients about rates and loan amounts. Now we’re talking about things that are less desirable like income disruption but nevertheless we’re here to help.
Are markets start to stabilize?
I haven’t seen any signs that conditions are stabilizing and frankly I don’t expect to at this point. It’s too early. I’m doing a Zoom presentation this week for about 12 investors who are interested in knowing what’s going on in the mortgage market, so conditions are definitely top of mind with everyone.
Have you had any wins in this environment?
We’re closing loans as we speak and I’ve got proposals out that may get signed back. So those are wins or tentative wins, but I would also say it’s a win when we’re able to help a borrower gain a different perspective on the future. A property owner may spend many hours every day speaking with their building superintendents and tenants, so a conversation with someone outside that sphere who has a different viewpoint can be a welcome break. I also consider it a win that we’re able to maintain pipeline spreads.
What does that mean for borrowers?
It means we honour the rate we quote in our commitments, even when the market changes and rates and spreads move. If a lender ever needed an excuse to change spreads, the market is providing it right now, but we don’t do that. First National has been through two international financial crises in 12 years and I’m proud to say we’ve always honoured our commitments. That’s not common in the marketplace and it speaks to the integrity of our management team and our organization.
The level of professionalism on the part of landlords I work with and their compassion for tenants has been remarkable. I know of one client who went to all the tenants in his buildings and gave out $100 grocery gift certificates. It’s not possible for everyone to do that or to do that all the time because it would cost a fortune, but it shows character. It’s an investment in good relations.
Dru McAuley is safely, securely and productively working at home but you can reach him at email@example.com or any member of the First National commercial team at 1.866.298.0929.