Words of wisdom: Michele Cook shares her thoughts on working though the pandemic
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. These Words of Wisdom come from Michele Cook, Director, Commercial Financing at First National in Toronto. Michele spoke to us from home on April 15, 2020.
Michele, you work on a team with Darryl Bellwood and Mitch Tomulka. How are things going so far?
In a word, amazing. It’s almost business as usual except we don’t see each other face to face. There are actually 11 people in our group, so the three of us and eight others. We do virtual team meetings three times a week through our First National app to compensate for physical distancing. Some of us show our faces on the screen and some of us choose not to by resorting to audio only, but everybody is on the job and working hard.
Why did you add more virtual meetings?
When the idea came up to add two more meetings a week, I thought that it would be way too many. But it’s been really good because it gives us the chance to get caught up, share ideas, and talk about business beyond the day-to-day. It’s not a substitute for the convenience of just walking down the hall and speaking to each other, but we always try to end each meeting on a positive note with a little laugh here and there.
Any other adjustments you’ve had to make?
I don’t have a good printer at home so that’s a challenge. I’m also not great at marking up PDF documents using the editing tool but I’m figuring it out. And it’s a minor inconvenience all things considered.
Have you noticed a drop off in productivity?
Not at all. As long as there are borrowers, we will be productive. We’re responding to a large volume of calls from clients right now so there’s no time for less than 100% effort.
How does a client get in contact with you when you aren’t in the office?
They call my office line and it automatically rings at the same time on my personal cellphone. Email is great too. Everyone here is accessible. It honestly goes with the territory. We don’t work 9 to 5.
What kind of support are clients asking for right now and what are you telling them?
Some borrowers are curious about mortgage deferrals. They aren’t necessarily asking for a deferral, but they want to understand how a deferral works. I think the way the government originally announced the idea created some confusion as some borrowers assumed it was available across the board, regardless of the situation. We review potential deferral options on a case-by-case basis and for those in this situation, we ask for a formal request as well as back-up support in the form of rent roll comparisons from March and April, bank statements and net worth statements. What we say is that we’re here to help those borrowers who need it and we mean it. Another common question is about money, as in, is First National still lending?
What’s your answer?
The answer is yes, we’ve got money to lend. It’s business as usual for insured term and construction loans and we have floating rate bridge financing available as a great conventional option as well.
Are there any wins to be had in this environment?
The biggest win is we continue to lend. A lot of commercial lenders can’t say that because they’ve stopped doing so. We’re here for our clients. We’ve closed on all of our commitments and we’re continuing to do that. We’re also still offering early rate locks on insured loans for up to 30 days, which is another big win. And the interest rates are still very good and below where they were so that’s another win for everyone.
What about on the new business front? Is anyone transacting new business right now?
Clients who were pretty well along in the process of buying before the pandemic are proceeding. But I don’t see much activity in the sense of clients kicking the tires on a new property. That’s partly to do with the fact that due diligence on a property is difficult because of physical distancing. There are also just so many unanswerable questions right now. No one knows, for example, where cap rates will go. So I think a lot of clients are in wait-and-see mode.
Are you seeing any signs that conditions are stabilizing?
No, the opposite; it’s getting more volatile. I think the consensus is that it will get more difficult before it gets better. But it will get better.
Has anything surprised you over the past month?
It surprised me that April was as gentle as it was as far as multi-family rent collections are concerned. It wouldn’t have surprised me if 20% of tenants or more were unable to meet their monthly rent. That wasn’t the case. My clients are telling me they received 90 or 95% of all payments by mid-April. The hope of course is that emergency funds from government will help tenants continue to pay their rents for as long as the lockdown continues. Also, and while it’s not a surprise, a lot of clients we’ve been chatting with are looking to increase the size of their existing insured mortgages or thinking about putting new mortgages on properties they own that have low leverage.
Why are they doing that?
First, they want to make sure they set aside cash to ride out the storm and second, they are positioning themselves to buy distressed properties a year from now. It’s about being opportunistic and taking advantage of financial strength. Cash is king, as they say, and doing a financing at this point with interest rates being so low is a way to achieve liquidity.
I just read the Bank of Canada’s April rate announcement and the accompanying statement by Stephen Poloz. In the near term, it’s clear that there are going to be economic challenges. But we will find a way around them.
Michele Cook is safely, securely and productively working at home but you can reach her at Michele.Cook@firstnational.ca or any member of the First National commercial team at 1.866.298.0929.