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 Samuel Lasanté, Director Commercial Financing at First National in Montréal. Samuel spoke to us from home on April 21, 2020.
Personally, how are you making out through the lockdown?
I’m fortunate to be able to work from a room that I can close off from the rest of my house. I know others on our team are not that lucky and the other advantage I have is my kids are all grown up so no little ones running around creating a distraction. That said, I am a people person driven by meeting everyone face to face so that’s the biggest change for me. That and the fact that I have never, never in the past 20 years spent so much time at home.
What’s home work like?
It means you can get a lot done but it’s just not the same because the connections with clients and colleagues are all virtual. Research has shown something that 80% of all communication is non-verbal so seeing someone’s face is really quite important. I used our First National Microsoft Teams platform to have a video meeting with a client just recently and it was quite enjoyable so I look forward to doing more of that.
You only started at First National in January.
That’s right and this break slowed my opportunity to really get to know everyone. But Michael Williams is doing a great job of keeping the team connected through weekly virtual meetings and I really appreciate the opportunity to participate in Jeremy Wedgbury’s weekly calls as well. Getting to know their vision and hearing their perspectives on what’s happening in the broader world is important. It’s also very encouraging to hear positive things about loans that are funding. At times like this, I think it’s important to increase communications between and across teams and I think we’ll probably end up doing more of these weekly virtual sessions when this is all over because they are so advantageous.
Are you still lending?
Yes, I will actually close my first transaction as part of First National in the next month. It’s an apartment loan for a client who has owned the property for 20 years and when he does his financings, he reviews every clause, line by line. He’s very meticulous at every stage and since it’s just my first loan at First National, it’s been a great learning experience for me…a crash course in every detail of our process.
Was that transaction disrupted by the pandemic?
Not at all. I had a transaction in Québec City put on hold recently because of market volatility but I also have a client who is preparing a package for a new mixed retail-multifamily rental development in the city and he’s going ahead.
First National lends throughout Québec. As you seeing any differences in behaviour between cities?
I was in Québec City on March 12, so right before the lockdown at a lunch event. People would laugh off the now new normal about shaking hands. It was striking between now and then. But I do think people in Québec City feel a bit safer than in Montreal in terms of the health aspects because there is less contamination. But the anxiety about the economy is shared because no one knows when this will end. No community is sure how to move forward at this point.
What are clients asking you right now?
Clients are calling to ask about our appetite for financing projects. They want to know if we are waiting or committing. They are always surprised when I say we are still active, still lending, with a good level of liquidity. It helps to give them confidence when they see that we are active.
Aside from lending, are you doing anything else to help?
This sounds somewhat basic but I’m just trying to touch base with clients every week just to check in to see how they are doing. As one example, senior homes are having a hard time with COVID-19 and are spending a lot on extra security precautions and getting a lot of attention in the media. I decided to send a note to clients who own seniors’ residences thanking them for everything they are doing for their residents. All of them responded right away. One client took my email and posted it so all of his employees could see it. I think everyone appreciates a little encouragement right now.
Are you seeing any signs that conditions are stabilizing?
It’s too early to talk about that. I think clients who own multifamily properties were very surprised and pleased about the level of rent collection they achieved this month. It was much better than they initially feared. But this is just the first month. We’ll need to see what happens next month. The fact that the government is injecting so much liquidity into the system, into people’s pocketbooks, should help to maintain payments but we’ll need to see. Those who own commercial portfolios are having more difficulty, but again it depends on who you talk to. I have a client who primarily owns shopping centres in Québec City and they are relatively positive because most of their properties are anchored by large grocery stores, pharmacies and banks and those anchors are open and secure.
What advice do you have for landlords right now?
Maintain or step up communication with your tenants. Those clients who are really staying in touch with their customers seem to be experiencing better results.
Have you had any wins in this environment?
I’m focusing on my network and on helping clients navigate this situation. Over 90% of the projects I’m working on are construction related. They are still in the soft-cost stage, arranging permits and financing. When they win by moving their projects forward and putting shovels in the ground, we win.
Overall, I think clients are staying strong and positive and while everyone is anxious and nervous it’s more important than ever to communicate. Internally, First National is also staying positive. Our business model is intact and working, we’re still lending and we are here to help and support clients. It’s not a question of being blind to the situation, we know how challenging it is, but if we all stay positive and realistic together, it will make a difference in how we manage our way through this.
Samuel is safety, securely and productively working at home but you can reach him at Samuel.Lasante@firstnational.ca or any member of the First National commercial team at 1.866.298.0929.