As Canada’s largest-non-bank mortgage lender, First National appreciates the vital role played by mortgage brokers in helping Canadians arrange financing to purchase their first homes. It’s why we created MERLIN, the market’s first online underwriting system. But our commitment to mortgage brokers and borrowers goes deeper than technology. We’ve built a unique culture in every one of our branches where our teams strive to be the best. What does that mean? We asked the underwriters in our Calgary Branch: Brandon Podorieszach, Shyanne Hilson, Albert Vuong and Nicole White.
Tell us about your branch.
We serve mortgage brokers and borrowers throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Each of us reviews about 10 files a day, so we’re busy and the applications are pretty diverse. No deal is the same. When you consider the breadth of credit histories and property locations we’re working with, our jobs are pretty varied. There is never a dull day.
Some of you have worked at other financial institutions. What’s different about First National?
A few things. At other institutions, there is often no direct interaction with brokers. Here, we get to work with the same mortgage brokers month in and month out so we develop meaningful personal relationships that make our jobs more rewarding. We also develop a deeper understanding of broker needs and preferences because of the frequency of contact. Then there’s MERLIN, our proprietary technology. It was built specifically and only for mortgage underwriting and really streamlines our jobs versus generic systems used by other financial institutions.
First National is a monoline lender. Does that make a difference in your ability to be the best?
Absolutely. We’re specialists in residential mortgages. We’re not trying to underwrite car loans or loans to cover the cost of university. We’re single-minded and that gives us the ability to develop expertise and what we think is a best-in-class approach.
Is there a difference in the level of decision-making authority a First National underwriter has versus other financial institutions?
Definitely. At other financial institutions, it’s common to escalate applications for approval to a higher level of management, whereas here we have the training and experience to come to conclusions on our own. This adds up to faster, better service for brokers and borrowers.
What’s the difference between doing an ok job for a mortgage broker and the best job?
The level of interest and attention paid to each deal. We try to do our best on every application by doing a thorough job of analyzing the information we receive and digging in to make deals work.
Give us an example.
Sure, we recently reviewed an application from a borrower whose income varied by more than 20% between 2017 to 2018. That’s a red flag in our industry and might have caused other institutions to simply reject the deal out of hand. We took a deeper dive and realized that there were extenuating circumstances. This person was just starting his sales career in 2016 so his 2017 income was low as he developed his clientele. Last year was more indicative of his earning power so by looking closer, we gained enough comfort to approve the application.
If each of you reviews 10 deals a day, how many are straight forward, where no extra research like this is necessary?
On a good day, probably one or two. Qualifying for a mortgage has become much harder, especially for first-time borrowers due to the government’s B20 rules.
Being an underwriter can’t be easy. On the one hand, you want to make deals work for brokers but on the other, you have to manage your risk. How do you square that circle?
There is no conflict. We assess risk in a serious-minded, detailed fashion and we’re able to green light a good percentage of the applications that come our way because of the level of due diligence we do and the fact that we’re able to lend across a wider swath of the risk spectrum than many financial institutions. If we can make a deal work, we do, if we can’t, we still try to provide the best service.
If you reject a deal, how can you still provide the best service?
By never making brokers wait to know the result of our assessments. We’re all about getting to the answer, pro or con, fast. Brokers know that no lender is going to approve every deal 100% of the time, but with First National, they know we are going to make a decision quickly so they can move on. We don’t waste anyone’s time. Brokers know when we pass on a deal, there is a good reason because we provide it. We also try never to slam the door shut without an alternative solution, even if it means recommending the broker try a different institution.
That sounds like service above self. What other personal qualities or skills are required to be the best underwriter?
You have to care, you have to be organized, you have to be able to pay attention to the details of not just one file but multiple files at the same time. You have to be disciplined to be able to multi-task and you have to be a people person. The best underwriters understand that relationships are king, that the relationships we have with brokers transcend individual deals. It’s also important to be a problem solver at heart.
Communication must be important in your job.
It is. We rely on brokers to provide us with complete information and disclosure so we can be effective problem solvers for them and we make it our policy to communicate quickly and transparently with brokers.
When is it important to be your best?
It’s always important. We never want to be second best. But it’s really important on occasions when a broker comes forward with a deal at 4pm and needs same-day approval. That’s when the ability, not just the desire to be our best, comes shining through.
That actually happened?
Yes, it did. The broker was originally working with another lender who was too busy to get to the file on time. The borrower, who happened to be in Winnipeg, needed approved financing that day. Thanks to the quick thinking of their broker and a fast response from us, they got the approval they needed when they needed it from First National. As a result of coming through, we’re getting a lot more business from that broker, which is of course the point. We want to give all-star performance to brokers so they can be all-stars for their clients.
What motivates you to be the best?
Recognition. We like to be recognized by brokers for being tireless in pursuit of deals. We’re also motivated by the idea of growing our book of business, personally and for the branch. Growth counts here.
Is there anything about your branch that brings out the best in you?
The support of management. We’re on the same page. They want us to succeed. Teamwork is also a big motivator. A lot of us have been with First National for a long time and it’s a team atmosphere. This is a place where you see a colleague willing to jump out of the que to be of service to a broker with a tight deadline and it inspires you to do the same. The attitude is infectious.
Is there a way to stay on top as the industry changes?
We think so. First, we try to learn from every deal we do. We make it a point of sharing information with each other about unique situations we face, and we keep close tabs on what’s going on in our markets so we’re never caught by surprise. But most important, being the best means always remembering our core purpose and that’s to put people in homes. We exist to help people.