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 Montréal branch: Angelo Isernia, Louis Paulin, Stephanie D’Antico and Nancy Baptista.
Tell us about your branch.
Our branch started about 13 years ago with six employees. Now there’s 50 of us in underwriting and 135 employees in our branch overall. Every year there’s been growth as we’ve carried the First National name to more and more brokers in Québec. Today we’re proud to say that brokers see us as a partner not just as another lender. It’s been a tremendous success story.
You are all underwriters. How do you define your job?
An underwriter’s role here in Montréal is to build relationships with our mortgage broker partners throughout Québec, solicit their business and assess risk in each mortgage application so we can make informed lending decisions. At the end of the day, we’re the people who will approve or decline deals.
What skills, aptitude and attitude are required to perform your role?
Good judgement, an eye for detail, the desire to problem solve and an open mind. Not every file we receive is straightforward or black and white. In fact, most are not. As underwriters, we work in the grey zone where applications don’t always fit neatly against established lending criteria and we have to be creative and open-minded to find solutions. But the biggest quality of all is a willingness to serve brokers, honestly, respectfully and with a positive attitude. Brokers have other choices of where to send business and we very much appreciate it when they select First National.
What are your objectives?
Our main objective is to provide the best service to our broker partners. Every underwriter here is aligned to that goal and it shows year after year. First National is known institutionally for its service but the desire to serve comes from within each of us. We’re just prone to serve, hard-wired if you will. Going hand in hand with that is a turnaround-time objective. When a deal comes in, we don’t get a week to underwrite it; we need to approve it in under four hours. That’s a hard and fast target that speaks to our service approach.
Is that turnaround time common in the mortgage industry?
Brokers tell us we are the quickest in the industry. Nobody else compares. It’s one of the reasons many of the brokers who work with us send over 80% of their business to us. But we’re also fast when it comes to other parts of the lifecycle or a mortgage.
What do you mean?
Here’s an example. We recently approved a $250,000 mortgage but two days before it funded, the notary on the file informed us that the borrower had changed jobs and was working in a completely different field. The borrower moved from a customer service position into a construction trade which meant she went from earning a guaranteed salary to a wage that would vary depending on demand for her skills and construction industry seasonality. We had two days to investigate, to talk to the woman’s new employer and re-assess the risk. We managed to come through without changing the original terms of the deal. That’s the kind of turnaround time that gets noticed and both the broker and the borrower were very grateful.
Is MERLIN the reason you can achieve best-in-class turnaround?
It helps but technology is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s attitude and experience and skill that really drive our branch. And teamwork. Don’t forget that it’s not just underwriters here who get deals done. There are salespeople, fulfillment specialists, funders and managers and everyone pitches in to make great service happen. Everyone follows the deal from beginning to end and there is constant communication across the branch and with the broker. When a broker sends business to First National Montréal, they know there is a big team working to service them. It’s a difference maker. The way our business is structured is another advantage.
Our strategy from day one was to focus all of our attention on brokers. We don’t deal directly with the public. We work with professionals, people who make a living out of securing the best mortgages for others; people who are running their own brokerage businesses who know that time is money. Our relationships are professional to professional which makes it possible to be very efficient in our work.
Is your service personalized?
Absolutely. We work with a number of different brokers and brokerage firms in Québec . We get to know how each broker likes to work and we adjust to the broker not the other way around. It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all system. It’s customized which is the essence of good service in our opinion.
In your view, what’s the difference between doing an ok job for brokers and doing the best job?
The best we can do is to leave no stone unturned in finding a solution for a broker. We’re not sitting here hoping to decline deals. We’re here to find an option that will result in a funding that makes sense for all parties. Sometimes we can’t approve deals as presented but we can recommend an alternative. In fact, in every case we try to find an alternative and we’re willing to put our collective minds to work to find it. We’re a very open office. We share ideas and it really helps to combine our collective experience. It’s not ok with us to do anything less than our best.
What kind of solutions are you willing to suggest?
There are lots of different options we can offer depending on the borrower’s situation. We might suggest increasing the amortization, or recommend the borrower pay off another loan. It’s all based on personal circumstance.
Often do you approve a mortgage application?
On average 70% to 75% of the time. When we don’t give the green light it’s only after we’ve exhausted all possibilities. In all honesty, we never want to put a borrower in a bad financial position by qualifying them for a mortgage they can’t afford.
If you decline a deal is there a way to still be at your best in serving the broker?
Yes, there is. First, we are as clear as possible in explaining the reason we declined the application. It’s important for the broker to know the why behind our decision so they can explain it to their client. This information is important because it enables the broker to re-group with the borrower to see if they can take steps to improve creditworthiness. Second, if we have to say no, we say it right away. We don’t keep anyone waiting.
What motivates you to be the best, to go the extra mile to problem solve?
We need mortgage brokers and we need their business. That fact itself is enough. But it also comes down to personality. We’re people who thrive on doing all we can to make a difference. And we also know that there is a homeowner at the end of every deal. They’re counting on their broker and First National to make their mortgage happen. We’re people too. All of us have or have had mortgages or have friends and relatives you have so we know how important it is to get the best service from a lender. It’s great to know that we can have an impact on someone’s life. That motivates us even more.
Is there anything about First National or your branch that brings out the best in you?
First National is the industry leader. We have a reputation to uphold. What we do everyday adds to our reputation. There’s also a good work environment here that thrives on teamwork. The values of upper management are also inspiring. They stress the importance of relationships. They listen to us and they care about us. Communication is very positive. There’s a lot of enthusiasm. Another factor that helps is the work of our quality-control team which regularly comes up with ways to improve processes. Overall, we are all willing to roll up our sleeves to get the job done. We don’t stand on ceremony.
Brokers have to compete for business. Is there a way you can help them to improve their competitiveness?
For sure. In context, borrowers in Québec are often pre-disposed to work with their local credit unions, trusts and banks and as a result the brokerage industry in Québec has lower market penetration than in other parts of Canada maybe by as much as 10 percentage points. So we spread the word whenever we can that it’s better to work with a broker than going direct to a lender. Our sales team participates though coaching and seminars aimed at helping brokers acquire new clients. And of course when a broker brings a new client our way we try to give them service they will never get at another institution. These efforts are paying off as we are getting the opportunity to work with a lot of new brokers.
As the industry changes, how are you planning to stay ahead of the competition?
What we do best is we’re constant. With all of the changes that occur in the regulatory environment and the market itself, our level of consistency makes a huge difference to brokers. They know we will stay on top of the rules but they also know we can be counted on to deliver the service they have come to know and expect.
Final question: what do you want brokers to know about First National?
That we appreciate their business, that we’re here to give them the best experience possible and that we’re always here to serve. We want to be their number one choice and we’ll do that by being a reliable partner who always comes to the table ready and willing to help.