First National veteran Connie Altomari was recently appointed Director of the Company's largest single-family residential Branch, which serves brokers and borrowers throughout Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Over the years, Connie has made many contributions to the growth of our business and the success of our mortgage broker partners and her promotion is exceedingly well deserved. To learn more, we asked Connie to tell us about her career and what she hopes to accomplish in her new leadership role.
Connie, you've built a career in the mortgage industry. Tell us how it began.
Truth be told, l studied hotel and restaurant management at Ryerson and my intention after college was to do something in the hospitality industry. I worked as a waitress at a small restaurant on the Danforth to pay for school and then joined the catering department at another restaurant after graduation. My daughter was born in 1985 and I figured the restaurant industry wasn't built for family life. Fortunately, a friend of mine worked at BMO and she suggested I apply to the bank. I landed that job and started by putting packages together for clients and then moved into a customer service role answering client questions about their mortgages. That was my first real exposure to the mortgage industry. I did that job for about a year and a half and then I joined Central Guaranty Trust.
What were you doing at the Trust company?
I started as a junior underwriter, performing the role that we might refer to today as a fulfillment specialist. So funding mortgages, collecting and confirming income documentation, all the things necessary to support an underwriter. I was promoted to underwriter status after about six months and that enabled me to work directly with brokers which I really liked. I stayed at Central Guaranty Trust for about six years through its sale to TD and then worked part-time at TD.
How did you come to join First National?
I heard that First National was hiring on a full-time basis, so I called Moray Tawse. Fortunately, Moray had heard my name in broker industry circles, and he offered me a job right then, over the phone, sight unseen. I never had a formal job interview at First National until I applied to Scott McKenzie for my new position earlier this year.
When did you start at First National?
On April 29, 1995 so 24 years ago.
What were you doing when you first started?
A little bit of everything! We were a tiny company. I was the 15th person hired. We didn't have titles back then. Our receptionist ran credit bureau checks for us on a little machine. And we typed our discharge statements on a typewriter that was probably a hundred years old. Scott ran underwriting for brokers out of an office in Mississauga and I worked at 154 University Avenue, just up the street from where we are now, doing customer service, collections, renewals and porting of mortgages. I was brought in because I had the expertise to do mortgages. I probably looked after about a hundred files back then with two in collection. So as I said, we were tiny.
First National veterans often refer to the family environment that existed back then. Was that your experience?
Definitely. In the middle of the day, Moray used to put on a pot of tea for everyone and we all took turns doing that.
When did job titles become a thing?
Probably 1999 or 2000. I was given an underwriter title and my job was to underwrite business for existing customers. In 2005 or 2006 I started to manage a team of two. One underwriter and one funder and me.
What happened after that?
Things took off. We grew substantially and my team over the years grew to 21 people: underwriters, funders and fulfillment specialists reporting to me. Ours was and is the largest team in the Branch and we worked with clients, brokers and borrowers, in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
What was the highlight of that experience?
I would say there were a few. One of the big ones was being part of a company that surpassed $100 billion in Mortgages Under Administration. This was the moment when we felt that we had really arrived as a significant player in the industry. For those of us who had been here awhile, it was also a sign of how much things had changed. I remember when we did our first $1 million of mortgages. We posted commemorative stickers on our outgoing mail to mark that occasion. Our IPO in 2006 was also a very exciting time.
You mentioned that you liked working with brokers. Did your previous job keep you connected to the broker community?
Absolutely. About 70% of the time we worked with brokers and the other 30% with borrowers.
What about your new job?
I now have responsibility for the entire Branch, so 100 staff members working as part of seven teams comprised of underwriters, funders and fulfillment specialists serving brokers and borrowers in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. So big numbers and a big territory.
Do you feel well prepared to take on your new responsibilities?
I do. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work closely with my predecessor before she retired. Kathy Lillie treated me as a partner, a confidant and we shared decisions. I was her go-to for many years and so this role is not foreign to me. In fact, I filled in for Kathy several times including one period for about four months. For sure, there will be learning curves for me in the months ahead. Managing managers, some with more than a decade of experience each, will be different from what I'm used to, but I'm ready.
What's your vision for the Branch?
I want our numbers to grow, I want to at least meet and ideally surpass our targets and I want the best for everyone involved: brokers, borrowers and our team. I want to see my colleagues advance. Like Kathy and Scott. I'm a big believer in promoting from within and I will continue to do that. After all, I'm a beneficiary of that system.
How often are people promoted from within?
97% of the time is our track record. We have great people so the decision is easy. An example is Nick Vlahos. Nick started here as an underwriter six years ago, was promoted to a manager position about three years ago and has now been promoted again to my old job leading the Branch's largest team. This is the way we do things at First National.
What about changes, if any, that you'd like to see in the work environment?
We've got a great workplace. Our key competitive advantage is customer service: servicing our brokers, servicing our clients. Everyone is focused on it. It's an attitude that starts at the top and flows throughout the organization. Everything is about service. But I guess if I had to pick one thing, I would say I plan to encourage my colleagues to pick up the phone and get engaged, get involved with brokers on a personal level as much as possible. So often we find it's challenging to do that because we're so busy and resorting to email is easy and efficient. But there is no substitution for the personal touch and the respect that it shows to our broker partners.
Do you have to add people to your team to accomplish that?
We are hiring and I'm going to ask my seven managers to look after larger teams. And why not? We have smart, experienced team leaders – the top in the industry – and they are more than capable.
You have a personal reputation as being very accessible. Are you going to maintain your open-door policy?
I'm certainly going to try and I'm hoping that our managers can do the same.
When you aren't leading the Branch, what do you do in your spare time?
I've been married for 35 years, have three children and two grandchildren, so my family keeps me busy. We have a very active life. I like to bike, I like to read and of course, with my restaurant background and Italian heritage, I like to cook. I find cooking is very relaxing. I just love to try different recipes.
I'm really excited about what's ahead for First National and I'm delighted to play a bigger role in driving our ongoing success.