At First National, we believe true success comes from teamwork. But occasionally, a member of our team rises above all others by making a lasting impression on customers and colleagues alike. Kathy Lillie is just such a person. On the eve of her retirement as our long-serving Director of Residential Underwriting for Ontario and Atlantic Canada, we catch up to Kathy to learn more about her career and her motivations.
Kathy, when did you start at First National?
I joined in 1997 so almost 22 years ago. I still remember my first job interview with Moray (Tawse) and (Scott) McKenzie. By that point, I'd worked in the mortgage industry for a few years and so I knew who they were and they knew who I was.
What did they ask you in that first interview?
They wanted to know if I could help them get to $10 million of new mortgages a month. It's funny when I think back on that because in 2018, our branch alone did over $20 million in volume per day.
Why did they hire you?
To be honest, it was a 'right place, right time' situation. Back then, First National had been in business for about nine years and so even though we were a small organization, Moray and Scott were of the view that things were about to get a lot bigger. We'd just taken on a new investor, Stephen (Smith) was doing a brilliant job developing the firm's IT, which transformed the mortgage underwriting process, and they thought that with my mortgage background, I would know how to handle higher volumes.
Why did you want to come to First National?
Canada had just been through a very difficult housing recession and I was selling properties under power of sale more than I was lending at my previous job. I was looking to be part of a growth company where I could have a hand in creating a business structure and systems that would take us to the next level.
So a formative time.
Absolutely, and my fondest memory is contributing to the development of a comprehensive underwriting team with well defined roles for each person. It was ground-floor work to create a team environment, populate the team and figure out how each person was going to work together. Scott and Moray allowed me to have a large hand in all of that and I'm truly grateful they did.
Your branch is First National's largest. Was it the first to develop these systems and approaches?
Yes it was. We set the standard that our other residential branches adopted. We still use the same structure today; it's worked out very well.
As branch leader, do you believe in mentoring?
Absolutely, I think every leader needs to take the time to do this. When I announced my retirement, I received really thoughtful notes from several of my former colleagues who went on to have great careers after the training they received here. There is something uniquely satisfying about helping people in this way. The great thing is, First National remains an excellent place to learn and grow. I'm living proof.
Are there some long-time colleagues you'd like to single out for special attention?
Too many to name. But Scott and Moray for sure. They gave me this opportunity and have supported me every step of the way. Connie Altomari as well. Connie joined First National before I did and she's been just wonderful to work with; an absolute pro and a great leader for the branch's largest team.
You mentioned your branch is comprised of teams.
Correct, we have eight teams, and most are comprised of between nine and 12 people but Connie's is about 23 people because she serves existing clients. The more new business we put on the books, the more Connie's team gets involved because they specialize in renewals and helping existing customers.
It would appear First National has changed substantially in your time.
It has. I remember when we hit $100 million in Mortgages under Administration (MUA). Today, our total is well over $100 billion.
Why do you remember $100 million?
Stephen and Moray came around the office and gave every employee a $100 bill to commemorate the milestone. It was neat to see the reaction around the office, especially the reaction of the youngest members of staff. When you are 23 years old and fresh out of university, it's pretty unusual to see a $100 bill let alone put one in your pocket.
What career advice do you give to young members of staff?
Strive to be the best you can be. That was always my mantra.
Well for me, I set my sights on being the best underwriter in the office…the fastest at doing deals with the fewest mistakes. Best is also about being the most responsive to customers and to colleagues. Best is about learning and trying harder than anyone to build knowledge. It carried me through and carried me higher here at First National and it will work for anyone in any situation.
Other than mortgage volume and growth in the team, what's the biggest change you've noticed in your time at First National?
Technology. It's absolutely transformed the underwriting and administrative process and made it possible to do so much more business for so many more customers. When I first started in the mortgage industry, I remember a mortgage broker coming in to our office with a cardboard box filled with mortgage applications that today could be delivered in seconds over Merlin. Back then, we would think nothing of taking a couple of days to prepare a mortgage commitment letter and that was actually fast turnaround by the industry standards of the time. Technology has taken massive amounts of time out of the equation. We're now paperless and able to issue a commitment letter in under four hours and we're doing that 90% of the time, which is amazing when you consider that it's not unusual for each of our underwriters to review over 20 applications a day.
What hasn't changed?
Mortgage brokers. They are still the same. They still ask questions, they still probe to get the best deal for borrowers. The heart of the business also hasn't changed. This is still all about relationships and it always will be. You can have all the technology in the world, and believe me technology makes life so much simpler, but without trusting relationships, there won't be a good outcome. Relationships are challenging, and interesting and they are what I love about the mortgage business.
What's the key to building a successful business relationship?
It's simple. Pick up the phone and keep your partners informed and engaged and they will call you first when they have a need. We try to do that here all the time. Some mortgage brokers work alone and so they value engagement when we call and say, 'did you hear that the government has recently done this or that to mortgage rules, here's what it means and here's what we think.' It's not just about selling, it's about sharing knowledge and solving problems. Some mortgage deals have grey areas and so there is value in brainstorming with brokers and being accessible and trying to find solutions, even if it means suggesting they go to a different lender. Always being there is what it's all about whether there's a loan at the end or not.
What do you hope to see First National do to improve in future?
The numbers show that we are the most successful non-bank mortgage lender in Canada. I'm not sure how much better we can make it. This company is very, very focused on customer service. It's always been our number one objective. In the future, I'd like to see that focus continue and along with it, a focus on constant technology advancement. So do more of what we've been doing through the years because it works.
What are your plans for the future?
Travelling. My husband has been retired for a while and he's been waiting for me to be able to go on trips for a long time. I really enjoy the art and design world and I might take some photography courses. A little dabbling here and there.
Will it be tough to say goodbye on April 18th?
Yes. I postponed my retirement four times because I just haven't been able to let go. It's a big leap to take when you've been working for a long time. It's been a challenging, rewarding job.
My final thoughts are just about the people I work with. So many wonderful, capable people. I get emotional just talking about them. I'm invested in First National and will continue to be, so I will be cheering everyone on from the sidelines. Thanks for a great career.