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Meet our leaders: a conversation with Wendy Burkin

First National is Canada’s largest non-bank mortgage lender with $100 billion in mortgages under management, but our primary asset is not capital. The company’s success is due to the ingenuity of our employees who are known industry wide for developing innovative lending strategies and delivering responsive services that are highly valued by brokers as well as single family and commercial borrowers. In this interview, we ask Wendy Burkin, First National’s Senior Director, Human Resources, to share her thoughts on how the company recruits, develops its talent, and what it’s like to work here.

Wendy, every successful company has a unique culture. how would you describe First National’s culture?

We are a work hard, play hard company, which is to say we’re focused on being very productive and effective for our customers and investors, but we also try to get the most out of our working lives by being engaged in our communities and socially active as employees. We have a dedicated committee that organizes company social and fundraising events.

How does First National and its employees contribute to their communities?

First National organizes various fundraising activities across the company on an ongoing basis.  The United Way is the charity we focus on across all offices every October. First National matches employee contributions. We’ve doubled our fundraising goal in the past six years and we’ve always managed to achieve or exceed our objective. We also hold 50-50 draws through the year with half of all proceeds being donated to different charities like the Red Cross. We also participate in activities such as  Big Bike with proceeds to the Heart and Stroke Foundation and Heat Wave and Ice Wave in support of Toronto SickKids Hospital. We have a generation of employees who are very socially minded and there’s an outlet for them at First National. The participation rate in social causes and social events says a lot about the character of the people who work here.

In your role, how do you perpetuate that culture?

I get to work with different people across the company every day, learning about what motivates them to contribute to First National success, their suggestions to make us an even better company, and any  challenges we need to look at. Our way of doing things involves striking a balance between working hard, working smart, being accountable and being socially minded. We want employees to feel proud about working here.

How do you capture formal feedback from employees?

We seek formal feedback on a confidential and anonymous basis every two years using an independent research firm. Why every two years? Because we do a lot with the information our employees provide. Our CEO, Stephen Smith, personally reviews each Division’s survey results and reads all employee comments. We publish the results, discuss them at employee town halls and follow up with employee focus groups and/or additional surveys to gain more information so that new program ideas or refinements can be properly vetted. Employee participation is always very strong.

How is First National rated by employees?

We look at the employee engagement score as a main measure. Engagement is a measure of how likely employees are willing to go above and beyond in their work, speak positively about the company and recommend First National as a great place to work to family and friends. The engagement score on our most recent survey was 82% versus the benchmark of 69% for companies similar in size to us. Also, the engagement score has improved by about 1% every time we’ve done the survey so we’re moving in the right direction. In 2018 we were honored to be recognized as a certified “Great Place to Work” and to also be formally recognized as one of Canada’s Best Workplaces which really reinforced to us that we are doing the right things.

What about professional development?

It’s one of our big focus areas. Our management training program tackles various topics such as how to coach and give feedback, how to lead others through change, how to train others, HR Essentials and Emotional Intelligence. Our lunch and learns are intended to help all employees grow through a focus on personal efficiency, productivity and leadership regardless of their current skill or job level. Our professional development programs include a speaker series where First National’s leaders or outside experts talk about particular topics like sales, marketing, and how we make money. We also hold networking events at our head office where employees listen to one of our senior leaders about how they got to where they are in their career and then network with peers to discuss their roles and their background. Networking also provides employees with the opportunity to learn  how our business functions as a whole and exposes employees to career opportunities outside their functional areas.

Many companies employ technology as a means of training employees. Does First National?

Yes, we have the First National Learning Network, which is an online training portal. In addition to compliance and job specific eLearning modules, the Learning Network offers on-line soft skills modules that help employees to build in-demand skills and capabilities to support their career development. On the HR side, we are upgrading our technology to provide more self-service-based services. Over time, we will integrate six existing systems into one and this will allow us to be much more efficient and automated in our HR activities.

What is unique about the employee benefits plan?

Most importantly what clearly sets First National apart from other companies is that it is fully funded by First National. Employees don’t pay any premiums for their benefits with the exception of long-term disability. Benefits includes medical, dental, paramedical, life insurance, AD&D, and the employee assistance program. First National also offers a group RRSP plan with employer matching within the established guidelines. And the other difference is that employees become eligible for their benefits on their first day of employment. Most companies don’t offer benefits until the end of a probationary period.

Tell us about the recruitment process you use.

We get about 10,000 resumes a year, which is a reflection of First National’s industry status. Internal candidates and those referred by employees are generally considered first before external candidates. When we hire externally, we start with a telephone screen to learn about the candidate’s experience and skills and to assess their communications skills. After that, we move to face-to-face interviews, which are sometimes done in a group format to assess teamwork skills. Successful candidates are given an offer. Successful candidates complete pre-hiring documentation requirements including background checks, policy reviews, and tax and benefit enrolment forms. 

What do you look for in a potential employee?

We want people who are intelligent, who have great communication skills, have a  commitment to  going beyond traditional service, people who are willing to work collaboratively in a team environment and we give preference to university and college graduates. The mortgage business is a challenging one. Essentially, we try to find people who want to be part of something great.

Final thoughts?

First National is not just a place of employment. It’s like a big family that cares. We care about how we perform for our customers, we care about our engagement with our communities as a whole and we care about our employees. We try to make a positive impact every day.

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