Claude Sullivan spent almost 40 years at RBC, climbing the ranks, learning about every facet of the economy and holding nearly every position imaginable. In 2010, he decided it was time to take everything he learned and create his own legacy.
At the time, St. John’s and other parts of Newfoundland and Labrador were in the early throes of an economic boom, thanks to offshore oil and major construction projects. Housing prices soared, wages increased, and unemployment was at an all-time low. In fact, house price appreciation was higher in St. John’s than all other cities in Canada in 2010. In this environment, Sullivan saw a great opportunity to launch a mortgage brokerage and use his skills and finance background to give him a competitive advantage.
“All banks have a philosophy of putting clients first, but they can only do so much with what they have to offer,” he says. “At a brokerage, the scope is much larger – we can offer so much more and truly work in the best interest of the client.”
Sullivan started off small, closing his first deal from his dining room table, but things quickly moved in the right direction. By the end of its first year in operation, East Coast Mortgage Brokers had four independent agents.
However, success didn’t come without hardship. That economic boom didn’t last forever, and the second half of the decade wasn’t nearly as rosy in Newfoundland. The market went from being robust to challenging – in 2019, new construction in the province was the lowest it has been since the Great Recession.
In spite of this, East Coast continues to prosper and has seen growth in volume and within its team year-over-year. Sullivan says it all comes down to working with people who share your values and making sure you have your clients’ back.
“We’re a close-knit community, in our personal lives and business-wise,” he says. “When we do a good job, our clients tell their friends and family about us, and that’s how we continue to grow.”
Over the years, tightened government regulations have also been a barrier for the mortgage business in general. However, this has also created opportunity. While people have become a lot more informed and knowledgeable, Sullivan says first-time homebuyers especially still want guidance and reassurance from someone they can trust, which gives brokers a great chance to show clients how valuable their expertise is.
One of the biggest hurdles East Coast had to overcome was an early partnership with a real estate company. Sullivan says some real estate agents came to resent the fact that their company was directly tied to a mortgage partner, and it ended up being a negative experience for everyone involved. It took a couple of years to disentangle, but East Coast and the real estate company eventually parted ways amicably.
“Associating with a particular company doesn’t always mean mutual benefit,” Sullivan says. “It’s all about relationships, and you win or lose based on those.”
When it comes to choosing partners, whether it’s lenders, real estate agents or others within the business, Sullivan says it’s important to find partners who are like-minded and that all decision-making is well laid out.
“Some partnerships will work, and others won’t,” he says. “Make sure there’s equal opportunity for both parties to contribute to the growth and success of the business.”
It’s a lesson he was happy to learn during the early days of his business and something that has guided his relationship-building principles today. The motto at East Coast Mortgage Brokers is to treat your clients as friends, so Sullivan gravitates toward people who truly care and have the best interests of clients at heart when seeking out partners.
To that end, he has assembled a team of owners for East Coast, which includes Rob Jennings, Deanne Whelan and Leslie Penney. They have collectively been tasked with taking the brokerage far into the future, long after Sullivan’s retirement. Succession planning has always been top of mind for Sullivan, and to this day, he believes it’s the best move he’s made.
“I wanted to create something that would endure,” he says. “My goal was to surround myself with the smartest people in the industry, and I think I’ve done just that.”