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CMHC's head charts course for agency as it steers housing affordability program

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Monday, June 24, 2019 – Page B1

Canada's national housing agency looks nothing like it did when Evan Siddall was appointed five years ago.

The chief executive of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) has overseen a transformation of the Crown corporation since 2014, shifting CMHC's focus from its long-time role as Canada's largest mortgage insurer to a new role as the front-line administrator of the Liberal government's National Housing Strategy, a program of loans and grants to fund housing for vulnerable groups.

CMHC has been tapped as the agency to oversee $55-billion in spending on new housing initiatives over 10 years, a mandate that has sparked a top-to-bottom restructuring of the agency's work force, management roles, technology and even office space. The retooling has cost more than $300-million and has had an impact on virtually every internal job.

Now with the clock ticking down on Mr. Siddall's current term as CEO, his focus is shifting to a new task: making the public understand what CMHC stands for today.

Mr. Siddall is planning a rebranding of CMHC as it shifts further from its traditional role as a provider of mortgage insurance for home buyers who do not have 20-per-cent down payments.

In a recent interview, Mr. Siddall said he wants to focus on the agency's mandate to provide affordable housing for vulnerable groups such as the homeless, women fleeing violence and Indigenous people.

"We are all about housing affordability in this country for everybody," he said.

The National Housing Strategy mandate returns CMHC to a role it hasn't played for decades, directly overseeing funding decisions for assisted-housing projects and apartment construction by developers and social-service groups.

Earlier this year, CMHC unveiled its new "aspirational goal" to ensure everyone in Canada has a home they can afford by 2030.

Mr. Siddall said the goal creates a central vision for a changing organization, even if there is no guarantee that Canada's housing issues can be solved in the next 11 years.

"Maybe we don't get there, but we'll get closer to it because we're thinking about things that way," he said.

Mr. Siddall said several waves of reorganization have made the agency less bureaucratic and more business-focused. And he added that the internal restructuring is his proudest accomplishment since moving into the CEO job.

The first round in 2014 saw CMHC cut 200 of about 2,000 jobs as it reorganized business units.

More than 500 other people changed roles in the process.

In the next wave, CMHC spent $140-million on changing all of the agency's technology systems, many of which are now outsourced to a third-party provider.

The agency spent a further $130-million transforming its Ottawa headquarters, which included vacating three of four office buildings and consolidating in a single, remodelled building.

The greatest internal shift was caused by a major staff restructuring as CMHC moved employees into new housing programs. Mr.

Siddall said the agency divided all of the organization's jobs into an operations business, where programs such as the traditional mortgage-insurance business are run and a client-facing group that helps developers and social agencies navigate the new housing programs.

CMHC developed a new organizational chart for management positions and, in early 2019, asked employees to apply for jobs they were interested in filling, giving priority to people who were "displaced" in the restructuring.

About one-third of the work force - 657 employees - expressed interest in a new job, including 75 per cent of those displaced in the restructuring, according to a case study on CMHC's transformation published in May by the Harvard Business Review.

CMHC also introduced a "results-only work environment," which is a structure that allows people to work from home and set their own hours as long as they meet targets and get work done.

Mr. Siddall said CMHC's new structure allows the agency to make decisions more quickly and be more responsive to client needs.

"What I really want to be remembered for is unleashing the effectiveness of 1,900 people who work at that place," he said.

The downside of the agency's dramatic changes is that CMHC has faced several years of internal disruption. There was a "palpable sense of anxiety and stress" throughout the restructuring process, according to an employee quoted in the Harvard Business Review case study.

Mr. Siddall, meanwhile, said there is no plan for CMHC to abandon its mortgage-insurance business, which has seen its volumes decline because of several new mortgage-borrowing restrictions introduced in the past five years.

While the agency now has slightly less than half the Canadian market for mortgage insurance - with two private-sector companies also competing in the sector - he said the business is needed in times of crisis.

In 2008, for example, privatesector mortgage lenders virtually withdrew from the market as the U.S. housing sector crashed, and CMHC played a key role in providing liquidity to keep mortgage lending flowing in Canada, he said.

Tom Davidoff, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, said it makes sense for CMHC to retain an ability to play a stabilizing role in the housing market in times of crisis, even as it shifts direction in the rest of its business.

He added that CMHC's new role as a direct lender under the Trudeau government's National Housing Strategy is not as much of a mandate stretch as it might appear.

"They are already in the mortgage business one way or the other, so I don't think it's necessarily problematic mission-creep," he said.

Mr. Siddall's appointment as CEO was initially for a five-year term, expiring at the end of 2018, but the term was extended last year and now expires at the end of 2020.

Mr. Siddall said he has not had discussions about whether he will stay longer.

"We'll have a conversation at some point, late this year or beginning of next year. There's going to be an election and that's got to happen first, so I know who I'm speaking to and then we'll see," he said.

While Mr. Siddall is not closing the door on staying longer, the Harvard Business Review article on CMHC said the agency has already launched a search for a new CEO to replace him.

But a CMHC spokesman said no CEO search has actually been launched.

"I can confirm that no search has started," Jonathan Rotondo said in an e-mailed statement.

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