Department – CEO VIEW – Vibrant Community, Support System Sparking SME Growth in NCR
By Jeff Buckstein
CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICERS and professionals across the National Capital Region are bullish on the prospects for small business growth. They see a virtuous circle of positive attributes combining to make the NCR more and more appealing to those willing to take the risk of starting and growing a new business venture.
Momentum Business Law
“There’s this amazing entrepreneurial spirit currently in Ottawa that I didn’t see 20 years ago,” says Megan Cornell, the founder, and chief executive officer with Momentum Business Law in Kanata.
“It’s a great size, at a population of about a million, to grow a really good size business that’s locally based. It’s such a thriving city that still has a really incredible quality of life. It’s leading companies to continue to grow organically and create jobs here. Look for investment to continue to grow. And that’s fantastic for Ottawa and the community,” she adds.
Small businesses here, as elsewhere, face multiple major challenges— including financial, marketing, and technical, among others – in an effort to survive and thrive in a competitive economy, and one of the widely-recognized strengths of the NCR is a strong support network to help business owners deal with those issues.
Cornell believes Ottawa is uniquely positioned to provide opportunities for SME businesses to grow and become global enterprises, in large part because of the assistance provided by local organizations, particularly Invest Ottawa and the Ottawa Board of Trade— which many of her firm’s clients have reported has developed “great programming” focused on local businesses.
“I think those not-for-profit groups are doing a really fantastic job. Then layer on the fact that we’re in the nation’s capital, so we have unique access to politicians and government relations,” she says.
Furthermore, having Export Development Corporation headquartered in the NCR makes their services that much more accessible for local businesses who wish to export their products and services overseas. The Business Development Bank of Canada, which provides critical financing and advisory services, also has a significant local presence.
Professional support, including accounting firms to provide financial advice and taxation services, and law firms to provide sophisticated legal advice, is also widely available in the NCR, adds Cornell, who notes that small business owners often face, and require assistance to deal with simultaneous challenges.
“Where [these organizations to assist] really shine, I think, is on some of the services-based programming where, as an early owner you’re wearing these multiple hats. You’re trying to do marketing. You’re trying to do the human resources. You’re trying to do the business side,” she elaborates.
Kichesippi Beer Co.
Paul Meek, the owner and president of Kichesippi Beer Co., has relied on that local support system for his business.
“We definitely lean heavily on the Ottawa Board of Trade. We feel we’ve got an excellent support base from the Board of Trade, City Hall, the Mayor, and our local councillor. So in terms of the political ring, as well as the business community, there’s been good support to want to see us grow and succeed,” he says.
Meek has watched the NCR’s business environment flourish over the past decade. In December 2009 when Kichesippi Beer was incorporated, he recalls thinking, “it looks like a very underdeveloped market in terms of brewing craft beer. I have some good experience in the alcohol industry as an employee, mostly focused as a territorial manager on sales to restaurants and LCBO stores. I’m going to jump in and go for it.”
Kichesippi Beer, which launched with Meek as the sole owner and employee, has now flourished into a 20 person, 7,500 square foot brewery on Campbell Avenue that produces about 600,000 litres of beer annually. Kichesippi sells about half of that in kegs to restaurants, and the other half in cans to brewery, grocery, liquor, and beer stores.
Ottawa is an ideal location for a brewery because it has a very stable employment market, with good civic pride amongst consumers who enjoy supporting local products. Being the nation’s capital it is also a magnet that attracts tourist dollars, including people who want to spend their money to experience local products, says Meek.
Meek would like his beverage to be recognized as such, too.
“Right now, our growth plan is to sell in Ontario. Our long-term vision, to quote my wife Kelly, who is a part-owner of the business, is to be the Alexander Keith’s of Ottawa—to be part of the local experience – as much as Alexander Keith’s is recognized so closely with Nova Scotia.
“We want people to come to Ottawa and say ‘I’m going to go to the canal. I’m going to go to the Parliament Buildings. And I’m going to have a Kichesippi beer because that’s what you do when you’re in Ottawa,’” he says.
Seema Aurora, president and chief executive officer of TAG HR, a full-service staffing company for both contract and permanent placements to the federal government and to private businesses in the NCR, says she has witnessed remarkable local economic growth since founding TAG HR in 1990.
A major factor behind this local growth is a workforce that has acquired a very high rate of education, in large part attributable to having access to graduates from multiple universities and colleges in the NCR, which contributes to higher salary levels and a higher standard of living.
Moreover, “we’re seeing a lot of reverse migration with a lot of ex-Ottawans who have gone away, and now decided to come back and choose Ottawa as the best place to raise a young family and enjoy a successful career,” she notes.
A vibrant entrepreneurial IT community has also emerged in the wake of the tech collapse of the early 2000s. The silver lining is that many local employees cut adrift from those companies decided to start their own small businesses, and are now succeeding, creating thousands of high tech and other supporting jobs in the community.
“We are leading in per-capita percentage of all cities in Canada in the knowledge occupation – that is, areas that are using high technology, e-business, telecommunications, and creative AI technology,” says Aurora.
Entrepreneurship has also grown substantially in other sectors, including manufacturing and retail. More and more people in the NCR are saying, “I’m going to do my own thing and really get those creative juices flowing,” says Meek.
Aurora sees room for improvement in one area, however, that could provide even more small business growth in the future. Ottawans, like other Canadians sometimes tend to be very conservative and downplay business opportunities. They need to grab those opportunities and promote themselves better, she says.
“I have a lot of faith in the millennial population. They come in with a driving force of ‘let’s make things happen right now.’ I think if we can embrace that, and we are proud and more confident than ever of our Ottawa identity and origins, great things are going to continue to happen.
“I’m very optimistic about our future,” says Aurora.