Ontario East economic developer makes top 50 Profit emerging companies
Just five years ago, Eastern Ontario economic developer Paul Blais found himself without a job, having been made redundant along with several other colleagues by Kingston Economic Development Corporation. It was a tough blow for Blais, who in 2003 had been named economic developer of the year by the Eastern Ontario Economic Development Commission. The tide has certainly since turned for Blais. Profit magazine recently named Blais’ new economic development company Millier Dickinson Blais Inc. among Canada’s Hot 50 emerging companies. The firm—which has two other partners working outside of Eastern Ontario—ranked 21st after achieving 390% growth in the past three fiscal years. Blais granted an interview to this newsletter about himself and his company, and his thoughts on economic development in Eastern Ontario.
Q: What’s the response been since the Hot 50 list came out?
A: The response has been fantastic—a lot of “congratulations” from our existing client base and from potential partners and clients. In the long run we believe that the Hot 50 recognition will open doors when it comes to pursuing new markets, striking partnerships and strategic alliances with companies we think are a good match with ours as well as make us a more desirable company to work for. The recognition identifies us as the largest in our area of services delivery, reassures people that we have a strong management team and are in this business for the long-term.
Q: Why did you stay in Eastern Ontario?
A: When Lauren, Brock and I met to discuss forming a business everyone had a personal reason to want to remain living where we do. So we knew right from the start that we would have three offices. Most people’s first thought is that this must result in very high overhead costs and we would be better off to consolidate into one place, however, in the knowledge-based economy, having access to the best brain power available is what will allow a company to succeed. As a result of having three offices we are able to recruit from a very large geographic catchment area and attract the best and the brightest. This advantage easily trumps any extra costs in rent or communications.
Having an office in rural Eastern Ontario also has another important strategic function. While we do work with some of Canada’s largest cities and city-regions a significant amount of our client base are small rural municipalities. By working and living in a rural community we are better able to relate to those issues.
Our team members do find themselves travelling across Canada for our work, but being in Harrowsmith doesn’t limit our ability to connect with our clients. Our telecommunications services are strong and for me the Kingston airport is a real asset. There are 8 or so Air Canada connections to Toronto—I arrive 45 minutes before my short hop to Toronto and I’m ready to go anywhere in Canada. Kingston has more than a dozen trains a day to Toronto so that allows me to get into the city in the morning for meetings and be home by dinner. I consider the plane and the train an extension of my office now.
Q: What’s the secret to your phenomenal growth?
The key to our growth has been identifying an unfulfilled niche market. There were no firms providing the services that we provide and we recognized that there was a pent up demand for an interdisciplinary team-based approach for economic development services. Plus, we have more formal economic development professionals—people who actually have done the job that most of our clients do—in our office than anyone. It’s about the quality of our staff members and their commitment to wanting to make a difference in every project we undertake. All that plus a ton of hard work!!!
Q: What are some of the benefits of doing business in Eastern Ontario?
A: It’s impossible to generalize why Eastern Ontario is the right place because every business owner has different needs – both personal and business related. However, I do think that people here possess a tremendous work ethic and value the opportunity to contribute to a good organization. What comes with that is a strong sense of loyalty to an employer and extra effort in making sure the job is done right.
For me and my family we love living in a rural area that is literally a kilometre from cottage country and 20 minutes to Kingston. You can spend a day snowshoeing in pristine wilderness or boating on a crystal clear lake or head into the city for fantastic culture, nightlife, child friendly activities and festivals all year long. Our rural community comes together for wonderful events of our own like The Bubba Bowl and Canada Day.
Q: Tell me about the typical project for your firm, if there is something typical.
A: While there are typical subjects of projects (like municipal economic development strategies and feasibility studies) and the processes may be similar (100% of projects involve some degree of consultation with local business and community leaders) there really is no typical result. The individuals who live in these communities and work for these organizations have unique set of dreams and aspirations. A key part of our job is to understand these goals and guide them in the direction where we see the most opportunities.
Because of these unique situations, there is often hesitation to hire an outsider like us— some feel there’s no way for someone else to understand their circumstances. So, in terms of what makes me the most proud or where I get the most enjoyment out of project? It’s the moment that I can see in their eyes that they know we GOT it, we understand where they are coming from and where they want to go. We set out a realistic action plan that will get them over the hurdles that are blocking economic growth. By far, this is the most fulfilling part of our business.
Q: Eastern Ontario is touting itself as a region with a hearty creative economy. What are your thoughts on this claim?
A: Eastern Ontario does have a strong creative economy. I know that from the stats I’ve examined but from people who I know that live and work around me. However, it’s a competitive world and I worry that the lure of the big cities will continue to suck in many of the best and brightest minds from rural Ontario (and Canada for that matter). That type of brain drain means rural populations aren’t stable which results in retail and service businesses not being able to carve out an existence and, when it gets really bad, schools close and the community loses a central reason for existing.
Q: What does this region need to do to develop a robust creative economy?
Perhaps it’s not the recently-graduated demographic that is the hope for rural Canada. It may be the 30 and 40 something demographic who have stabilized in their careers and family lives and are in a position to be able to choose where they live, rather than having to chase down jobs. Those types of independent people can truly succeed in the type of environment that rural Eastern Ontario provides.
In my mind there are a few things required for the region to continue to grow its creative economy:
1. Telecommunications is critical. Very few people will live without broadband internet services. Most areas of Eastern Ontario do well in this respect, but the services must be everywhere so that people don’t even question its availability.
2. The value of small business and the one person business needs to be more appreciated. Many Eastern Ontario communities were built around the presence of one large employer or a natural resource that is not as strongly needed as years ago. Huge businesses are not moving and expanding as was the case 50 years ago so our attitudes about what constitutes a strong economy needs to change. In my mind 50 businesses of 2 employees each is a healthier economy than 1 business with 100 employees. I don’t think this is well understood.
3. The availability of start-up money and capital to expand is so important which means organizations like Community Futures will always play a critical role. Other institutions and investment networks are needed to supplement the pool of available funds.