Small firms urged to think big

Small- and medium-sized businesses are missing out on strong growth opportunities if they are focused solely on the North American market, says Canada’s international trade minister.

Speaking at a Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce lunch Friday, Ed Fast said Canadian companies’ traditional risk-averse nature and focus on the markets they fully understand, such as Canada and the U.S., is a far too conservative notion.

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“That’s a mistake as the high-value growth is happening elsewhere in the world,” said Fast. “We want to increase Canada’s exports to [international] markets.”

During a 30-minute address that had a bit of everything — glowing references to the recently delivered federal budget and a few goodies dropped in to remind the 50 in attendance that this is an election year — Fast suggested Canadian companies are not taking full advantage of a shrinking world.

He noted that while there are 1.1 million small- or medium-sized businesses in the country, there are only 41,000 who export and, of those, only 11,000 export beyond North America.

“That is really to our shame because we know we can do so much better,” Fast said. He noted Canada has recently established trade agreements with the European Union, South Korea and agreed on terms with China to open markets for Canadian companies. He added Ottawa will continue to push for more trade agreements in Asia and India.

“We strongly believe that international trade and investment will be the key drivers to economic growth for Canada in the near future,” Fast said.

He noted the government has established a number of initiatives to push small businesses along.

Fast highlighted budget announcements of $50 million over five years in direct financial assistance to help 500 to 1,000 businesses conduct market research and participate in trade missions, and $42 million over five years to expand the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service.

Fast used his speech to hand out $11,000 in Invest Canada Community Initiatives funding that will allow the Victoria chamber and Greater Victoria Development Agency to develop a database and benchmark the region’s advanced manufacturing sector with peer cities.

The project will develop a website and searchable database for users to source Vancouver Island manufacturing companies based on size, location and competency.

Earlier in the day in Nanaimo, Fast announced $60,275 in support of Marine Renewables Canada to help its members expand abroad.

“We must compete in a global marketplace and compiling this data will help our manufacturing and advanced technology companies compete for contracts and will help attract economic activity to this region,” said GVDA economic development officer Dallas Gislason. “Decisions that affect our local economy are often made by distant leadership and rely heavily on our ability to provide accurate and compelling data.”

Last year, the GVDA got funding from the same federal source and used it to fund a study of foreign-owned companies.

“We commissioned this study to find ways to both retain these businesses and hopefully grow their footprint in Victoria,” said Dan Dagg, chairman of the GVDA. “This study provides some excellent input into that process.”

The study identified 36 Victoria firms — 18 homegrown companies which were acquired, and 18 which moved to Victoria to serve large customers like the provincial government or Department of National Defence.

The 36 companies employed more than 4,200 people and have a total economic impact of more than $1 billion.

“These companies not only represent eight per cent of our GDP, but are ambassadors for doing business in Victoria. We need to ensure that the management of these companies is aware of the advantages of doing business in Victoria,” said Gislason.

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