Business opportunity on the Canadian coast
Location has long been critical to how companies do business. Proximity to important markets has tended to push firms towards well-known hubs, from London and Paris in Europe, to New York and Los Angeles in the US. But with new technology making communication easier than ever before, physical location matters less than technical know-how and an educated workforce.
Though it may not be as famous as Toronto or Vancouver - let alone New York and London - the Canadian coastal province of New Brunswick is enjoying an influx of new companies. This is hardly surprising. Combining low overheads with a robust technical infrastructure, New Brunswick is a fantastic place to do business.
Stephen Lund is in a good position to make this case. He began his career in banking and venture capital, then helped another Canadian maritime province - Nova Scotia -improve its business image. For the past few years, he has been CEO of Opportunities New Brunswick (ONB), a Crown corporation that seeks to attract and support opportunities to grow the economy and create jobs in the province. All this experience makes Lund unique, he says with a laugh. "I've been in similar roles in economic development for the past 15 years. I think I might be the only person in Canada who can say that."
Lund has a right to be proud. After his move from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick started outperforming its neighbours in attracting business. "There's a real war for talent," Lund says. "There are 10,000 to 20,000 development organisations all trying to do the same thing. We've been really fortunate over the past couple of years to attract some big name players into our province. From what we can tell, we have the best results in Canada. We're closing 90% of the deals we're working on. We're pretty sure no one else can say that."
In part, New Brunswick's success is down to its location. Close to New York and only four hours behind London, the province is ideal for firms working on both sides of the Atlantic. "For global companies, time zones are important and we're in the perfect spot," Lund says. "After all, we're half way between California and Europe."
Home to an educated, cosmopolitan population - with the second-highest number of bilingual French and English speakers after Quebec - New Brunswick is an ideal spot to set up in other ways, too. "We have a skilled and dedicated bilingual workforce," Lund emphasises. "We've also got great universities. For example, Mount Allison University has been rated the top undergraduate school in Canada for the past 15 or 20 years. We also have the University of New Brunswick, which was named the most entrepreneurial university in the country."
Being relatively rural also means the price of property in New Brunswick is lower, and the standard of living much higher, than elsewhere in Canada. "When [businesses] look at New Brunswick, they'll notice significant differences in price with Toronto or Vancouver," Lund says. "You can be a big fish in a small pond here. We also have a pretty amazing quality of life. To buy a home in Toronto or Vancouver, a starter house would be C$1.5 million or C$2.0 million. You can buy the same house here for C$200,000 and live like a king. It's rare to have a commute that's more than 20 minutes in the province. This means we have significantly lower turnover [than other places], and you can put a price tag on turnover."
Companies are also flocking to New Brunswick thanks to the province's outstanding technical infrastructure. "We've got an extensive fibre optic network in place throughout the province," says Lund. "We also recently [started having] the fastest internet access in the country. We're in great shape in terms of telecommunications, too."
These innovations are being bolstered by a robust cybersecurity system. "We recently established a new organisation called CyberNB, which is our cybersecurity division," says Lund. "We have been working with companies around the world, and integrating cybersecurity training into our school system. The University of New Brunswick has set up a cybersecurity institute, for example.
Overall, we're leading the country in terms of what we're doing in cybersecurity right now. This is an area that is going to impact every company."
ONB is also getting expert advice from abroad. "A year and a half ago, we were invited to Israel by its ambassador to Canada," Lund says. "We spent some time looking at what the country is doing. After all, Israel is considered the leader in cybersecurity around the world. We are [also borrowing] a programme from the UK called 'Cyber Essentials', which is a government-certified programme for businesses across the country. It allows companies to say that they're cybersecure."
At the same time, ONB is making efforts to fix recruitment problems in the cyber industry. With a worldwide shortfall of two million cybersecurity experts predicted by 2020, Lund and his team have plenty to do. By promoting cybersecurity learning in schools - and helping talented employees get visas - New Brunswick is positioning itself as a cybersecurity leader. "Training new talent is a priority to us," Lund says. "We're working with our education system and introducing programmes around cyber-readiness, and [hosting cybersecurity] competitions. We've got a multi-pronged strategy around [promoting] talent because we know that it's going to be the most crucial area in cybersecurity."
This focus on all things cyber is already paying dividends, Lund continues. "Banks are very keen [on having] strong cybersecurity, and we're working with a number of financial institutions," he says. "All the [major] banks are represented in our province. We recently did a deal with Canada's biggest bank to bring over 500 new jobs here, for example. It's a big opportunity to work with us. We're also working with a couple of European insurance companies and some Asian IT companies. The bottom line for all these companies is that they want to be able to get good people, enough of them and at a reasonable cost to businesses. These three things are driving all their decisions."
This reference to attracting 'good people' is not accidental. A large part of ONB's success can be put down to its dedicated immigration programme. "We have a pilot programme to attract and retain immigrants," Lund says. "We also have initiatives around talent and bringing [local people] back home."
The political situation also helps. With a Liberal government committed to relaxed visa rules, Canada can pick up the slack as the US makes visas harder to get. "The H-1B [visa in the US] is an issue, and the uncertainty around immigration is really forcing companies to look elsewhere," explains Lund. "We're talking with Asian and European companies about setting up here in New Brunswick, instead of in the US, where they can have access to our immigration system and bring skilled workers with them."
Even US companies are realising the benefits of relocating to New Brunswick, Lund continues. "We approached an IT company in Silicon Valley that was having some trouble [getting] software developers into the US, and was looking for alternatives," he says. "We worked with them over a number of months and convinced them to set up in our province. They ended up bringing an entire software development team from the Ukraine and all their families to set up in Saint John."
Meanwhile, an influx of talent can help stimulate the local economy. "Once the company arrived, it started to grow and add local [employees]," Lund adds. "These are extremely high-paying jobs. They're some of the best in the world, according to the head office in Silicon Valley. So that's a great success story."
This kind of close collaboration with clients is a hallmark of how ONB does business. "We work with a company from start to finish," Lund says. "We have a very proactive team, and have a lot of expertise from the private sector that we brought on board. When we work with a company, we have a whole plan in place."
Specifically, Lund highlights what he calls his "SWAT Team", which helps companies with all aspects of relocating to New Brunswick. "[The team] includes an investment attraction team, a research division, a consultancy division, a workforce division and a client advocacy division," Lund says. "In general, we [liaise] with the main levels of government, industry and academia."
Combine this bespoke approach with the province's other draws and it's no wonder that Lund is buoyant about New Brunswick's prospects. "Once people come and kick the tyres, they realise it's a good place to set up," he smiles. "The bottom line for businesses is that they want to be able to get good people, enough of them, and at a reasonable cost. New Brunswick offers all of this."