Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Highlighting Niagara's Business Gems

Three of Niagara's brightest business stars were highlighted at the Annual General Meeting Luncheon of Niagara Economic Development Corporation: Dennis Parass of Handling Specialty Manufacturing Ltd., Denis Dyack of Silicon Knights Inc., and Tony Rodway, Aero-Safe Technologies Inc. The three business leaders provided some interesting information about their businesses, and insights into the secrets of their success.

To say that the video game industry is exploding is an understatement. Projected to reach $46.5 billion in sales in 2010, Silicon Knights is riding the wave. Some of the largest video game development studios in the world are in Canada and 71 are in Ontario. Silicon Knights is a growing St. Catharines enterprise, with over 140 employees and 7 games to its credit. The company is positioned for expansion within the next 6 months and beyond. Ninety per cent of the employees are graduates of college and university, mostly from Ontario. Denis has been working towards creating a centre for the development of an incubator for video game development and his goal is to develop a credited college/university program, hopefully here in Niagara. To be successful in having their games distributed around the world, the company has partnered with multinational publishers such as Nintendo, Sega, Microsoft and Sony. Denis believes that Niagara's future is in the knowledge-based economy and he left us with this quote by Richard Florida. "Creativity has replaced raw materials or natural harbours as the crucial wellspring of economic growth."

Aero-Safe Technologies was incorporated in 1981. There are three sub-companies: Aero-Technologies, focussing on CNC Manufacturing, Aero-Processing, focusing on metal finishing and processing and Aero-Devices, focussing on assembly, integration and testing. Tony has worked hard at finding his employees locally by “growing” them in the local schools and he really believes in creating a company that is part of the community. He has developed an impressive program of recruitment and training that benefits his business, students in local schools and Niagara College, and the community by providing local employment. Aero-Safe recruits from Fort Erie Secondary School and has developed a great program called “Classroom in the Workplace” This program has been running for 5 years, training 10 students at a time with a technical teacher. A co-op program is available for students after graduating from this program to continue their development. And then, Aero-Safe can offer the successful candidates part-time and even, full-time work. There is an in-house apprenticeship program, developed with Niagara College. The business is now involved in several different areas: aerospace, defence, life support, optical, sitcom and space. Their facilities are located on Pettit Road in Fort Erie.

Handling Speciality is involved in the automotive, advanced manufacturing and entertainment industries. They custom design and manufacture lifting equipment. By 1999, 75% of their sales were outside of Canada and in the automotive sector. They started looking for opportunities and now, only 15% of their business is from the automotive sector. Dennis Parass, owner and CEO says that they don’t build equipment; they build relationships. A big breakthrough into another market of entertainment came about when the company completed the lift for the underwater show “O” for Cirque de Soleil. This show has been running fro 8 years at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas

Dennis believes that his success rests on his goal of making his company professional. For him, this means excellence, education and a code of ethics. Companies need to pioneer into new areas of business opportunity and to focus on building relationships first and foremost.

There are some great lessons here from these three entrepreneurs. It was wonderful to hear about these Niagara companies and their local and global success.

In the photo, from left to right: Matt Cutler, NTAB Director, Bunny Alexander, NTAB Director, Angelo Nitsopoulos, Owner, Quality Parkway, Heather Carter, NTAB Director, Trudy Parsons, Executive Director, NTAB, Mike Gammon, President, Brock Office Automation and Sathya Gnaniah, Project Manager, Niagara Immigrant Employment Council.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cuts to Summer Jobs Hurt Community and Business

Several community groups in Niagara West-Glanbrook learned last week that they will not be receiving funding under the repackaged Summer Jobs Program. The Summer Career Placement Program was put in place in the mid-nineties to help students throughout Canada obtain work to pay their way through university or college. The program was vital to many not-for-profit groups who were able to run special summer programs or get some extra assistance from a student during the summer months.

In September 2006, the Conservative government slashed $55 million in funding from the Summer Career Placement Program. Then they re-named it the Canada Summer Jobs Program, changed the policy criteria, but maintained the millions in cuts. Now community groups in our riding who traditionally receive funding to hire students are being told that under the new narrow criteria they are being left out, causing some to wonder if they can continue to offer summer employment. In many cases, it is small, not-for-profit agencies that are being turned down for grants, depriving their clients of the good work usually done by students.

Last week, we learned summer camps for autistic children were denied funding, thanks to the Harper government cuts. Thankfully, the provincial government stepped in to provide funding for the award-winning camps for autistic and low-income children.

The Conservatives claim that this cut was targeted at large corporations, which they claim do not need help to hire a student. But hundreds of organizations, not for profits, and community groups are being told they no longer qualify for summer job funding. Regardless of the type of organization applying for funding, this program is a win-win in so many ways. Not only do the employer and student win, but sectors like tourism are helped. In my view, most important is the role this program has played in providing opportunities for our young people here in Niagara. We know that most of our young people exit Niagara after obtaining their education. The Summer Carer Placement Program gave students the opportunity to work in Niagara. Some of those jobs turn into full-time positions. We are anticipating a tremendous labour market shortage in Niagara and this program helped.

If the Conservatives are serious about helping students find employment, they will restore the funding they cut. Re-branding the program will accomplish nothing and generate fewer jobs. All organizations – including small business, should have access to this program that, for 13 years under the Liberal government, worked very well.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Supply Management Under Attack

As an entrepreneur and advocate for business, I must admit that I had trouble understanding the system of supply management used in our agriculture sector. After all, this system, at first blush, goes against the core business principle that I hold near and dear: the ability of individual business owners to compete in a global market. Supply management imposes limits on how much each farmer can produce, who the farmer can market to, and how much each farmer obtains for his product. This is hardly free enterprise and looks like government interference and control of the worst kind!

I am not alone in having this initial reaction to this system of management. Supply management has been accused of being about subsidies and protectionism and the lack of free trade. It is not easily understood. And, in the last six months, the Canadian Wheat Board, perhaps the most prestigious marketing board in the world, has been under attack by the Conservatives. In its place, a dual market system is being proposed that looks like the best of free market economy. In this article, I will attempt to shed some light on supply management systems and single desk marketing boards, tell you why I am now a convert and why we need to fight for this important system.

First of all, here’s the big picture and sales pitch about why this system works. Supply management has to do with the food Canadians eat. You may believe as I do that the government needs to be involved in ensuring that the food we get is safe to eat. And, Canadians want to be able to choose “made in Canada” food while supporting stable incomes for their farmers. Supply management allows this to occur. It gives Canadian farmers the tools to participate as world leaders in issues such as food safety, animal care, emergency preparedness, research and quality.

The economic impact of supply management and marketing boards is significant across Canada. The number of supply managed farms varies from region to region and it is more significant in Atlantic and Central Canada than it is on the Prairies. A total of twenty per cent of Canadian agriculture is supply-managed agriculture: dairy, hatching egg, laying egg, chicken and turkey. The feather industry, which includes chicken, hatching egg, laying egg and turkey farmers produced half a billion dollars worth of live chicken in Ontario, and in Canada, $1.6 Billion. The chicken farming and processing industry employs close to 50,000 Canadians - not an insignificant industry. A recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers study described as "huge" the $1.6-billion annual economic impact of the Winnipeg-based Canadian Wheat Board, "with Western Canada as a major economic beneficiary."

One of the misconceptions of supply management is that the government subsidizes the farmers. This is not true. Individual farmers pay, not the government. The farmers pay levies on their production, which pays for the operation of the supply management coordination boards. Currently it is at .0125c per kilo for chicken in Ontario.

One accusation from folks that either don’t agree or don’t understand supply management is that it is about protectionism. It is true that Canada’s national government sets limits on supply-managed product imports through import tariffs and import restrictions. This is done to ensure that Canada’s first responsibility goes to supporting our Canadian farmers and buying safe food for Canadians. I personally don’t think that protecting our farmers is such a bad thing to do.

Another concern about supply management is related to the production restrictions placed on individual farmers. Supply-managed farmers are discouraged to produce more than their quota, thereby taking away some of the natural incentive in business to produce more and along with it, make more money. It is true that under supply management, quotas are enforced. Every year, farmers, processors and retailers jointly set production targets that will meet the estimates of consumer demand. Essentially, the goal is to match supply and demand through this balanced production management system. These targets are then passed down to provincial supply management boards and are translated into production allocations for individual farmers. It is a trade-off for farmers. They sacrifice their potential to grow their supply-managed commodity without restriction for a guarantee that their product will be bought at a fair price.

The Canadian Wheat Board was established in 1935 as a marketing system for wheat and barley. As with other supply management systems, the purpose of the Wheat Board is to act as a marketing board and create a level playing field for all farmers. For many years, the Board has been under attack by the Americans and a source of real friction in bilateral talks between Canada and the U.S. American producers continually complain that the CWB is a system of government subsidy. Ironically, Canadian farmers have almost no government subsidy while Americans and their European Union counterparts are heavily subsidized by their governments.

Since December 2006, we have seen that the enemy is no longer the Americans, it is our own government. Chuck Strahl, Minister of Agriculture, has worked towards the dismantling of the Wheat Board. This has included the replacement of government appointees to the Board of Directors in favour of individuals who oppose the Board's monopoly, a gag order on wheat Board staff, the firing of the pro-Board President of the Board, and intervention in the election of farmer elected members of the Board of Directors.

The dual market system being proposed by Strahl looks like a perfect compromise: those who want to take advantage of the marketing board can do so and those who wish to sell on their own outside of the board would be free to do that, too. However, there is ample evidence that the dual market system would effectively end the board's monopoly and any benefits that that monopoly may give to farmers. Agriculture minister, Chuck Strahl, says barley will be removed from the board's jurisdiction by August 1; a decision on wheat will follow.

Single desk selling, marketing boards and supply management systems work for Canadian farmers. In learning about these systems and thinking about them in reference to free enterprise, I have come to two conclusions. The system is like any other system where an individual business joins together with other similar businesses, for the betterment of the group and the industry. In supply management, the entire value chain benefits: the suppliers, the producers (farmers) the processors, the retailers and finally, the consumers. Canadians are the ultimate winners in this system, benefiting from the knowledge that our food demand will be met with safe, largely Canadian product, while at the same time, ensuring that our farmers are being supported by being paid a fair price, and our farmland preserved. And just as in business groups that you join to take advantage of collective purchasing power or joint selling opportunities, you can’t just bow out when it looks like you can do better on your own. It is the collective pooling of resources that gives the group the power. This power is tremendous and needs to be honoured and protected.

A free market approach does not work for all sectors, Far from socialism, protectionism or government subsidies, supply management and single desk marketing systems works for everyone. When it comes to readily available food to eat and the safety of its supply, fair prices and support for our farmers, and protection of our agricultural land, our federal government needs to take a lead role in defending our supply management system.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day - Time for Family

I visited my step-children and seven grand kids today. We don't have much time for each other, between their busy lives and ours. It's always great to see them. Natalie, my step-daughter pictured here, does an amazing job with the four boys in her life. Happy Mother's Day to Natalie, Marcy and mothers of all kinds and ages...adopted mothers, step mothers, grandmothers, and godmothers.

In this photo:
Owin, Natalie, Parker, Mike and Conner Hendsbee.

Creating Hope for Autism

A new organization called the Bursary of Hope for Autism held a Mother's Day Luncheon at the Chandelier Place in Hamilton today. Over 300 people attended this great luncheon that featured course after course of wholesome Italian food and countless door prizes.

Autism is the most common neurological disorder affecting children and one of the most common developmental disabilities affecting Canadians. A committee of dedicated volunteers organized this event that honoured mothers and raised money and awareness of autism.

In this photo from left to right: Cindy Bain, Madison Bono, Anne Bain (front row), Carla Bono, Anne Bono, Joyce LaTucca and Heather Carter (back row.)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Raising Money and Awareness for Crohn's & Colitis

Today every M&M Meat Shop across Canada held a Charity BBQ to help raise $1.9 million for research into Crohn’s and Colitis Disease. This was the 19th Annual BBQ Charity Day for the Foundation. The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada (CCFC) is a national not-for-profit voluntary medical research Foundation, founded for the purpose of finding the cure for inflammatory bowel disease. To achieve its mission, the Foundation is committed to raising funds for medical research.

Education is also part of the organization's mandate. The web site is most informative. I found it interesting to note that the Honorary Patron of CCFC is the Right Honorable Michaelle Jean. At the Paramount location of M&M meat Shops in Hamilton today, I met Ryan Spears, the organization's representative for Hamilton. Ryan makes an ideal ambassador and I was most impressed with this young man who has just completed his first year studies of Science at McMaster.

Pictured here is: Ryan Sears, Doug MacPhie, Heather Carter, Tim MacPhie and Chris MacPhie (serving the hot dog.) Missing from the photo is Elaine MacPhie who was busy taking donations. The MacPhie family are friends of the owners of this M&M and have helped with this annual BBQ for the last several years.

One of the great things about being a candidate is the opportunity to meet people like Ryan Sears and the MacPhie's and to learn about organizations like the CCYC. Nice people who are donating their time and energy to find a cure for inflammatory bowel disease.

Articulate, Impressive and Young Liberals

Today, the South-Central Policy Parliament was hosted by the Mohawk Young Liberals in Hamilton. What an impressive group of engaged young minds. I arrived while the group was discussing a policy resolution regarding education and I was struck with their willingness to share their thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

The group welcomed Hon. Navdeep Bains, MP for Mississauga-Brampton South as keynote speaker. In March of this year, Mr. Bains was appointed youth caucus liaison to the Young Liberals of Canada. Good questions were asked by the group and Tyler Banham, candidate for Hamilton Mountain and I were asked to assist Mr. Bains in answering the questions.
Also in attendance were: Ted McMeekin, MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flanborough-Aldershot, Russ Powers, Former MP and Hamilton City Councillor for Ward 13, and Ivan Luksik, Nominee for Hamilton-Stoney Creek.

I always leave meetings with the young liberals inspired, knowing there is a next generation coming forward that is full of promise.