David Alward was appointed as Canada’s Consul General in Boston in May 2015, representing Canada and promoting Canadian interests – including trade and investment – in five New England states: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Before his appointment, he was a member of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick for 16 years, serving as the 32nd Premier of New Brunswick from 2010 to 2014, and was a federal public servant for 14 years.
ExportWise recently spoke with David Alward and Thierry Weissenburger, Senior Trade Commissioner in Boston, about how the Consulate General assists Canadian companies looking to export to the United States.
ExportWise: How prominent is trade promotion in the work of the Consulate General?
David Alward: We have two key priorities here, and both are tied to trade. One is the innovation ecosystem here and the trade work that takes place around that, both through the Canadian Technology Accelerator that we operate and very importantly the work with Canadian companies that are looking to access U.S. markets or access capital, etc. The second is energy, where we’re looking to see significant Canadian exports, certainly of hydro power making its way down into southern New England markets.
ExportWise: What’s the typical size of a company that would come to the Consulate General for assistance? Are they large companies, or are they medium-sized and small companies?
David Alward: It’s actually quite varied. On the energy side, very often they’re large companies. If we look at our technology accelerator, we’re dealing with start-ups – a little more advanced start-ups than strictly an idea and already with some people on the ground, but we’re dealing sometimes with one-, two- or three-person businesses.
Thierry Weissenburger: The vast majority of this – and it’s not unique to Boston, it’s the case for most Trade Commissioner Services in posts around the world – deals with small- and medium-sized companies. In the case of Boston, we’re on the smaller size of things, especially because of the accelerator program that we run and the services to start-ups who are, by definition, small companies.
ExportWise: Who typically knocks on the door for help? Is it a CEO or vice-president? A business development manager?
Thierry Weissenburger: For a mid-sized company, it tends to be the vice-president for business development who is looking to increase the sales pipeline, and that would be the bread and butter of what we would do. We would connect this person with prospective customers or prospective strategic partners in the market. If it’s smaller companies where we’re talking about just a few people in the company, the CEO is often the person we would deal with at a strategic level or even at the business development level.
ExportWise: Do you find that a company being Canadian gives it any advantage selling into that market?
Thierry Weissenburger: I don’t think it gives an edge other than a general positive prejudice vis-à-vis the persona of Canadians who tend to be seen as nice people. Other than that, it’s the business case and what you have to offer. So you have to play the game like a local company, and you have to be as good and as ambitious as a local company and have something to offer.
ExportWise: What is the most important advice you could give to these smaller companies that come to you?
David Alward: We recently held something called “48 Hours in the Hub,” where we had between 25 and 30 start-ups from across the country here for about 48 hours to really give them an initial understanding of what’s available with the Canadian Technology Accelerator in Boston, and to start to understand a bit about markets, venture capital, etc. One of the areas of focus this year is that Canadian companies need to think big when it comes to growing and developing. Sometimes, we’re not quite as aggressive as we could be, and that sometimes can hurt us when it comes to growing and having the footprint that potentially we could have.
Thierry Weissenburger: For me, it’s something I would say in most markets: don’t shortchange the market. Just because Boston or New England is very close to Canada or has close cultural proximity, you can`t shortchange the adaptation that you need to do with your product, with your distribution channel. You cannot take a short cut if you want to be successful in growing sustainably in this market. You have to invest time and resources and probably adapt your solution to the particulars of this market.
ExportWise: Do you find that there are things Canadians tend to assume about exporting into the United States that they shouldn’t be assuming?
Thierry Weissenburger: There is an assumption that exporting into the U.S. is like selling in Canada. It’s actually not, there are quite a few significant differences. That’s why we established the Canadian Technology Accelerator for small companies and start-ups, to give time in market so they have a chance to build trust with the local players, whether it’s large corporations or investors, and also to take the time to study and understand the market, so that when they come and, let’s say, set up an office here, it’s really a success and not just a half-baked solution. Exporting requires a much higher level of sophistication in terms of preparation, understanding your market and understanding your clients. U.S. customers are not Canadian customers.
David Alward: We’ve got partners here called the CENE, or Canadian Entrepreneurs in New England. They’re C-level business executives, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and academic leaders, the vast majority of whom are Canadians who have succeeded in this market and who want nothing more than to give back to Canada and help Canadian companies succeed. They’ve taken MIT’s team mentoring program, and they work with us as partners – there are about 70 of them that volunteer as mentors with many of these companies that we’re dealing with – and it’s a huge value-add for the companies that come down here looking at the first steps for either growing in the U.S. by exporting, research and development, connecting with academic institutions, etc.
ExportWise: How does a prospective exporter get to be part of that?
Thierry Weissenburger: For now, it’s accessible through our accelerator program, so if you’re accepted within the CTA program in Boston, then you’ll be paired with a team of mentors.
David Alward: Actually, Thierry and the team, in terms of the accelerator, were just named the top accelerator for 2016 by the International Business Innovation Association, which operates in 60 countries with a couple of thousand members. So to be named top accelerator is a pretty good shout out for the CTA program here. There are several across the network, but Boston is a pretty special one.
ExportWise: In addition to the accelerator program, are there other services that you provide or do you refer first-time exporters back to trade offices or EDC offices in Canada if they’re really just getting started?
David Alward: It’s a combination. We certainly work with our trade commissioner services in Canada, with Export Development Canada, with provincial jurisdictions and municipalities. Our trade commissioners in Boston have specific areas of focus. For example, we’ve got a trade commissioner that does a tremendous amount of work in the life sciences and another who does a lot of work in the food area. So when companies connect with them, they’re either able to help them directly or get them in touch with people that are able to help. We’ve got outstanding people across a pretty good scope of the sectors to be able to support.
Thierry Weissenburger: There’s a whole array of programs for first-time exporters. Most of them take place in Canada, managed through our regional offices and the provinces. Then there are the things that take place in market. We have a new program called Fast Runners, for growth-stage companies. We offer them a very intense six-month program here to get them ready and transform them from basically a start-up to a global company. We engage a lot of mentors and spend a lot of time on those companies, but we think it’s worthwhile.
ExportWise: Tell us about your relationship with Export Development Canada.
Thierry Weissenburger: We work very closely with our EDC colleagues, so we know them well. EDC is also a member of NAPP, the North American Partnership Program, which is a partnership between Global Affairs Canada, a few other departments – including Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (formerly Industry Canada) – EDC, L’Agence de développement économique du Canada pour les régions du Québec and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. It’s a great program to promote trade and our economic interests in the U.S.