Only five per cent of Canadian businesses export. That fact, and the fact that exporting is key to propping up Canada’s faltering economy, has prompted the Toronto Region Board of Trade to establish a program that coaches its members on how to start trading internationally.
“Now, we’ve got 40 companies working on market-entry plans,” said Janet De Silva, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade of her board’s TAP-GTA (Trade Accelerator Program – Greater Toronto Area), a multi-year initiative to support businesses bewildered by the prospect of exporting. “Over the coming three years, we hope to get 1,200 companies through this program and we’re hoping to trigger about half a billion [dollars] in new export. It’s not big in the [grand] scheme of things, but it starts to get companies understand that there are ways to go global.”
De Silva was one of four panellists speaking at the release of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Crystal Ball Report. The need to export was a clear conclusion in the report, which was introduced by Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
“Competitiveness was a theme that we heard over and over,” Beatty said of the report research. “To continue to grow and improve our standard of living, the Canadian economy must succeed in exporting, in creating new businesses and commercializing the technologies of tomorrow.”
De Silva, who lived and worked in China for 15 years and understands the opportunities in export, agreed with the report’s findings.
“It’s a 90-day program for sponsored companies,” she said. “They can get the tools they need to understand how to act globally and then they get a template to go back to their organizations and build a market-entry plan.”
Stephen Callaghan, EDC’s Regional Vice-President for the Ontario region, is a big fan of the program.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years trying to build out our mentoring services program and this is just a perfect fit for that,” Callaghan said, and added that he’d like municipal trade boards and chambers across the country to roll it out. “It’s not EDC having to build all the pieces ourselves. We leverage the eco-system to do that. We now have a very strong partner in trade in Toronto. This is really a one-stop shop.”
De Silva noted that, as the fourth largest major city in North America (after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles), Toronto is responsible for 20 per cent of Canada’s GDP and she noted that trade must no longer be looked at strictly as “country versus country” in the global economy; “it’s major metro versus major metro.”
That means Canadians must be incredibly focused on questions of competitiveness and productivity, she said.
“We’re competing against other major metros for talent, investment and trade opportunities,” she said. Over the next 15 years, Toronto is expecting to grow by another two million residents, which is a scale of urbanization one sees in countries such as China. “It’s bringing a wealth of talent to us and we need to take advantage of that,” she said.
Her organization has identified three themes on which it intends to concentrate between now and 2020 — trade, transportation and talent.
“The vision for the Toronto region is make us one of the most competitive and sought-after business regions in the world and it’s through those three lenses that we’re going to try to achieve that,” she said. “If we look at trade, we’re terribly underperforming. I spent 15 years in Asia, and as a Canadian working overseas, you get comfortable dealing with the best in the world in your sector. You bemoan how there’s so much [opportunity] there and how great it would be to get Canadian businesses to take a look at the opportunity.”
On transportation, she said, Toronto loses $6 billion a year in productivity because it takes too long to get goods from point to point.
“We’re delighted there’s an unprecedented level of government funding to get infrastructure built, but it really needs to be strategic investments in regional connectivity and trade-enabling points of transportation such as ports and airports,” she said.
Talent — the last pillar — involves aligning the needs of business with the available workforce and using immigration more strategically.
Her board’s three pillars line up well with the findings of the report, which quotes a participant at one of its roundtables who said Canada had “better start exporting like crazy.”
The report emphasizes what’s needed to improve Canada’s competitiveness, including addressing the skills gap; making strategic investments in infrastructure; establishing a coherent plan to reduce greenhouse gases without damaging business; providing more incentives to commercialize new technologies; and ratifying trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the trade agreement with Europe.
Corinne Pohlmann, senior vice-president of national affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said sorting out Canada’s internal trade barriers is also essential to restoring competitiveness.