I just got back from a quick trip to the Soo, where I was the keynote speaker at a Business Bootcamp sponsored by the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre and the Enterprise Centre Sault Ste. Marie.
The Soo, once one of Canada’s most prosperous communities (lots of high-paying union jobs at the mill and Algoma Steel), now faces the same uncertain future as most of Canada’s commodity-processing centres: where will future employment come from, and how do you get the bright kids to stay around? Right now, government is the biggest employer (even though the Ontario Lottery Corp. left town), but the Soo is doing lots of things right. (More on that in a minute.)
For my part, I did my best to argue that innovation and entrepreneurship is the best route to the future - but you can read the rest in my Financial Post column on Monday.
The bootcamp featured lots of fabulous presenters with great messages. Word-of-mouth evangelist Sean Moffit (blogging as BuzzCanuck) offered multiple examples of how to turn customers into raving fans. Retail consultant and trainer Kevin Graff was polished and upbeat in offering tips for boosting sales. I especially liked the exercise in which he challenged us to play as many games of tic-tac-toe as we could in 90 seconds.
(Key learning point: when you invest the first 30 seconds of your time in strategizing with your partner about how you’re going to accomplish this task, you get much higher scores – even though it reduces your “doing” time.)
But the rock star of the day was Ben Barry, the implausibly young and smart modeling agency owner from Ottawa. He started the Ben Barry Agency when he was just 14. Now it has a staff of 35 and represents models from across Canada, the U.S. and the UK. But Ben’s story isn't just about plucky business growth –his commitment to diversity (ie, not all his models are white and implausibly skinny) is having a transformative impact on the “beauty” industry.
After he spoke, Ben spent hours talking with local high school and college students about business, the modeling biz, and life. People were thrilled to meet him, and he dominated the newspaper coverage of the event. And deservedly so. To me, Ben represents all that’s good and important about entrepreneurship: using your own character, energy and life experience to create something new and positive, and then lobbying for needed change in your industry.
Ben encourages people to start businesses while you're young: your ideas are still fresh and new, he says, and “we have less to lose when we make mistakes.”
Click here to read my May 2007 PROFIT column on Ben and his book, Fashioning Reality.
Or read about his talk in the Sault Star or at SooToday.com.
Meantime, Sault Ste. Marie is a city that really gets it. Here's a list of recent new-economy accomplishments, as supplied by Tom Vair, the Innovation Centre's executive director.
• Largest wind farm in Canada - Brookfield Power’s Prince Wind Farm (2006) has 126 wind turbines and an installed capacity of 189 megawatts.
• PodGenerating is developing a 60MW, $400M solar generating facility
• Lucidia, an award-winning local communications company, develops websites for Fairmont, Legacy Hotels, and Westin.
• Enquest Power Corp. - One of two companies that has received MOE approval to turn municipal waste into energy with their unique steam reformation system
• BioForest Technologies, Inc. – Patented tree injection system and Decision Support System for forest pest management
• Forest BioProducts, Inc. – Development of biodiesel technology with significant international sales that allow small communities to develop their own fuel from biomass