Rupert Duchesne is group chief executive of Aimia.
Over the past few weeks, several business leaders have shared their thoughts on what government can do differently to help Canadian business succeed. With the global economy starting to show signs of resumed growth, and an impending federal election, now is the time to have such thoughtful dialogue.
Canada's current wealth has been driven by strong international natural resource and manufacturing companies. Companies such as Aimia, which are based on intellectual capital, are much less common. It has grown from Air Canada's in-house frequent-flier program into a public company with operations in 20 countries, and evolved into a global leader in the loyalty industry and now into data-driven marketing and analytics.
The goal of being a global leader is a lofty one for a business. But the success of our business community internationally will drive the future prosperity of our country. We need 100 global champions, 100 companies that are among the global leaders in their respective industries.
So not just the world's leading mining company and the best forestry company or auto parts manufacturer, but also global leaders in solar technologies, robotics or biomechanics – and in industries we haven't yet imagined.
Shopify, which completed its remarkable initial public offering this week, is just one example of the new ways in which Canadian companies can lead internationally in new fields.
Stronger companies mean better jobs, higher incomes and higher corporate-tax revenue. A recent survey by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and PricewaterhouseCoopers found that just 80 of the CCCE's 150 members were responsible for nearly 20 per cent of all federal corporate-tax revenue collected in 2013, a total contribution of slightly more than $58-billion.
So imagine what an impact we could make on Canadians' lives with 100 global champions, not just filling government coffers, but also directly investing in the communities in which we operate.
But to get there, both business and government need to think differently and aim higher.
We need more Canadian business leaders with global ambitions. This is never more apparent to me than when I attend the annual general meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Davos brings together leaders from business, government and not-for-profits to tackle some of the world's global challenges together. Beyond the formal agenda, it's also a beehive for business relationship development. The best of the best are there.
Canadians on the whole, though, have a paltry showing. Just 41 of the 2,800 participants at Davos were Canadian last year. That's just shy of 1.5 per cent, a paltry representation for the world's 11th-largest economy by gross domestic product and one that is not in recession.
This is the kind of opportunity that we have as Canadians to both engage in the global community, and also build the relationships that companies need to be internationally successful. Strong relationships are critical to help companies evaluate new markets, forge partnerships with people and companies that are more familiar and experienced with growth markets than we are, and gain insights into the economies of the countries we are both operating in and evaluating.
Over the years, we have enlisted the support of our federal government's Canadian Trade Commissioner Service – for high-level introductions to clients we were pursuing, to expedite paperwork and to build just-in-case relationships. And what we have learned is that our success – or lack thereof – was directly related to the level of intimate connections that the embassy and consular staff had developed on the ground in their respective countries – their own real relationships. That success varies significantly from culture to culture and with the individual backgrounds of consular staff.
It's also trickier to support companies in the knowledge industry, which is evolving at such a rapid pace. These companies are often in new and emerging or niche industries that are not widely understood. But commercial services – or companies from the knowledge economy – provide an opportunity for Canada to diversify its connection to the international marketplace, away from natural resources and manufacturing.
Regardless of the industry, initiating business with, or expanding into a new country, requires an immense amount of intelligence – information on the country's needs, competitors, infrastructure, office space, work-force skills, taxation, government, political risk.
For big companies, this is a lot of work, and even the best companies sometimes miscalculate. But for small- and medium-sized companies, this information-gathering process can seem near impossible, and simply navigating the government agencies specifically created to help us do this can be daunting.
In the federal budget released last month, the Prime Minister reiterated that an additional $42-million in funding to the Trade Commissioner Service would be provided, including the hiring of 20 new trade commissioners. This is a tremendous opportunity to both widen the scope of expertise among the trade commissioners and to instill a stronger consultant mentality among them.
The United Kingdom uses this consultant approach. It offers a single point of contact – a customer-relationship manager – who is responsible for understanding what you do, what your needs are and how the U.K. government can be more successful through your company's success.
Not all of what the U.K. government does for companies comes for free. Nor should it. U.K. representatives actually have financial targets to meet and their success is linked to the success of theirclients. This is a powerful model and one that Canada could emulate.
Many businesses would be quite happy to pay for this type of service – they're not looking for handouts.
Realization of my dream of a 100 global champions is going to depend on the global success of hundreds of currently unknown companies. And while the government can help, success ultimately rests in the hands of the people in the business community. It requires us to think globally, plan for the long term and to have audacious goals for ourselves.
Investment abroad requires a willingness to accept measured risk, a spirit of innovation as you adapt your business to local nuance and a willingness to view the opportunity set as a global one. Emerging markets, particularly in Asia Pacific, offer tremendous opportunity to expand with a potential for strong growth if you're patient.
It's harder for public companies to do this. Not all shareholders agree with investments that can take years to build. But we believe that long-term vision and strategy are absolutely critical for our company's – and our country's – success.
As a nation, we have a wealth of intellectual capital at our disposal.
Our culturally diverse population gives us a comparative advantage; our own employees often have intimate knowledge about the countries where we want to invest. But a change of mindset by both government and business leaders is needed, to build real relationships and reshape the future of Canada as a global powerhouse that supports a vibrant and thriving country at home.
This commentary is adapted from a speech delivered at the Mount Royal Club on May 19.