Bill Thomas is global chairman of KPMG International and former CEO and senior partner of KPMG in Canada.
From my office in downtown Toronto, which is about as far removed as you can get from the Swiss mountain village of Davos, I'm thinking ahead to this month's World Economic Forum (WEF), a four-day gathering of 2,500 business, government and civil society leaders to meet and discuss the most pressing world issues.
And while Canada and Switzerland share the same frigid winter temperatures, Davos hasn't been top-of-mind for Canadian business leaders in recent years. Only a handful of chief executives I've met with this fall have mentioned Davos. Which begs the obvious question: Does Davos really matter to Canada?
If you'd asked me that question a few of years ago, I would have said yes.
As I prepare for what will be my second Davos, I've got a slightly different perspective. I'll be frank: some of the popular Davos myths contain more than a grain of truth. If you see the cameras point toward you as you walk down the promenade in Davos, and maybe start to smile, you'll soon realize there's most definitely a Hollywood A-lister about to sweep by. And the sight of a mile-long presidential motorcade (yes – longer than Davos's main street) grid-locking the village never fails to raise an eyebrow. This is the part of Davos that stretches the comfort level of most Canadians (including myself). It steals the headlines and detracts from the business at hand.
But back to the business end of Davos. While the WEF's theme sounds a bit too lofty for my ears ("Creating a shared future in a fractured world"), the underlying issues of populism, nationalism and protectionism do matter to us as Canadians. And they make our country and our outlook more relevant to the rest of the world than ever before.
Because, as I learned in Davos last year, Canada is seen around the world as a country that is the antidote to the fractured world at the core of this theme. Canada is not only "open for business," but we are one of the world's most outward and forward-looking countries. Living here, we can too often take that for granted. But every time we travel, you can't help but reflect on how we're known as a hub for enterprise, a great place for innovation and living proof that diversity works when you embrace difference. In an era of increased uncertainty, where geopolitical risk is now one of the first things the CEOs I meet want to talk about, these national qualities can be a source of real competitive advantage if – but only if – we capitalize on them.
More important than ever is Canada's role in the global marketplace, and this is something I'm keenly aware of and will be focusing on in Davos. Canada is punching above its weight class on the global stage. Even Britain is looking at our EU trade deal as the potential model for their Brexit treaty. Our business leaders need a place to discuss trade while our government officials continue developing bilateral relationships – and Davos is one of the best places to do that.
So I'm certain that the small group of Canadian delegates at the forum are making a real difference to Canada's standing in the world but also, on a much more practical level, to our economic prosperity. But to take advantage of the opportunity we need to show how outward looking we are, and become even more engaged in these global debates and more willing to sell the Canadian vision of inclusive growth.
A few months ago we spoke to more than 50 Canadian CEOs as part of a major worldwide study of 1,300 CEOs. Here in Canada, we found the majority of Canadian CEOs are becoming more Canada-centric, seeing their greatest potential growth in the domestic rather than the international market. This isn't reflective of the true Canadian spirit. As a country, we are welcoming, warm, intelligent and eager for trade – and while the uncertainty we've seen in the past few years is causing business leaders to curtail international investment, we need substantive discussions such as the ones about to happen in Davos to help quell our nerves.
My message to every one of those CEOs is always the same. I'm convinced the global economy will be transformed in the next few years with the increased shift of growth and new opportunities to increasingly mature Asian markets. As Canadians, I think this massive global disruption makes us increasingly relevant on the global stage, and creates more opportunities for our companies and our economy than ever before. And I hope that the week I spend in Davos together with many great fellow Canadians, frigid temperatures and all, can play a very small part in helping to achieve that.