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(Tony Fouhse)
(Tony Fouhse)

Exit Interview

Eric Siegel says goodbye Add to ...

For 32 years, Eric Siegel has been pushing-shoving, really-Canadian businesses to grab a bigger slice of global markets. He steadily ascended the ladder at Ottawa's Export Development Canada, from a lending and underwriting associate in the Far East department to the top rung of president and CEO in 2007. Along the way, he often voiced frustration at Canada's paltry profile in fast-developing economies. Now, as he ends his career at the export credit agency at year's end, does he feel his efforts have moved the needle?

Retiring at 57-how enviable. How does it feel? I feel like I'm being bronzed or set off on an ice floe. But I'm not retiring from international trade. I'd like to translate that to advice, to help companies be bolder.

Are Canadian companies still afraid of foreign markets? Things are better, but we're still timid. That's demonstrated by the concentration of our exports in developed versus developing world, and within that, a concentration in a few countries. By extension, we don't have as many examples of really bold action to follow. We have a very limited number of transnational companies with a dominant position. We don't even have the number that Denmark has.

So you're not impressed with our accomplishments abroad? In China, Canada has seen the nominal value of its exports grow. But our share as a percentage of China's imports has been going down-our market share has dropped by half. We represent 1% of China's imports. We represent 0.8% of India's imports. When we look at the capabilities Canada has, we're under-represented. That generally applies to all of Asia. Yet by 2030, it's estimated that Asia will be responsible for 36% of world GDP. We need to be invested abroad, not just be exporting abroad.

What are we failing to do? We need to create global supply chains. The phenomenon of global supply chains has made it possible for small and medium-sized enterprises to go global. And at the moment, many global supply chains are Indian- or Chinese-owned.

What's your personal impression of Asia? I've been to China about 15 times, starting in 1983, and the thing I was most impressed with-and you felt it back in '83-is the attitude that "my life will be better in my time." In other developing countries, the mood was "my children's life will be better." I think it's important that we view Asia, and especially China, as an opportunity, not a threat. It has demographic issues and resource and environmental challenges. I'm a proponent of us trying to see through the eyes of China and helping them solve those problems.

How has Canada's economic culture changed during your career? When I started, we didn't have an aerospace sector. Forestry has gone through a fundamental reorganization. The top names in mining are completely different than they were even 10 years ago. Also, the branch-plant mentality that existed in the '70s has been replaced by truly Canadian names. But more often than not, when you go into countries like India, they don't know what Canada does, or that the BlackBerry is Canadian. The Canadian brand is not strong, and we need to enhance it along sectoral lines, not just as one brand. What is the brand for Canada as a mining country, for example? It's not just expertise, but doing mining in a socially responsible way. Some of our greatest experience and expertise lies in engineering, urban design, and transportation services. There's this great opportunity for us to capitalize on all that.

So why are you leaving now? I had a four-year agenda when I took on the CEO role, and there are other things I'd like to do. I'd like to balance my experience through more directorships or charitable-type pursuits. In the immediate future, I'd like to take time off to travel. We have a son who's teaching English in China, so we'll visit parts of China I've never seen. Travelling has been my life, and it's not going to stop. What travel does is, once you've been somewhere, it becomes part of your world, and you make the effort to continually inform yourself on what happens there.

Did you intend to stay this long when you joined EDC? Well, on the first resumé I submitted, I said I wanted to work in mergers and acquisitions.

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