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the challenge contest

Vancouver Island Salt founder Andrew Shepherd, who harvests salt from the waters of Cherry Point, B.C., says his company is ‘ready to take our product to the world.’Amanda Palmer for The Globe and Mail

With an extensive product line and a client list that includes Whole Foods Market and upscale restaurants such as Canoe in Toronto, Vancouver Island Salt Co. is ready to charge into the billion-dollar global market for gourmet salt.

Since launching four years ago, the company has enjoyed growing demand for its products, which include fleur de sel and flavour-infused salts sourced from ocean waters around Vancouver Island. To expand its market Vancouver Island Salt needs to boost production, but the company's owners, Andrew Shepherd and Scott Gibson, say they can't afford the extra staff and equipment they need to make more salt.

Actually, now they can.

Vancouver Island Salt has beat out more than 1,000 entries to win first place and a $100,000 cash prize in the Small Business Challenge contest, sponsored by Telus and The Globe and Mail. The company was among four contestants who made it to the semi-final round, which included a live pitch in Toronto to a panel of seven judges.

"We are ready to take our product to the world," says Mr. Shepherd, who founded Vancouver Island Salt after years of working as a chef in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. "With this money, we're going to achieve our dreams six to eight months from now."

Vancouver Island Salt came up against stiff competition. The three other semi-finalists – Imbibitive Technologies Inc., 4Deep Inwater Imaging, and Stathletes Inc. – each boasted cutting-edge technologies with applications that range from oil spill cleanups and water safety to data analytics in hockey. Suzanne Trusdale, a Challenge judge who leads the small business solutions sales channel at Telus Corp., says Vancouver Island Salt came out ahead because of its strong and highly driven management team.

"All the semi-finalists exuded true grit but there are a couple of key reasons why there was such solid support for the winning company," Ms. Trusdale says. "It had really strong leadership, and it was clear that Andrew is so passionate and dedicated to his craft, and to his community."

Another Challenge judge, Carolyn Lawrence of Women of Influence Inc., says Vancouver Island Salt ticked off all the checkboxes on her list of what makes a great enterprise. In addition to making great-tasting products, Vancouver Island Salt runs a sustainable operation. Two years ago, Mr. Shepherd spent about $60,000 to replace the company's wood-fired ovens – which produce a lot of smoke – with steam boilers fuelled by recycled vegetable oil.

"This company took something ordinary and made it artisanal and sustainable and Canadian – that was the part of the story I fell in love with," Ms. Lawrence says. "But it also has everything else behind the beautiful story; it has a really scalable and sustainable business model that investors will easily understand."

Katherine Scarrow, small business editor at The Globe and Mail and a returning Challenge judge, says Vancouver Island Salt is definitely ready to go global – and the world is ready for its products.

"They have a world-class product and there's real opportunity with the foodie movement growing," she says. "They're really positioned to capitalize on this growing industry."

To drive their dream of expanding into new markets in Canada and beyond, Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Gibson will use their windfall to hire a second full-time employee and a couple of part-timers.

"We're also going to fine tune our equipment and put some money into marketing our product for international sales," says Mr. Shepherd, noting that the company already has a Hong Kong distributor eager to take Vancouver Island Salt to Asia. "We think the Vancouver Island Salt brand, being associated with B.C. and with Canada, has real appeal with overseas customers, particularly in Asia."


As Andrew Shepherd and Scott Gibson get ready to take Vancouver Island Salt to the next growth stage, the judges offer some words of wisdom.

Get the right people on board

As Vancouver Island Salt grows, the owners will need to spend more time working on the business, instead of in the business. They should make sure they hire senior staff to run the company who share their vision and passion, judge Carolyn Lawrence says. "Hire a good team and get professional coaches and advisers on board," she says.

Tap into foreign trade resourcesKatherine Scarrow, small business editor at The Globe and a returning Challenge judge, urges the owners of Vancouver Island Salt to take advantage of government trade programs. She points to Export Development Canada and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada as good starting points to access these programs. "Don't be afraid to reach out to these organizations and tell them about your great product," she says.

Stay true to your values

A big part of Vancouver Island Salt's appeal is the owners' passion for their product, and their commitment to developing the artisanal salt industry in British Columbia in a sustainable way. Judge Suzanne Trusdale at Telus says it's important to retain these ideals and embed them in the company's culture. "Andrew and his partner have great core values, and they need to stay committed to those core values even as the company grows and enters new markets," she says.


Now in its fourth year, The Globe and Mail's Small Business Challenge Contest received more than 1,000 entries in 2014.

Four semi-finalists and the winner were chosen by a panel of seven judges that included The Globe and Mail's Katherine Scarrow, Steve Tustin and Sean Stanleigh, Jim Senko and Suzanne Trusdale from Telus, Carolyn Lawrence from Women of Influence Inc., and Chris Griffiths of Fine Tune Consulting.

The grand prize winner gets $100,000 cash while all four semi-finalists receive a Business Prize package that includes three technology devices with customer support, one year's subscription to Globe Unlimited, and mentoring from a business expert.

The Challenge is also giving Regional Recognition prizes of three business devices each to 10 businesses from the country's Atlantic, North, West and Central regions. Winners will be announced in October.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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