Fast Company

Canuckian Business, Eh?

Yesterday I heard the Premier of British Columbia, Gordon Campbell, speak at The New York Yacht Club, reassuring a mixed crowd of potential investors and expats of BC's "cool, cutting-edge, high-tech" booming economy. While he raised some mildly compelling arguments about why BC will be the next gateway to Asia ("our port is 30 hours closer!"), I couldn't help but think back to a conversation I had with Canadian management thinker Henry Mintzberg a few months back when interviewing him about fellow Canadian Malcolm Gladwell (January 2005):

"I define Canadians sort of half-humorously as Americans with the edge off. There's much less pressure here, not only pressure to produce, but pressure to conform, pressure to be part of things. I'm always amazed in the United States when something becomes popular, everybody, no matter who they are, tends to get on that bandwagon. That's why you get these bandwagon effects, like the Congressional attitude towards the invasion of Iraq...and what's going on in American corporations today."

After the speech and buzzing lunchtime debate ("is this Canadian Atlantic salmon?!"), I tracked down Ken Ottenbreit, co-president of the Canadian Association of New York, to get his take on Mintzberg's notion that American business had much to learn from our Canuckian neighbors. "My sense is different," he said. "I think Canadians are as competitive as Americans. Despite their inherent cultural differences, in order to stay competitive in a global marketplace they have to be."

Maybe Ottenbreit was just attempting to shake Canada's reputation of being nothing more than "a haven for 'nice, benign people'" (as the Vancouver Sun reported today), or maybe Canadian business is changing? Are Canadians just as hip to the bandwagon as the rest of us or is Mintzberg on to something - could we find a better way of doing business from our friends up north?

Are there any Canadian companies or business figures you think we have something to learn from?

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28 Comments

  • Jeff

    Kris, great point; I think you forgot to add "with guns".

    Someone should contact Rick Mercer for the follow-up interview...

  • Kris Taylor

    I found the article poking a few jabs at us living up north, it wasnt that offensive. (Theres a writer who writes for the Boston Globe, Alex Beam, now that guy is offensive. I bet if I met him I'd give him a personal demonstration of how "meek" we are, one kick in he behind at a time)

    However I find the tone of the article, as I find with the majority of "about Canada" articles written by Americans: Self absorbed.

    While as a proud, patriotic Canadian I do envy how the average American citizen is a flag-waving raving go go USA fan, however this same absorbtion with one's own country is the root of the majority of the "problem with Americans". While the patriotism itself isnt bad, it stems the kind of ignorance about what is going on elsewhere like the guy staring into his own navel.

    Canadians are a proud, hardworking people. We were the first to design a whole whack of extrodinarily useful things, ranging from supersonic fighter jets to hand tools used by craftsmen.

    While we may not work as long of hours as our American counterparts on average, that is of course in part because we live in a beautiful country and we want to go outside sometimes and enjoy it.

    On the flipside, the fast lifestyle of dedadence lived in the United States certainly hasnt benefited all Americans, with obseity rates topping every other country in the world, a high crime rate, and of course, polluting the earth with so much greenhouse gases that they have to spend a trillion dollars a year on a military secure oil.

    I think that the Americans in general are a warm-hearted, nice, hard working people, even if a little bit self-centred.

    Us Canadians could learn a little bit from the patriotism of our cousins to the south however, and instead of defining ourselves as "not Americans", and start defining ourselves as Canadians, and learning about all of the great things that Canadians have done for the world.

  • Rob

    Danielle,

    Are you really that surprised that us Canuckians take offense to your words? Some of our animosity stems from the following:

    Business suffered tremendously when we didn't back your invasion on Iraq. Remember that famous line Bush said: "If you're not with us, you're against us".

    Business between our countries suffered because we thought about War differently than you did...that is, we thought about the reasons and consequence - and nothing added up - a war on WMD? a war on Terrorism? Are you still referring to French Fries as freedom fries? Ironic that you used the Statue of Liberty as a symbol against terrorism yet you disrespected the French so deeply - were you aware they presented that statue to you as a gift? Ouch.

    Business in America is indeed different to business in Canada. Yours is driven by greed and war; ours is driven by bettering our resources, our communications and our technologies. Your edge is to play dirty - we don't have that edge, neither does the rest of the world.

    We come down there to stir up some new relations, and you trivialize the visit. You can steal our hydro, you can put tariffs on our lumber, you can close the gate on our beef, but you can't shut down our innovative spirit in business.

    You can steal our hydro, you can put tariffs on our lumber, you can close the gate on our beef, and we will suffer, sure...but you can never take our F R E E E E D O M.

    OK, cheesy conclusion - but Braveheart was a wicked movie!

  • Robert Werner

    As the founder of a small hi-tech company that has had a presence in Victoria, Montreal, and Vancouver, and as one that has met literally hundreds of hi-tech personnel over the past 7 years, I think I have more than a little insight into this topic.

    Without a doubt, Vancouver - and Canada in general - are nice, comfortable places to live. But is any Canadian city the BEST place to build and grow a hi-tech company? I think not. In a nutshell, 99.99% of Canadians - especially those born & raised here - just don't have the "fire in the belly" commitment that I've seen in the U.S., Hong Kong, Singapore, and elsewhere. Without this drive you're just simply not going to be able to build another Microsoft, Dell, Oracle, Apple, etc.

    I am not saying that such drive is necessary to be a good person or to live a good life but let's be honest, if you want to build a world class company you can't do that with people focused on a 9 - 5 kind of mentality.

    Thus it's no wonder that there are but a precious few head offices out here in Vancouver. Perhaps life just is too comfortable here - with the natural environs and an easy lifestyle very much supported by the socialist "cradle-to-grave" support system.

    On September 28, 1998 the Ottawa Citizen published a full page editorial I wrote about what Canada needed to do to become a TRUE Silicon Valley North - ie. the real thing; not just talk and not just numbers of tiny companies that mostly go nowhere. I mentioned several required "pillars" that would be required for things to really flourish here. Looking back at my editorial, I see that nothing much has changed since then.

    I very much DO support Gordon Campbell and what he's trying to do. But there are so many anti-business forces at work against him and his government that I don't know if he'll ever succeed. Let's hope I'm wrong.

    Robert Werner, P.Eng.
    President
    MW Technologies Inc.
    www.mwtech.com

  • Oban

    "what we do lack is $money$ ... VC money that is" that an an entreprenurial society. Unlike the US, when you start a business - you find money to build the business and start to BUILD the business. In Canada, first you have to see what government program is shovelling out money to "encourage development" in an industry that isn't dominated by Liberal Party govenment cronies - then apply for a GST tax credit and get seed money from a regional development program, assuming of course you are providing services in both English and French and promise to hire a fair portion of Aborginals, Gays, Non-white minorities a kick back a large part of the grant to the Federal Liberal party as an "election contribution". Then when you have built this incredible business, which still hasn't produced jack - run to the provincial governments threating to close if you don't get additional grants to keep the party going.

  • johninspace

    First let me say that I am a Canadian living in Vancouver and work for a small technology start-up. I have also lived in Silicon Valley in California.

    Okay so the author makes a few jabs at Canadians, so what?.. Canadians do the same to the U.S. all the time. Grow up you hosers :)

    As for Vancouver, I moved here because I think it has the potential to become the tech start-up capital of Canada much like California is to the U.S. We have the same West Coast free thinking and innovative spirit and as most people know Canadians are very educated and skilled.

    Do we lack edge? No not really, what we do lack is $money$ ... VC money that is. The U.S. seems to have an endless supply of VC money that will back a hundred companies all chasing the same fad, take them public and although the failure rate is high, the big success stories balance it all out. Canada and BC are just not at that level of venture cash flow and we don't have the same kind of true start-up culture here yet. However I think that will change as Vancouver continues to grow.

    This reality sometimes forces entrepreneurs here to tackle more conservative business plans that are more practical with immediate pay-offs. I hope that this will change and there will be more venture money flowing into Vancouver from California/NY, and as the successes start to become more visible that we can start to foster an 'edgier' start-up culture here in Vancouver.

    John G.
    www.litefeeds.com

  • ted

    Danielle -

    You are "disappointed"? Next time I need to seek someone's approval, I'll let you know.

    A bit defensive? Perhaps. It is interesting that, as an American, you automatically accused some of us of being defensive, rather than considering that you may have been offensive in your original posting.

    That said, I'm not sure whether the banking industry in Canada is any more risk averse than banks in the US. Perhaps this is true - perhaps it is a combination of the regulatory environment and culture that has built up in the banks??? Banks - and insurance companies, tend to be, however, naturally risk averse.

    To your question - are there things to learn from Canadian business? Well . . . Canadian business tends to be generally good at navigating extensive and, at times, restrictive regulatory environments.

    As far as examples of unique approaches (i.e. - not on the bandwagon) go, you'd want to check out Frank Stronach at Magna, Jim Pattison (obligatory to check him out), Michael Sabia,the CEO of Bell Canada, who has turned down a couple of 7 figure bonus payments approved by his board because he didn't see the performance as good enough (http://www.theglobeandmail.com...

  • Graham Howe

    I'm part of the cool, cutting edge, high tech BC economy - and, believe me, it's as hard work here as it is anywhere else. The fact is, however, BC is a very nice place to live and work and, as a result, we have a lot of tech companies starting up here.

    I could make a lot of generalisations about Canadians and their mental attitudes but, at the end of the day, they would be worthless as being driven by my own perceptions - the bottom line is - we are a successful company producing world beating product and we are able to do it in a beautiful location - that makes us a viable place to live and work - check us out.

  • Peter Rees

    Danielle,

    Thanks for the questions. Mike Rowlands covered a few British Columbia specific examples to add credence to our Premier's assertions at The New York Yacht Club.

    To 'play the game', 'could we find a better way of doing business from our friends up north?', requires an appreciation of the Canadian character and an understanding of how Canadians conduct their business affairs.

    So here's a list of some Canadian business leaders (mostly self made, some second generation):

    Kenneth Thomson ~ media
    Galen Weston ~ retail
    Jeffrey Skoll ~ Ebay
    Jim Pattison ~ diversified

  • Mike Rowlands

    Danielle - Most of us do take your comments and questions seriously, and I attempted in my earlier post to communicate what we in the business community here see as legitimate challenges to our continued evolution as a robust, internationally-recognized economy.

    Mike Jones - Your comments about our banking sector's risk aversion I agree with. Many of the emerging ventures that we call clients are challenged primarily by their ability to access capital.

    Indeed, in this weeks Canadian Business magazine, there's an interesting article about the Vancouver Airport Authority, a fantastic Vancouver success story that's thriving internationally. They cite access to capital as a challenge in their growth plans, and they're one of the most successful international businesses to come out of BC in years.

    Food for thought.... And I look forward to reading some more mature commentary from my fellow CoFers in Vancouver and BC....

  • Danielle Sacks

    Mike - I apologize if you took offense to my commentary. As a journalist, part of my responsibility is to question a proclomation made by politicians or other leaders; I don't believe I was disrespectful to any of the other Canadians in the piece: Mintzberg, Gladwell, or Ottenbreit. If BC is really a great hub for business I'd love to hear why from others aside from a politician promoting his city as well as other compelling stories from "our friends up north." I mean that geniunely.

    -Danielle

  • Mike

    Danielle,

    Here's a question for you. If I wrote an article about business in America, and the headline was "Amaaricans, DUH!". Would it matter how insightful or thought provoking the article was? I doubt it would becuase your back would be up before you even started reading the article. Out of the gates your "Canukians EH?" perpetuates a linguistic stereotype and minimizes the serious tone you "attempted" to make in your post.

    You continue to editorialize and minimize comments made from prominent Canadian business figures by saying things like Campell's comments were "mildly compelling" . You also continue to refer to Candians as "Canuckians" in your post despite the fact everyone else being quoted seemed be able to say the country's name properly.

    You were making jokes all throughout your writing and they come across as disrespectful and as you not taking Canada seriously. So tell me why we should take you seriously???

  • Danielle Sacks

    I'm a bit surprised that so many of you are feeling defensive about this blog. My point was to ask what we could learn from the way you/Canadians do business and open the doors to that conversation. I'm disappointed to find you're more interested in name-calling than insightful discussion about ideas and what we can learn from you.

  • Mike

    This news post is ignorant and mildly disrespectful. Is it any wonder why people outside of the US tend to think of the US as a nation of self-centered, rude people?

    The writer of this might need to get out a little more and see the rest of the world.

  • Michael Jones

    I think Paul and Simon's comments above about risk aversion cover a lot of it. A big issue is that Canadian capital has traditionally been very conservative. Financial institutions, insurance companies and pension funds are risk adverse by nature, and these are quite flush in Canada.

    And I agree entirely on the Quebec nonsense. STFU.

  • Mike Rowlands

    A couple of comments....

    First, Campbell's comments are right on: BC is accelerating in terms not only of the 'gateway to Asia' metaphor, but also in terms of our own economic maturity. Our companies are getting bigger; our technological development--largely spurred on by the two major universities in Vancouver--is remarkable; and the depth of available management talent in BC is growing....

    Second, many British Columbians in business are concerned about how slowly the depth of available management talent is growing. To sustain the development and strength of the many emerging technology ventures here, it seems to me that seasoned executives will be among the most valuable commodities. A consolidated post-secondary educational approach; and 'integrated technology initiative' (see http://techinit.ca); and recruitment efforts beyond the borders all will bolster this capacity.

    Lastly, I can't in good conscience post this without commenting on the distasteful posts of yesterday, but I'll say only this: Grow up. Please.

  • Reg

    Canada is where Americans go to get singers, actors, software programmers, news readers, script writers, doctors and nurses. Then they lure them south with the promise of warmer weather and lower taxes.

  • Simon Chapleau

    Being a canadian management consultant working for a US firm, I get to see both sides of the coin.

    I don't necessarily think that not following the bandwagon necessarily means being less competitive. Canadian companies have, in general, less margins for errors. Resources are typically limited compared to US-based firms and the impact of a mistake is much more catastrophic. Canadians therefore have to be more prudent when following trends. We typically see organizations being two to three years behind the fads, most of them taking a wait and see approach for what will really bring value.

  • Western Dude

    Re: Vive le Qc Libre!

    Tough words from a culture stuck with a 14th century language! Even true Frenchmen won't talk to them.

    Let's look at Quebec's contribution to the world...Celine Dione...hmm. Can't think of anyone else.

  • Ronald Q. Cherry

    The only difference I can think of between those in Quebec and the rest of the country is that Quebeckers, whine, complain, cheat, steal, and they rarely (if ever) bathe.

    Oh, and they're terrorists.