Mayor Don Iveson calls on Edmonton investors to get in the game

In his State of the City address (available here in PDF) yesterday at the Shaw Conference Centre, Mayor Don Iveson said there are four crucial “pipelines” that must be established in order to actively shape Edmonton’s economic future. The “export” pipeline, the “investment” pipeline, the “talent” pipeline, and the “innovation” pipeline are what we need for growth in Edmonton.

2018 State of the City Address

Most of what Mayor Iveson told the packed room was simply a rehash of ideas he and other local leaders have been sharing for years, updated to use the startup language of the day. What was different this time was the very specific audience he was speaking to. It wasn’t a speech for all Edmontonians, or for community leaders, or even for the business community. Yesterday’s speech was targeted squarely at local investors.

“As it stands right now, we don’t have enough local investment committed to our local innovation ecosystem,” Mayor Iveson said. He noted that too much local money is being sent out of the city to be invested elsewhere. “I’d like to change that dynamic.”

We need Edmonton’s investor class to get engaged

Mayor Iveson started by describing Edmonton’s investor class:

“It doesn’t always look like one might expect. It’s not always dressed in bankers’ suits. It’s not always flashy like in other cities. It’s more reserved and quiet. But it’s deeply committed to this community.”

“A lot of you are in the room today,” he said. “You’ve built your companies in dynamic and creative ways, you employ thousands of Edmontonians and you are proud to call this city home.” Mayor Iveson outlined three key reasons why the investor class should invest locally:

  1. “This is very doable,” he told them. “A lot of early-stage companies in Edmonton don’t require cash in the millions.” Instead, typical seed funding requirements are in the tends of thousands.

  2. “More local, private investment will give our innovation ecosystem more rigour.” Compared to institutional investors, private investors put “a premium on commercial viability and outcomes.”

  3. “Investing in the growth of local companies means actively shaping Edmonton’s economic future.” He appealed to their love of Edmonton. “You care about what happens to this community over the long run.”

“There must be a willingness from our community to place some bets on local innovations, on local entrepreneurs, on local talent,” Mayor Iveson said.

There are billions of dollars under management right here in Edmonton, but startup funding remains elusive. As one example, AngelList currently shows 16 investors from Edmonton with only 11 of those having actually made investments. Mayor Iveson mentioned just one seed fund by name, Panache Ventures. The situation is much better than it was back in 2006, but to say there’s room for improvement would be a huge understatement.

“I recognize I’m asking a lot of you, especially in this fragile economic climate,” he said. “But this is Edmonton’s moment, and your city needs your engagement and support more than ever.”

We need a bigger startup funnel

Noting that Startup Edmonton currently assists about 65 companies per year in their startup phase, Mayor Iveson said “we need to drastically increase the number of companies coming into the ecosystem funnel.” By this time next year, the mayor wants “to at least double the number of start-up companies that are assisted on an annual basis.” To do this, he will be asking City Council and both public and private sector parterns “to make sizeable investments” to help expand the size of the startup funnel.

This is a familiar refrain locally, especially in the tech sector. Increasing the number of startups in Edmonton is of course the whole reason for Startup Edmonton, an initiative that Mayor Iveson has long been a supporter of. Many other initiatives in recent years have focused on increasing the number of local entrepreneurs. Even in last year’s State of the City address, Mayor Iveson talked about the need “to focus on how we take local start-ups to the next level — to zero-in on adopting a scale-up mindset and build a scale-up community that helps our small enterprises grow confidently.”

This time, Mayor Iveson reiterated the importance of local investment. Edmonton needs more than just more companies, he said. “It also needs larger amounts of early-stage capital to help our entrepreneurs go from start-up to scale-up and beyond.”

Mayor Don Iveson

We need to hustle

One of the key messages Mayor Iveson focused on was the need to hustle. “Edmonton has experienced incredible external pressures before, and we have always managed to adapt and get by,” but that’s not good enough anymore, he said. Recent trips to San Francisco and Asia showed the mayor just how hard we need to work just to keep up, let alone get ahead. “From the moment you hit the ground in these places, the hustle is on.”

We have heard this before. When Brad Ferguson took over as President & CEO of EEDC in 2012, he was already sounding the alarm about complacency, calling it “our number enemy.”

This time though, the mayor got a bit more specific. “Today, we have one of the best AI research institutions in the world but we risk being outspent and out-hustled by other provinces and other cities,” he said. While there’s a role for government, “there’s also a significant role for local investors and philanthropists.”

We’re a world leader in the science of artificial intelligence, and we need to aggressively build on that.

We need a bigger talent pipeline

More talent is going to be critical for Edmonton’s growth. “We know we have work to do in terms of developing skilled talent — both locally grown, and talent that we attract from elsewhere,” Mayor Iveson said.

Again, this is not new. At the EEDC Impact Luncheon in January 2016, Brad Ferguson told the crowd that “the most important thing we can do is continue to invest in talent.” In September 2014, the Edmonton in a New Light event touched on the same ideas – be less humble, go tell the world, attract people and investment – but used different language. “The opportunity before us is to let the rest of the world in on the secret of why we’re all here,” Mayor Iveson said at the time.

The mayor did announce yesterday a new partnership with EEDC and LinkedIn “to do a deep dive on Edmonton’s talent landscape” to better understand “the kinds of skills we’re missing to grow our innovation ecosystem.” Based on that, the City will craft “an Edmonton story that is compelling, honest and attractive” and that highlights “the incredible quality of life we have here.” Plenty has been written about our city’s branding efforts and missteps, so while I applaud a more data-driven approach, I find it hard to believe this time will be different.

2018 State of the City Address

We need to sell to the world

Mayor Iveson said that for sustained growth in Edmonton, we need more businesses with a focus on exports. “Companies that aren’t satisfied to stay local, but want to scale up and take their product or service to customers around the world,” he said, and cited Stantec, PCL, Yardstick, Showbie, and BioWare as examples of local companies that “opened global markets through relentless quality and ambition.”

This focus on global should be very familiar by now. Shortly after he won the 2013 election Mayor Iveson started using some new language, “innovative” and “globally competitive” in particular. And even then Mayor Iveson was talking about solving local problems and exporting the solutions to the world:

“As problem solvers, we can do our business cleaner, greener, cheaper, faster and safer – and sell those solutions to the world. This is how we will ensure that Edmonton will compete globally, and endure long into the future, no matter the price of oil.”

He mentioned the new direct flight to San Francisco as one of the ways to enable more exports. “Although we’re in a digital world, the face-to-face meeting is still a vital commodity when it comes to engaging advisors, connecting with partners and making deals,” he said. The flight will be “a tremendous enabler for more Edmonton-made businesses, with global ambitions, to reach beyond Canada.”

We need to use the City as a lab

After talking about the challenges the City faces, Mayor Iveson said “I want to take the burgeoning community of technology minds in our backyard and unleash them on those City problems.” Earlier this month he introduced a motion to have City Administration outline a draft policy or program to make this a reality. And he said he would pursue a “Startup in Residence” program to connect startups with local government.

As early as 2009 the City was trying and failing to accomplish this goal, first with the Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally program. In his 2015 State of the City address, Mayor Iveson talked about Open Lab, “a new partnership with Startup Edmonton that aims to solve municipal challenges in a more entrepreneurial way.” It sounded promising, but it has gone nowhere, and the City even took down its web page about the program.

“Let’s actively shape Edmonton’s economic future by leveraging our local tech talent to help make our established companies become as competitive and innovative as they can be,” the mayor said. He talked about his idea for an “Innovation Hub” downtown, a place to bring together “entrepreneurs, service providers, mentors, investors, talent and business experts in an environment specifically designed to encourage the creation and growth of companies.” In contrast to the manufactured office parks seen elsewhere, the mayor promised it would reflect “Edmonton’s lifestyle where innovation, entrepreneurship, the arts, creativity and vibrant urban life intersect.”

Mayor Don Iveson

Growing Edmonton’s economy is the focus

Mayor Iveson made growing the economy a key election promise last year, so it makes sense that economic development was his focus for this year’s State of the City. Earlier this month he released a report on the Mayor’s Economic Development Summit, and his remarks yesterday built on that. Again, none of the ideas are particularly new, but perhaps by better involving local investors they’ll have a much greater chance of success.

“Edmonton is ready for this,” the mayor said. “Ready to get off the bench and play at a global level.”

Recap: Edmonton’s Economic Impact Luncheon 2016

EEDC hosted its annual Impact Luncheon at the Shaw Conference Centre on Tuesday. Last year’s event featured Premier Jim Prentice and took place during a more positive time for Alberta’s economy – looking back now it seems like so long ago. A lot has happened over the last year, and to say the landscape in Alberta today is different would be a major understatement.

I think EEDC CEO Brad Ferguson showed great leadership during Council’s budget deliberations a couple months ago, requesting a 2% cut to EEDC’s budget. “Going into 2016, it could be one of the hardest years in Edmonton’s history,” he said at the time. No City-owned organization or branch had ever requested a decrease.


Photo by Brad Ferguson

Board Chair Barry Travers welcomed everyone to the event, and said that EEDC is “committed to doing more with less.” He reiterated that EEDC is focused on achieving $175 million in economic impact. After lunch, emcee Carrie Doll read a story about Edmonton. “Amidst a year of economic headwinds, this resilient city pushed forward once again,” she read. The story was full of feel-good statements like “this is a city of beauty, a city that’s engaged, a city that is alive 52 weeks a year.” I think many in the room felt it was inspirational, but it was perplexing to me. “It’s time to say goodbye to the Edmonton that once was, and hello to the Edmonton that now is.” What does that even mean?

In delivering his keynote address, I thought Brad did a great job of balancing the necessary realism of the current economic situation with the upbeat cheerleading that goes along with being CEO of the City’s economic development organization. He acknowledged that the next 2-3 years are going to be difficult for everyone, then continued:

“But in three years, if we are united and do this properly, this city and province will emerge even stronger than it’s been in the past, an economic powerhouse for our country, an incredible place for the next generation of Albertans to be born into, and a place where everyone will again want to come in search of an abundance of opportunity.”

Brad started globally and worked his way to the local context. “The world around us has lost its compass,” Brad said, explaining that the current period of time is unique because of high debt levels, the fast pace of technological change, and geopolitical tensions. He noted that “using debt to stimulate growth is incredibly addictive for politicians” but that it is citizens who end up paying the price. Global growth has stalled, he said, and that means “demand for commodities grinds to a halt.” He touched on oil, saying that the supply at the moment seems endless. And he talked about “an incredible time of volatility and anxiety, all around the world.”

Next Brad turned his attention to Canada. Though he again scolded politicians for being addicted to debt, he talked about how personal debt has escalated in recent years, despite the fact that middle income wages “have been relatively stagnant since 1995.” This has led to the “Age of Anxiety” as Brad called it, in which “people and families are doing everything possible and are still unable to make ends meet.”

Although he criticized some of the Province’s recent decisions, including “a delayed royalty review and a substantial amount of new provincial debt and new interest payments”, Brad said he wasn’t blaming Rachel Notley or her government. “They inherited 10 years of drunken-sailor euphoria that came after the Klein years,” he said, “which was the last time we made hard decisions about size of government, debt repayment and government program spending.”

More importantly, Brad placed blame on himself and everyone in the room, “We…didn’t do our job over the past 10 years of euphoria and we didn’t hold our government to account.” Regardless of who’s in power, Albertans need to question their political leaders and get more involved. But he didn’t let the current government completely off the hook. “It doesn’t matter what political ideology was campaigned on, our government has a responsibility to steward this province forward for the best interest of Albertans and future Albertans.”


Photo by Carrie Doll

Last year, Brad highlighted ten themes “that would strengthen our economy over the long term.” This year, he highlighted five calls to action:

  1. Entrepreneurship
  2. Export & Trade
  3. Energy Innovation
  4. Tourism, Conferences, and Major Events
  5. Leadership in Public Service

On entrepreneurship, Brad said “the most important thing we can do is continue to invest in talent.” He said the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Edmonton is “working exceptionally well” but noted that health innovation, agrifood, and a shared maker space are all areas that we could improve upon.

“Export & Trade are essential parts of the wealth creation formula,” Brad said. He encouraged local business leaders to speak up about the TPP, saying “we generate about $50 billion per year from TPP countries.” He also talked about pipelines and logistics and said “everyone has a role in making these opportunities come to life.”

“Our energy future is all about innovation,” Brad said, highlighting five challenges that we should be focusing on: CO2-Free Emissions, Enhanced Oil Recovery, Carbon Capture & Storage, Clean Coal, Safest Pipelines in the World. He said it doesn’t make sense to shut down or phase out one of our competitive strengths in exchange for “making green infrastructure investments in which we have no competitive advantage.”

Though he noted that EEDC has been working with Northlands to “end the 30-year old discussion of how we can best market the city under one banner,” most of what Brad said about major events and tourism was a repeat of last year. “Major events create an energy, rhythm and pulse in a city” he said, repeating last year’s message nearly word-for-word. It seems to be that civic leaders love to talk about Edmonton’s major events strategy, yet I have never seen one articulated.

“In this country we have three levels of government with the risk of introducing a fourth at the regional level,” he said. I assume he’s talking about regional government, and he argued effectively against it. “We can barely afford the multi-tiered system that we have, and we certainly cannot afford it becoming more engorged.” He talked about government becoming more efficient and less bureaucratic.

My favorite part of his remarks came when Brad talked about the complicated system of economic development and innovation organizations, saying “the level of duplication and inefficiencies is astonishing, with no overall leadership, coordination in planning or true accountability for results.” He called for an overhaul of the system, and extended an invitation to work with the other organizations to “reshape the economic development and innovation system to what is needed for our future, and leave behind the ineffective systems and structures of our past.” I hope Brad’s colleagues take him up on the offer.

Brad finished with this: “I believe this province will regain its potential, and out of this extended period of darkness, better days will come.”

Overall I think he delivered a thoughtful speech. With clear calls to action, some thought-provoking statements, and a personal touch, I think Brad had a big impact on everyone who listened. Let’s hope that other civic leaders follow his lead and do their part to help Edmonton emerge stronger from the downturn that is ahead.

EEDC looks to deliver “monumental value” with new energy, identity, and purpose

When Brad Ferguson took over as President & CEO at Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) in the summer of 2012, he knew things had to change. Even though Edmonton’s economic growth remained strong, many leaders throughout the city felt that EEDC could be doing more. Even City Council had begun to lose confidence in the organization, with Councillor Caterina going so far as to suggest that EEDC be shut down if its fortunes weren’t turned around. Brad insisted he was fired up and ready to do the work of remaking the organization.

Brad Ferguson

He wasn’t kidding. The organization today has changed dramatically from the one Brad took over. He opened his speech at last week’s 2014 Impact Luncheon with that context:

“I stood at this podium one year ago knowing a lot had to change. Our organization had lost the confidence of City Council and lost relevance with the business community.”

“I can stand here today proud of the work we’ve done and the changes we’ve made in the last twelve months.”

Over the last year EEDC has clarified its purpose and approach, revamped its brand and visual identity, brought in fresh leadership, and has started to dramatically shift the internal culture of the organization.

Edmonton Economic Development is changing the way it does business. “The culture of winning is what we’re building,” Brad said.

New Purpose & Approach

To bring greater focus to the work of the organization, EEDC has clarified its primary objective:

To ensure the Edmonton Region outperforms every major economic jurisdiction in North America consistently over the next 20 years…regardless if the price of oil is $140 or $40.

That’s a big departure from the organization’s previous (though fleeting) goal statement, which was to become one of the world’s top five mid-sized cities by 2030. It’s a shift from aspirational hyperbole to measurable outcomes, from uncertain ROI for stakeholders to an assured local impact.

In the next three years, Edmonton Economic Development needs to transition from “monumental change” to “monumental value” created for the City of Edmonton.

EEDC’s new website and its 2014-2016 Statement of Intent detail how the organization is evolving to deliver greater value and achieve its objectives. Importantly, EEDC’s strategic direction references the City of Edmonton’s plan on economic development known as The Way We Propser. Rather than duplicating effort or taking different approaches, EEDC envisions itself contributing to the City’s efforts in seven ways. “These seven roles can best be accomplished outside the City of Edmonton, and provide Edmonton Economic Development with a platform for delivering significant value to the economic growth strategy for the City of Edmonton.”

It’s remarkable how little EEDC’s structure has changed since it was formed two decades ago. The four separate organizations that came together have always remained highly visible – the Shaw Conference Centre, Edmonton Tourism, the Edmonton Research Park, and Economic Development. The new approach doesn’t completely move away from those historical silos, but it does make a start.

Edmonton Economic Development will be structured as a conglomerate of six divisions, each with their own expectation of performance and accountability.

The six divisions are:

  • Enterprise Edmonton
  • Edmonton Tourism
  • Shaw Conference Centre
  • Build Edmonton
  • Brand Edmonton
  • Corporate Services

Build Edmonton is slated to be approved and established by April, and will take over ownership of the Edmonton Research Park. Corporate Services is an internally-focused division and one of its key goals will be to earn Top Employer awards by 2015.

Brand Edmonton is perhaps the area of the new EEDC that is most in flux. Sometimes mentioned as a division and other times mentioned as a priority, Brand Edmonton will build on the work of Make Something Edmonton to provide brands, campaigns, and plans for building Edmonton’s brand locally and around the world. While the details about how Make Something Edmonton will continue are still being worked out, it’s clear that EEDC will play a significant role in it’s future (for instance, interim executive director Mary Sturgeon has already moved over to EEDC’s offices). It’s a recognition of the fact that EEDC has a key role to play in telling Edmonton’s story.

Priorities and performance measures for each division have been identified and shared publicly in the Statement of Intent, which speaks to both the competitiveness and accountability that Brad is trying to encourage throughout the organization.

Overall, the 2014-2016 period will be defined by “performance” in a way that will forever differentiate the expectation of Edmonton’s economic development organization.

Forget what you think you know about economic development organizations!

New Brand Identity

One of the most visible ways EEDC is changing is of course it’s new brand identity. EEDC last underwent a major change in 2004, when the name Edmonton Economic Development Corporation was announced on May 7. The organization had been known as Economic Development Edmonton prior to that. Then President Allan Scott said the change would “clearly emphasize what we sell: Edmonton.” The following week, EEDC moved into its current offices at the World Trade Centre (they had been at the Shaw Conference Centre before that).

Now EEDC has dropped the word “Corporation” from its public brand. Though officially (on paper) still known as Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, the public-facing brand will simply be Edmonton Economic Development. Much as Apple dropped “Computer” from its name back in 2007 to better reflect its new business strategy, the change at EEDC brings clarity to the organization’s direction. The emphasis is now clearly on economic development, rather than bureaucracy.

More visually, EEDC worked with DDB Edmonton to develop a new logo for the organization and its divisions:

“Our logo reflects Edmonton Economic Development’s vibrant new culture. It is bold, confident and energetic. Its graphic expression tells the story of big ideas transformed into tangible economic progress for Edmonton.”

Here’s the old logo compared with the new one:

EEDC Logo Before & After

Kevin Weidlich, VP of Marketing & Communications at EEDC, told me that “the old look and feel was inconsistent with the direction” that the organization was headed. When he joined in March 2013, he found himself struggling to explain to friends and family what EEDC does. “I realized that lots of energy was focused on ourselves instead of on our clients”, he told me. “Our brand architecture caused that confusion.”

Howard Poon, DDB’s Design Director, had this to say about the new look:

“What we’re doing with this identity is showcasing EEDC’s vibrant new culture, the entrepreneurial spirit. We’re telling the story of how this organization takes big ideas and transforms them into progress for Edmonton. It’s all about energy and momentum.”

The vertical grey line is viewed as the anchor, representing the organization’s established, grounded and trusted team of experts. The green and gold rays are said to be “bursting forth from the anchor” and they represent “the entrepreneurial dreams, ideas, and actions Edmonton Economic Development transforms into reality.” Green and gold are also seen as a nod to Edmonton’s heritage.

Two of EEDC’s divisions have new logos too, Enterprise Edmonton and Edmonton Tourism.

EEDC Logo Before & After

I remarked that the new logos all looked a bit abstract. The DDB design team (which included David Landreth and Adnan Huseinovic) chose that approach because they felt “it better reflects EEDC’s innovative mindset.” Howard said “a literal symbol or icon doesn’t effectively capture the organization’s personality.”

Helene Leggatt, President of DDB Edmonton, spoke positively about working on the project with EEDC. “There seemed to be a unified sense of purpose,” she told me. It can be tricky with multiple stakeholders to get consensus, but she found everyone at EEDC to be really well-aligned. The project took just 10-12 weeks, from start to finish. “They’re pushing more innovative thinking,” she said. “There’s new energy, new focus, and real fire at EEDC.”

Shaw holds the naming rights on the Shaw Conference Centre until 2016, so that logo remains untouched. Though the new EEDC website still highlights just three divisions, other material frequently mentions Build Edmonton and Brand Edmonton too. I think we can expect a logo for Build Edmonton later this year. Brand Edmonton, on the other hand, is currently envisioned as “a new suite of Edmonton Economic Development brands.”

The voice of EEDC is also evolving. The words “leadership”, “entrepreneurship”, “innovation”, and “competitiveness” permeate the language that EEDC now uses to express its mandate. The new brand guidelines say the tone of voice should be smart, inspiring, sincere, confident, and active.

As a result, the work being produced by EEDC now is less corporate and much more confident. Take the vision statement:

Edmonton, Canada’s economic and entrepreneurial powerhouse: A great northern city filled with unlimited entrepreneurship, education and energy that is a beacon toward which people who crave opportunity will come.

You’d be forgiven if the use of the word “powerhouse” surprised you. Elsewhere in the Statement of Intent you’ll find words like “unstoppable” and “scalable”. These words and phrases are used by energetic organizations like Startup Edmonton, not arms-length municipal bodies! That’s the new brand voice in action.

EEDC also launched a new website at IgniteEdmonton.com. The website doesn’t replace Edmonton.com, but it has become the corporate home of the organization. Plans are still being fleshed out, but it is likely that Edmonton.com will become consumer/tourist-focused. I asked Kevin about the choice of the word “ignite” and he said it perfectly captured the new direction of EEDC. Indeed the new brand guidelines use it to describe EEDC as “the spark that ignites success.”

New Energy

If you’re thinking that all EEDC has done is put on a fresh coat of paint, think again. From its divisional structure to its individual employees, EEDC’s internal changes have been significant.

At the 2014 Impact Luncheon Brad noted that 36% of EEDC’s employees have been with the organization less than a year, and 24% are in new roles or are doing things that didn’t previously exist, which means a full two-thirds of the organization is fresh. The organization’s makeup has changed demographically too. Just 12% of EEDC’s employees are baby boomers, while 42% are Generation X and 46% are Generation Y. They have also achieved a 52-48% male-female split.

One of the first new leaders to come on board was D’Arcy Vane, a director of Enterprise Edmonton. In early 2013, he was joined by Glen Vanstone who was previously the Director of Business Innovation at EIA. Kevin Weidlich came on as VP of Marketing & Communications, followed by Maggie Davison just a couple of weeks later as the VP of Tourism.

In April 2013 Derek Hudson joined to take on the role of Chief Operating Officer. In July 2013, Ken Chapman joined as Executive Director of Northern Initiatives. He was previously the Executive Director of the Oil Sands Developers Group, and he brings relationships and experience that EEDC has long lacked.

These are just a few of the new faces at EEDC. As noted, many existing EEDC employees have moved into new roles at the organization too. For instance, Tammy Pidner has taken on the role of Chief Evangelist.

I asked Kevin what the mood was like as a result of all the change. “Many of the new hires have brought skillsets that never existed in the company before,” he said, noting it has increased EEDC’s capacity. He cited Euna Kang, EEDC’s Creative Manager, as someone who has enabled EEDC to do more in-house than ever before.

“The level of excitement in the company now is palpable,” he told me.

Monumental Value?

When I interviewed Brad after he was just a month or so into the job, he already had a clear picture of the direction he wanted EEDC to go. “I want to fundamentally up the value of the organization to the community and to the City of Edmonton,” he said at the time.

The first step in achieving that was revamping the organization. EEDC today is focused, energized, and confident. But change is easier to bring about than increased value is (let alone monumental value). That’s the challenge facing Brad and everyone at EEDC over the next couple of years – translating all of the positive changes of 2012 and 2013 into results.

One of the things EEDC will need to do to find success is avoid distractions. While important, spearheading the work of image and branding for the city has historically been fraught with peril. Likewise, it can be easy to get drawn into the current political hot potato of the day or to start defining economic development too broadly. Focus is one of the most important things that EEDC has found over the last year, and it would be wise not to lose it.

It is often said that culture trumps strategy, but culture is much more difficult to change than strategy is to develop. New divisions, new logos, and new faces – none of these things come easily, and all are important elements of changing the organization’s culture. EEDC recognizes the challenge:

Developing the right corporate culture is a major undertaking that began in August 2012 and is developing into a strategic asset of Edmonton Economic Development that can never be measured on a balance sheet.

Getting the culture right isn’t the only hill to climb. EEDC will need to rebuild confidence in the business community and earn the trust of our new City Council. All of these things will take time and dedication because they require action. Fortunately, taking action appears to be something that the new EEDC is very good at. Brad promised changes, and he delivered.

Edmonton Economic Development’s mission is “to inspire a culture of entrepreneurship, innovation and competitiveness that forever differentiates our city.” If that wasn’t enough to make you a champion, the new energy and approach that Brad has brought to EEDC should be. The next few years are shaping up to be monumentally exciting.

Brad Ferguson is ‘all in’ as EEDC’s new President & CEO

One month into his new role as President & CEO of Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), Brad Ferguson is still trying to get a handle on an organization that many would say is in need of change. Starting a new job is tough enough, but Brad’s new position comes with its own unique mix of history, politics, and public scrutiny. Despite that, Brad insists he is ready to tackle the challenges and bring about significant, positive changes. “I have never been so on for something in my life, since maybe when I was starting my own company,” he told me as our coffee interview got underway last week. “I’m fired up, I really am!”

Brad Ferguson

Though he has lived in a number of different places, Edmonton has always been Brad’s home. He earned a B.A. in Economics and B.Comm in Finance from the University of Alberta. A job at Proctor & Gamble took him away from the city in the mid-nineties, but he soon returned to start a family and “really setup shop.” After P&G, Brad spent time at KPMG and TkMC (Sierra Systems) before starting his own management consultancy Strategy Summit Ltd. in 2002. He has made a career out of advising organizations on how to become more competitive to facilitate growth.

He was not thinking about the EEDC job at first, but a series of conversations in recent months changed Brad’s mind. A number of individuals encouraged him to throw his hat into the ring, so he did. After going through the headhunting and formal interview process, Brad started to feel as though he might be selected. “I became downright competitive about it!” He had come to realize that the opportunity was too important to pass up, and he wanted the job.

At just 43 years of age, Brad will bring a perspective to EEDC that the organization has not had in fifteen years. His two most recent predecessors, Ron Gilbertson and Allan Scott, were both 55 when they took the job. Before them, Jim Edwards was 61 when he took over from Rick LeLacheur, the organization’s first president and CEO who was about six months older when he started than Brad is today. EEDC is often criticized as an “old boys club”, so the board’s decision to move ahead with Brad as the new leader reflects a willingness to change.

Established in 1993, EEDC is wholly owned by the City of Edmonton. The organization’s mandate includes the promotion of economic development and tourism, as well as the management and development of the Shaw Conference Centre and Edmonton Research Park. Or as Brad put it, the organization is made up of four very different business units. “We have a major facility and caterer, real estate, tourism, and economic development.” With 130 full-time employees, 650 part-time employees, and a $36 million annual budget, EEDC is a major force in our city yet many Edmontonians wonder what the organization does. Brad wants to change that.

“It’s about being externally focused,” he said. “It’s about demonstrating value to the community.” He acknowledges that structural changes are necessary, not only to change EEDC’s image, but to enable it to deliver on its mandate. “The structure has to mesh with strategy and be aligned to organizational outcomes.” He admits to feeling some public pressure to make changes as well.

That process will take time, but it starts this fall when Brad will take a series of directional statements to the board in an effort to get authorization to further explore the options. He hopes to present a set of recommendations by the end of the year. “I have three phases,” he explained. “Focusing the organization, building leadership capacity, and bringing about a cultural shift.” He’s not sure exactly what that change will look like, but he knows where he wants the organization to end up. “Our structure needs to build confidence and clarity in the marketplace.”

One of the first people Brad called after starting work was Richard Andersen, President and CEO at Northlands. “I want to bring resolution and clarity to the question of Shaw versus Expo,” Brad told me. Competition between the Shaw Conference Centre and Edmonton Expo Centre can sometimes be unhealthy, as each focuses on winning the client instead of ensuring the client comes to Edmonton and has the best experience possible. Like EEDC, Northlands has also struggled in recent years to defend its existence, a problem that only got worse when they were left out of discussions on the downtown arena. Under Andersen’s leadership however, there are signs that things are beginning to change for the better, and Brad certainly holds his counterpart in high esteem. “Richard is an incredible operator and leader in this community.”

The open approach to collaboration will be important as Brad charts a new course for EEDC. “No one organization is responsible for economic development,” he told me. “It’s a system, and it’s important to be supportive of other organizations.” While the amalgamation of the various economic entities in the nineties helped to bring clarity and efficiency to Edmonton’s economic development efforts, perhaps the time has come to reassess that structure. Perhaps EEDC doesn’t need to be in four different businesses.

Even if a breakup is not in the cards for EEDC, there is certainly room for greater coordination with other organizations. Just days after Edmonton Tourism’s joint initiative with Travel Alberta to bring former Bachelorette star Ashley Hebert and her fiance J.P. to Edmonton made headlines, Brad admitted that he learned a lot from the experience. “I have learned who they are,” he quipped. Then, becoming more serious, “I have made it known internally that I want to understand the ROI on this.” Brad was quick to support his staff however, explaining that experimentation and creativity are needed and should be cultivated. As for the collaboration with Travel Alberta, Brad was happy the two organizations were able to work together on a project. Still, he recognizes there is work to do. “There should be a joint context, a joint set of priorities.”

One of Brad’s earliest memories of Edmonton was a walk through the river valley when he was about eight years old. “I remember the green and gold of the leaves,” he recalled. “It felt like a new phase for me.” That same spot, near the Royal Glenora, had an impact on him later too when a conversation about the negative economic situation in Edmonton weighed heavily. In the latest phase of his career, Brad finds himself in a much healthier city, faced with the opportunity to have a major impact.

There are many Edmontonians that have shaped the leader Brad is today, and many that he admires greatly, but two stand out. “Sandy Mactaggart recognized there was opportunity here,” Brad said. “He was a city builder and is still a great philanthropist.” The other is Rod Fraser, perhaps best known as the former President of the University of Alberta. “He is one of the great communicators,” Brad said. “He talked about the university being indisputably recognized internationally as one of a handful of the best organizations.”

EEDC has been vocal about its vision to make Edmonton one of the world’s top five mid-sized cities by 2030, but Brad is not sold on that. “Visions are never achievable,” he told me. “They have to be long-lasting.” The implication is that being a top five mid-sized city is completely reasonable and achievable. “Let’s declare ourselves there, up the bar, and figure out what’s next.” He would rather see us really stretch. After all, as the saying goes, no one gives you power, you just take it.

So what would a stronger vision sound like? “The vision should be to consistently outperform every economic jurisdiction in North America for the next twenty years.” An audacious and yet very measurable statement. “That means when the price of oil fluctuates, we still need to outperform, so that’s resiliency.” The focus on North America rather than simply the world is important, because Brad says the “continental approach is where we want to perform.”

Whenever Edmonton’s aspirations are discussed, two words seem to get thrown around more than any other: world class. “I don’t subscribe to those words a lot,” Brad declared. When pushed for a definition, he said the first thing is we need to be proud of whatever we’re calling world class. And secondly, “it has to be relevant and respected by people outside of our borders.” He did have praise for the downtown arena, perhaps the project most often associated with the term. “I think the arena is a bold, dynamic project, that has the ability to spark the creativity and interest of whole lot of other developers,” he said. “I want to compliment the City for having the courage to really entertain this and to be involved as a partner.”

One word that Brad has been using very consistently and deliberately since taking over as CEO is “complacency.” To him, it perfectly captures one of Edmonton’s biggest challenges. “It’s our number one enemy,” he said. “Right now the economy feels strong, but there are some dark clouds looming.” It’s clear that Brad has thought a lot about the subject, and has strong feelings about how to avoid becoming complacent. “We need to change to a culture of competitiveness,” he told me. “We need to have a hunger to compete.” Despite his cautions about complacency, Brad does feel that Edmonton is more resilient and diversified today than ever before. And he notes that significant opportunities lay ahead for the city. “A number of the things Edmonton has – education, food, water – are things the world wants,” Brad said.

Ensuring we can articulate Edmonton’s story to the world is going to be an important piece in making the most of those opportunities. “There’s a real need to tell our city’s story better,” Brad declared. “I compliment the mayor for his leadership on this.” Noting that everyone has an opinion on the topic, he doesn’t think any one group can fully articulate what Edmonton’s story is. “I think a common language will emerge,” he said. “Something to do with the opportunity to contribute.” Whatever the story is, Brad hopes it has an impact on the way Edmontonians feel about Edmonton. “We have to build a little more pride in how we talk about our city,” he said.

Capital Ideas Edmonton Mixer

While Brad will absolutely need to lead the way as a retooled EEDC works to make Edmonton the economic jurisdiction to beat, he recognizes that he won’t be alone in that quest. “There are so many great people that want to help build this city,” he said. “Part of my job is to help them make something happen.” He stresses that his door is open, and that he’ll be both accessible and proactive. “Everyone can expect my call!”

Despite the economic turmoil taking place around the globe, Edmonton’s economy has remained strong and healthy growth is forecasted for the years ahead. Of course EEDC has a role to play in that, but it’s an indirect one that requires clear direction and strong collaboration. Ensuring EEDC has the right people, strategies, and relationships to play a significant role in that growth is absolutely something Brad must tackle. He’s ready to do just that.

“I want to fundamentally up the value of the organization to the community and to the City of Edmonton.”

Celebrities will never be Edmonton’s cheerleaders

There’s no such thing as bad publicity – isn’t that how the saying goes? That might have been a good maxim in the past, but I’m not so sure that Travel Alberta and EEDC would agree with it in the current social media-laden world. Both agencies have taken a virtual beating over the last week for their decision to spend $20,000 to bring former “Bachelorette” star Ashley Hebert and her fiancé J.P. Rosenbaum to Edmonton. The couple was flown in from New York, stayed at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald, visited the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Old Strathcona Farmers Market, and the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, and ate at Joey’s. They seemed to have a good time, judging by their tweets, and both Travel Alberta and EEDC have been defending the expense. But questioning whether or not the trip was worth it for us is just one of the many questions that Edmontonians have been asking.

Perhaps the first question is: why Ashley and J.P.? The answer is demographics. Despite having eight seasons under its belt, “The Bachelorette” remains an incredibly successful show for ABC. And significantly, it performs very well in the all-important 18-34 demographic. In fact, the show is #1 in its timeslot for that demographic. Reaching potential visitors in the 18-34 age group is an important target for Travel Alberta and EEDC. Those are the folks that have the disposable income and ability to visit, and they’re also the group that might want to move here to work or to start a family.

Another question that comes to mind is, what do we get in return? Travel Alberta and EEDC will tell you that the return on investment comes in the form of media coverage. Incredibly, they think that we’ve earned at least $250,000 in media coverage. I suspect that figure is based predominately on the number of page views a website gets. Well let me tell you, I could put up a website with photos of the trip and spend a couple of hundred dollars and within hours I’d have hundreds of thousands of page views, but they’d all be completely worthless. Take a look at the coverage that EEDC has been highlighting. Here’s the “coverage” that appeared on CBSNews:

cbsnews

How is that photo supposed to make anyone want to visit Edmonton? Or how about this article or this blog post. Would anyone seriously look at that and say, you know, I want to visit Edmonton! I know that you have to stay top-of-mind if you want to be considered, but it feels like we’re deluding ourselves here. I think the most valuable exposure we got from this trip was the tweets from Ashley and J.P. themselves, yet that doesn’t appear to have been factored into that $250,000 number.

Let’s assume that bringing Ashley & J.P. was a good investment because of the target demographic we want to reach and the media coverage that we received as a result. Did the itinerary align with that? The couple stayed at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald. Aside from the fact that the hotel doesn’t seem to match the couple’s style, it’s probably not the first place a 25-year-old visitor might consider. Why not have them stay at The Matrix or The Metterra hotels? The folks at Hotel Mac are fantastic, and I’m sure they took great care of Ashley and J.P., but it doesn’t seem like the right choice. I certainly can’t complain about the activities – the Fringe, the AGA, and the OSFM are all excellent stops (though I would have preferred to see them at the City Market Downtown). Sending the couple to Joey’s for dinner, however, was shocking to me. Travel Alberta talks a good game about culinary tourism, but this makes me question everything about their efforts on that front. You fly them all the way to Edmonton to eat at a chain? I know that independent restaurants can sometimes be trickier to work with, but if you’re not going to do it right don’t do it at all. You know which restaurant is not on Dine Alberta’s list of those that serve local food? Joey’s.

Could Travel Alberta and EEDC have taken a different approach? If you’ve seen “The Bachelorette” (judge me if you must but I have) you’ll know that the show is really more of an extended travel commercial than an emotional quest for true love. The bachelorette and her potential suitors fly all over the world to attractive, romantic destinations. Beaches, mountains, and busy cobblestone streets are all common sights. If reaching viewers of “The Bachelorette” is important, why not work to have Edmonton and Alberta featured as one of the destinations on the show itself? At least that way we’d be able to showcase our natural beauty and probably one or two interesting activities too. Maybe Travel Alberta and EEDC have tried to make that happen, I’m not sure, but it does seem like the return would have been greater.

I really hope that Travel Alberta and EEDC both review this experiment and learn from it. We need creative and innovative approaches to attracting tourism and investment to Edmonton, but that still has to align with strategic objectives. I would hate to see the individuals responsible for this reprimanded – instead I hope they are recognized for their initiative but educated about the importance of providing context. The uproar over this relatively minor $20,000 expense could have been almost completely avoided. And while it’s great to see Travel Alberta and EEDC working together on something, it seems to me that a few more discussions about shared objectives should have taken place first.

Ultimately, I don’t think we should ever count on celebrities to be Edmonton’s cheerleaders. Sure they might tweet something about how much they loved Edmonton, but at the end of the day that has very little impact, and there’s no guarantee that media coverage will result. The connection between bringing celebrities to Edmonton and the increased tourism and economic activity that may result seems tenuous at best. Instead of focusing on a few celebrities here and there, let’s focus on the 1.2 million people that already have a strong connection to Edmonton. Let’s provide Edmontonians themselves with the confidence, tools, and common language to tell others just how great Edmonton is and why they should come here to live, work, or play.

I’d spend $20,000 on that, wouldn’t you?

Shifting the Alberta Advantage

The main thing we talked about yesterday at the ONEdmonton forum was economic development. In addition to breakouts and other discussion, we had two informative presentations that I hope to blog about over the next while. In her presentation on Diversifying Edmonton’s Economy, Tammy Fallowfield, EEDC’s Executive Director of Economic Development, touched on shifting the “Alberta Advantage”. Here’s what her slide said:

  • Remain relatively low tax
  • Not a low cost environment
  • Not a surplus of labour
  • Not a currency ‘bargain’

I think the phrase “Alberta Advantage” means different things to different people, but traditionally our low taxes, low cost of doing business, surplus of labour, and being attractive to investment, have all been considered important aspects. Here are a few notes on each.

Alberta’s low taxes remain a strength. From the Alberta Competitiveness Council’s 2010 report (PDF, 14 MB):

[Taxes and fiscal policy] represents the area of best performance for Alberta, with moderately low tax burdens for both corporations and individuals and a strong government financial position.

Of all the measures that report looks at, Alberta performs the best (unsurprisingly) in taxes and fiscal policy.

What about being a low-cost environment? From the same report:

Within Canada, business costs in Alberta (Edmonton) are lower than Ontario (Toronto), but higher than in each of the other provinces compared. This result is due to Alberta’s strong economy of recent years, which led to a much higher increase in business costs – especially labour, electricity, and facility costs – than seen in other provinces.

I haven’t yet found a good comparison of business costs with regions elsewhere in the world, so let me know if you come across something. I suspect the picture is not as rosy as it once was.

How about our labour force? All across Canada the population is aging, and that (along with our very low fertility rate) is going to lead to labour shortages. Here’s a graph from Alberta’s Occupational Demand & Supply Outlook, 2009-2019 (PDF), that shows this trend for our province:

There are many consequences as a result of this trend, not the least of which is Alberta’s challenge to attract and retain labour. Our taxes will likely also be impacted – an older population means higher costs for health care, and a slow growing labour force means a slow growing tax base.

Let’s look at the Canadian dollar (compared to the US dollar).

The strength of the Canadian dollar has an impact on foreign investment, among other things. As you can see, the dollar has been quite strong in recent years (aside from the dip in late 2008/early 2009), which may not be a good thing for Alberta.

So if being low-cost, having a surplus of labour, and being a relative currency ‘bargain’ are no longer part of the Alberta Advantage, what does that mean?

This diagram comes from the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity, based on a presentation that Professor Daniel Trefler of the University of Toronto gave here in Alberta on October 15, 2009. The diagram was originally used to illustrate the shift that China and India have yet to make.

On the same slide that listed the four points above, Tammy included this diagram. That’s the shift we need to make here in Alberta – from being a strong low-cost competitor, to being a strong innovation-based competitor.

How are we going to do that? By making strategic choices. Here’s (more or less) what Tammy showed next:

Tammy went on to talk about the industries that are important for us to focus on here in Edmonton, and a similar exercise would apply for Alberta. I’m not sure if what I have written above is exactly what she was trying to get across, but that’s how I interpreted it.

What do you think about shifting the Alberta Advantage?