It’s billed as a quick way to take the pulse of business in the Central Okanagan. It’s called a business walk.
On Tuesday, small teams of representatives from local municipalities, the province, area business groups and the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission fanned across Kelowna, Lake Country and West Kelowna with a simple mission—spend a few minutes talking to local manufacturers and find out how their businesses are doing.
The teams were in and out in minutes but the information gathered is considered critical when it comes to not only helping build relationships and networking, but also in addressing the important issue of business retention here.
“What we really want to know is what do they need,” said Corie Griffiths, business development officer with the EDC and one of the main organizers behind the business walk.
Following on the success of the first business walk here last October—that unlike the walk Tuesday was not industry specific—the EDC organized the second to focus solely on manufacturing.
EDC executive director Robert Fine said manufacturing was chosen because of its impact on the local economy.
While not a huge employer locally, there are more manufacturers here than many may think—75 alone were visited Tuesday morning. And while many are small operations, studies have shown the average manufacturer here has 50 per cent more impact on the local economy than a retail store and 40 per cent more than a tourism operation.
“There are fewer of them but the impact is bigger,” said Fine.
Manufacturing here, like elsewhere in Canada, has taken a hit in recent years.
The total number of employees in the sector is down from where it was in the 1990s. But it’s still a player in the local economy and appears to be on the rebound.
So the business walk teams hit the pavement Tuesday morning, armed with four simple questions for the businesses: How’s business? What are the challenges? Why is it located here? What does it need?
While detailed reports will be written up over the next few weeks detailing what was discovered, Griffiths said the initial findings included a need for strategic market assistance, particularly for businesses sending their goods outside of this area; a need to address recruitment of skilled and trained employees; and concern about some municipal issues, such as signage and rules and regulations and information from the city being made available to the business in a timely manner.
But overall, it seemed the businesses talked to during the walk liked being here, felt business is picking up and would like to grow their workforces, even if they are not quite ready to do so yet.
“It really did allow us to take the pulse of the manufacturing sector,” said Griffiths.
The idea of business walks is not new—at least not in the U.S. But the one here last October was a first for Canada.
Last October’s walk organized by the local EDC contacted more than 300 businesses and was billed as a success—a success that did not go by unnoticed.
The province, which has participated in both walks here with representatives from ministries such as jobs and skills training, now promote the use of similar walks to other communities, particularly smaller communities where there may not be local organizations like an economic development commission.
“It’s a simple and effective way to help identify opportunities early,” said Myles Burns, regional manager in the Thompson Okanagan for the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training. “It’s an awesome tool to capture a snapshot of how businesses are doing.”
And it also creates a two-way dialogue with local officials hearing directly from business owners and operators about concerns they have and, in turn, are able to pass along information that may be helpful to the businesses.
Burns credits the Central Okanagan EDC for bringing the business walk to the government’s attention. Griffiths said she has had calls from other communities interested in holding their own business walks looking for information.
And some communities, such as Vernon, now plan to hold walks of their own in conjunction with the next Central Okanagan one in October as part of the celebration of small business week.
In addition, Griffiths will be telling her economic development colleagues about the success of the business walk program at the next meeting of the Economic Development Associations of B.C. meeting where she is scheduled to make a presentation.
“The beauty of the program, and the reason it works, is because it leverages participation from a whole group of organizations and that really helps,” said Griffiths.
She said the EDC here does not have the resources to conduct walks that hit so many business in such a short space of time.
So not only is it critical to have other groups, such as municipalities, the province, chambers of commerce, business improvement area organizations, educational institutions and other businesses involved, it is also important that they be there to hear the concerns of the businesses being talked to. That way, they can offer potential solutions.
On Tuesday, one of the teams that headed out included Kelowna Mayor Walter Gray, the city’s business development officer Jim Patterson, Vera Sit with the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, and Sherri Chapman representing the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce.
The inclusion of the mayor and Sit gave the business people interviewed by that team an opportunity to raise both municipal and provincial issues, something Patterson and Gray said they found helpful.
“In 1 1/2 hours, you get a real sense of how it is out there,” said Patterson, who acts as the city’s main liaison between business and City Hall.
For Sit, it provided an opportunity to inform local business operators about programs her ministry offers that they may not have been aware of, which could help their businesses. She said often, business owners and operators, particularly of smaller operations, do not have the time to research all that is available to them because running their businesses takes all their time.
“That’s where something like this (the walk) is really good,” she said.
On Tuesday, during an interview with Shirley and Glen Corrigal of Kelowna’s Furniture Plus Manufacturing, a small furniture maker located on Ellis Street, Sit heard directly about the difficulty some smaller businesses are having getting and retaining skilled workers.
Shirley Corrigal said at her business, workers are often employed for the length of the project being worked and are then laid off, only to be re-hired for the next contract.
Sit said there are government programs that can help companies like Corrigal’s retain the workers between contracts, information Corrigal said she had not known about but would like to learn more.
Corrigal called the business walks helpful because they put businesspeople and the government representatives face to face and both can learn from each other.
Down the road, at Mearl’s Machine Works, Greg Anderson agreed.
“Any time the government, local government, regional people show up and interact with us in a supportive way, it’s beneficial,” said Anderson.
“They will have a better feeling of how we are doing.”
Many of the businesses spoken to Tuesday reported business is picking up after a tough couple of years with the economy taking a dip.
While business is not back to where it was for many, there does appear to be a new found optimism among many business operators here based on what the walk teams were told Tuesday.
For the EDC, if it can learn from the information gleaned from the quick interviews and the development of relationships, that can only bode well for the future.