Two weeks ago, Amazon set cities around the world alight with excitement at the prospect of hosting the Seattle-based firm’s second headquarters. Since that time, big city mayors, economic development officials and pundits of all stripes have assessed their own town’s chances of winning the Amazon lottery.
Ottawa is no exception. Mayor Jim Watson struck a task force to evaluate the Capital’s potential and explore a bid for HQ2, and was even in Seattle on Thursday to tour Amazon’s current headquarters.
Debates on who the best suitor for Amazon may be have largely revolved around city-to-city comparisons: Which city has the ideal infrastructure, talent pool or tax incentives in place? It’s hard to narrow down how Ottawa might stand out from the crowd when the full gamut of North America’s metropolises are on the table.
It’s useful, then, to look at a case study such as Syntronic. The Swedish design house landed in Kanata, with the help of Invest Ottawa, in 2014. The firm’s original aspirations involved an R&D outpost in the city, with maybe 25 people at its maximum.
This past month, Syntronic has passed 170 employees in Ottawa, and it’s still hiring today.
Invest Ottawa says a combination of the city’s unique ecosystem, its talent pool and, perhaps most importantly, the lifestyle Ottawa offers newcomers is integral to landing firms such as Syntronic.
There’s no set formula for foreign direct investment, but Invest Ottawa believes it knows what the city’s strengths are and how to market them.
‘Ottawa sells itself’
While there is no denying that Amazon will choose a city with the tech ecosystem it needs to thrive, companies are made up of people, and people need to live where they work.
Blair Patacairk, Ottawa’s managing director of investment and trade, argues that Ottawa offers a lifestyle that can attract employers and employees alike.
“That’s a huge selling feature that I think economic developers try to keep in mind, but they sell it way down the list. Whereas we elevate that up to the top of the list,” he says.
The regional economic development agency hosted Syntronic Canada president Hans Molin in a “soft landing” back in 2014. Kelly Daize, Invest Ottawa’s market director for the Americas, worked with Mr. Molin then to not only set up meetings with potential clients and connections in the city, but to introduce his family to the city.
Invest Ottawa partners with Ottawa Tourism in this endeavour, setting up reps from foreign companies in hotels that have the best views of the city, and including packages in their rooms that highlight the best experiences to be had in the capital.
“Ottawa sort of sells itself at that point,” Mr. Patacairk says. Ms. Daize adds that it was Ms. Molin, Hans’ wife, who fell in love with Ottawa first.
Once the family had decided to move, Invest Ottawa screened houses and set up appointments with real estate agents and local schools. The agency went as far as to set up minor league hockey tryouts for Mr. Molin’s son, a young prospect in his native Sweden.
“We made sure that when they were coming, we took care of their families as well,” Mr. Patacairk says. He calls Invest Ottawa’s approach the “end-to-end” solution.
The bid book
Conversations about an Ottawa expansion usually begin with a flip through the “bid book.” Mr. Patacairk says this is a document highlighting Ottawa as an “international launch pad,” outlining sector overviews, opportunities to expand and government incentives.
Ottawa, with the federal government in its backyard and its numerous embassies throughout the downtown, can be sold as a foothold into the global market.
“We can be in any country in 20 minutes,” Mr. Patacairk says.
The business opportunities in Ottawa often come down to the companies already here. Syntronic designs products in a variety of sectors, including telecom, medtech, defence and automotive – all of which the company found here.
"We can be in any country in 20 minutes."
“Ottawa has a good mix of companies in all of those fields,” says Darrell Wellington, vice-president of Syntronic Canada and the firm’s first Canadian hire. “We’re working in all of those industries from this office in Ottawa.”
When Mr. Wellington started, the firm’s goal was to build to a headcount of 120 in five years. Three years in, the firm has 170 employees, with another 20 jobs posted. He adds that the firm has convinced people from Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and California to relocate and join Syntronic’s Ottawa operations.
On one of Mr. Molin’s first visits after deciding to open an office in Ottawa, he settled down into Invest Ottawa’s offices for a week of interviews. After Ms. Daize and her team filtered the number of applicants down from 800, Mr. Molin and his colleague interviewed roughly 100 people from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.
Once hiring decisions finish, it’s a matter of finding space and setting up finances. The next week, Mr. Molin was booked solid meeting with accountants and more real estate agents to find the firm’s home in the Kanata Research Park and incorporate the Canadian business.
Dana Borschewski, Invest Ottawa’s European market director, says economic development services don’t end after firms find an office and a staff.
The agency is continually making connections between new firms coming to Ottawa and the existing ones in similar or adjacent fields. That way, firms already in Ottawa can find a new client or partner, while companies considering landing in the city can also hear about established companies’ experiences in the capital. Foreign firms such as Syntronic become ambassadors for the city.
“It’s those initial introductions that go a long way,” Ms. Borschewski says.
Reached by email while back in Sweden, Mr. Molin says Syntronic will expand its North American operations in the coming years from its Ottawa base.
“Invest Ottawa was instrumental in supporting us during the initial critical phase building a solid foundation for rapid growth. This was part of an extensive expansion plan to grow on a global scale and to better serve Syntronic’s customers.
“The company’s Ottawa location will serve all of the Americas and will add more offices and employees in the future. In Ottawa, we have during our first three years grown our team to 170 full-time employees, a growth journey that will continue,” Mr. Molin says.