Coping with COVID-19: Taking stock of Ottawa's economy, one month into the crisis

Editor's Note

In order to keep Ottawa business leaders informed on best practices amid the unprecedented COVID-19 disruption, OBJ publisher Michael Curran is conducting a series of video panel discussions over the coming weeks with local business experts.

OBJ publisher Michael Curran recently gathered a panel of local business leaders to determine how Ottawa is faring amid the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. The panel included Sueling Ching from the Ottawa Board of Trade, Nick Quain of Invest Ottawa and Rob Woodbridge of Lyft.

What follows is an edited transcript of the panel discussion. To hear the full interview, please watch the video above.

OBJ: So this week marks a rather dubious milestone when it comes to COVID-19. It’s approximately one month today that the seriousness and urgency of the pandemic became clear in Ottawa, ushering in a business environment that no one has witnessed before. Sueling, let’s start with you. You will always have a story to tell about your official start with the Board of Trade. You were appointed as the permanent president and CEO the day before all hell broke loose. How is Ottawa and its business community faring?

CHING: It is a big question. Obviously, the same as the rest of the world. We are in turmoil and plagued with uncertainty about what is to come and how businesses should operate in this time. What I have experienced at the Board of Trade is tremendous involvement from our members, the business community at large and our stakeholders, who are trying to gauge an evolving situation. Each week seems to bring something new and different, in terms of what’s happening, how we’re responding and what tweaks are needed. For the Ottawa Board of Trade, we’re involved in many conversations between business and community leaders, with our colleagues at the Ontario and Canadian Chambers of Commerce. We’re just trying to keep the conversations going. We’re trying to determine what’s important to us as a community in terms of public health, which is the first step to economic recovery. Until the pandemic is under control, it’s difficult to understand what our economic recovery will look like. Business leaders are being vulnerable and working together with a deeper level of collaboration and compassion than I think I’ve ever experienced in my own career.

OBJ: Nick, you have a unique perspective on this. You’re working closely with Invest Ottawa and its accelerator program. Those types of companies are also unique. They might be pre-revenue. They might be looking for a first customer. They’re not your typical mainstreet restaurant. How are these types of companies doing 30 days into this mess?

QUAIN: Well, it’s a mixed bag. Maybe you have 10 per cent of companies that see an opportunity in all of this. If you’re in education, if you’re in cybersecurity, if you’re in digital health, all sorts of opportunities and new doors are opening. Then there is another group, probably more than 10 per cent, that are targeting customer segments in travel or hospitality or live events. You know, industries that are completely up in the air. Then there is this middle group, who are like many small businesses. They’re trying to make future plans. What are things going to look like in July? What are things going to look like in September? If you don’t have the answer about how  business is conducted, it really becomes hard to do your cash-flow statement or projections.

So there’s good and bad. The bad is that many of these startups are hand-to-mouth. They operate on the edge. They don’t have an abundance of cash and they’re getting by month to month. On the other hand, they’re more nimble and this is going to blow up the industry in certain areas. We’re already seeing disruption. We’re not going to be completely back to normal. There are companies that can pivot and can adapt. 

OBJ: Rob, you’ve had your finger on the pulse of the community in so many different ways. Right now you’re working with Lyft, but you’ve done baseball to venture capital to angel investing to startups. So if you zoom out, how are we doing 30 days into this?

WOODBRIDGE: Many companies will suffer, but some companies will emerge from this adversity. It’s possible some of the greatest companies are going to be made because of this. Companies that will take us through 15 or 20 years because they change the way they’re thinking and the way they do business. I think the city is poised for this recovery through the work that Sueling is doing and the work that Nick is doing. Think about Paul Lem’s company (Spartan Bioscience) right now. He is in the middle of this revolution. It’s taken him 15 years to get to this point and it’s the result of something catastrophic. So I’m optimistic. We just have to get through this. That’s the biggest challenge. I think the community is going to rally well.