With 2017 finally behind us, many business owners in Ottawa were most likely looking forward to breathing a sigh of relief. After all, the past year was a challenging one for much of the city’s business community. From the federal government’s proposed changes to the small business tax system to skyrocketing provincial hydro rates to challenges created from the provincial government’s new cap-and-trade system, 2017 was a roller-coaster for the business community.
But with all that behind us, it seemed possible for a fleeting moment to hope that 2018 was going to be a bit better.
Unfortunately, the year opened with a bang when Ontario’s minimum wage went up to $14 per hour. Some businesses responded to the increase by clawing back employees’ hours or benefits, generating plenty of controversy in the process. While Premier Kathleen Wynne has doubled down on her efforts to paint her government as the defender of the downtrodden, local and national media outlets have generally taken a more balanced and often critical view of the government’s handling of this issue.
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Stuck in the middle of this mess is the business community, which was nearly unanimous in its calls to phase in the wage increase over a longer period of time. Where this controversy is headed is anyone’s guess, but there seems little doubt that 2018 will be as momentous as 2017.
In a recent article for the National Post, Canadian Federation of Independent Business president Dan Kelly listed “12 things small businesses will be watching out for in 2018.” The article presents a laundry list of mostly negative issues that will affect the entire Ottawa business community, whether directly or indirectly, over the next 12 months.
As Mr. Kelly puts it, “the boxing gloves will be back on in 2018.”
As a member of Ottawa’s business advocacy community, I see the coming year as one in which the business community must rethink its strategy in terms of dealing with government policy, economic development and advocacy. Our strategy must be based on a pre-emptive and positive approach.
If the past year has proven anything, it’s that business groups such as BIAs and chambers of commerce are more necessary for the health of our economy than ever. But our influence as the voice of business will be significantly depleted unless we take a new approach to the issues at hand. With that in mind, I’d like to propose five key strategic perspectives that the Ottawa business community should employ in 2018 in order to raise its profile, support our city’s economy and act as a positive catalyst for good in the broader community.
1. Co-operation is key
Ottawa’s various business advocacy groups need to work harder to find common ground and to collaborate at every step along the way. With so many different economic development actors in Ottawa, it’s easy for each of them to just pick away at their own specific pet projects. By working together, these various groups can have a stronger voice and will be able to achieve far more than they would as individual groups.
2. Pro-action, not reaction
Ottawa’s business community needs to work harder to identify issues that are of benefit to everyone, not just businesses. The Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has been doing some great work in helping to reverse our city’s immigrant brain drain, while the Kanata North BIA played a leading role in helping to jumpstart an emergent autonomous vehicle cluster in Kanata North. These are both instances of business groups working to proactively fill a void, and both examples will be of tremendous benefit to the broader community.
3. Offer solutions, not problems
With municipal and provincial elections just around the corner, the next 12 months will likely be a period of intense debate over local and provincial policy issues. Rather than focus on everything that’s not working for the business community, we need to offer a vision for what can work and how governments can make these changes happen within the limitations of their own mandates.
4. Whole-of-community approach
In this age of polarization and division, business groups need to push for a whole-of-community approach that helps governments to understand how they can support businesses while also simultaneously supporting the many other groups that help make a community strong. For a long time, the business community has operated based on the adage that “what’s good for business is good for the economy.” While this is largely true, we need to also start thinking in terms of “what’s good for the community is good for business.”
5. Winning hearts and minds
In an era of social media, I believe strongly that business groups need to be public relations experts. And this doesn’t just mean convincing already sympathetic ears of the importance of Ottawa’s business sector. More importantly, it means helping the public at large to appreciate the positive impact that businesses have on the local community and the many ways that businesses help to make Ottawa a great place to live and work.
By following the strategic principles outlined above, Ottawa’s business community will be in a better position to deal with the inevitable challenges (and potential opportunities) that 2018 will bring. Our city’s business groups are now more important than ever. But to ensure that our voice is heard, we need to adopt an approach that can have maximum impact and effect and which is centred on a positive, collaborative approach to business and economic development.
Mischa Kaplan is a business owner and the chair of the West Ottawa Board of Trade.