Paralysis by Analysis

I had a couple of good conversations recently that have confirmed my belief that we need a little more ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ injected into our economic development efforts. And I am not talking about Gerry Pond’s latest attempts to raise interest in entrepreneurial development. Although, as a side, it is interesting to see the style of Shipley (TJ) versus Eric Lewis (T&T). Lewis leads with:

Gerry Pond believes companies that are bound to have the biggest impact on the New Brunswick economy are not those that come from outside the province but are those created from the ground up, right here in the province. “Locally-based entrepreneurs are going to add more value,” he says.

Shipley leads with:

Technology business guru Gerry Pond says New Brunswick must reinvent itself as an innovative province by nurturing a new generation of entrepreneurs. “We need new value created in the economy,” said the former NBTel and Aliant executive and serial entrepreneur.

I have never seen a better example of the attitudinal difference between these two publications.

The key point here is that Pond wants to foster more ‘entrepreneurship’ and on that front he is to be commended. His side swipes at the puny efforts to attract firms from outside New Brunswick are beside the main point. The T&T, however; decides to make it the main point.

Kudos to Shipley and as for Lewis, he would be wise to read some of the former’s writing on this issue.

But back to my main point which is entrepreneurialism in economic development. I am all for research and planning but eventually economic development departments/agencies just need to get out there and do it. Plan it, resource it, fund it and go out and get it done.

When Kevin Bulmer back in 1990 saw that Omaha was attracting ‘telemarketing centres’, he did his homework. He found out that deregulation was driving down long distance charges and 1-800 numbers were changing the landscape. He also figured that NB’s large bilingual workforce (14% unemployment at the time), good telecom and lots of empty buildings (like the Eaton’s distribution facility in Moncton) would be a good value proposition for these firms. He ran the idea up the flagpole, his bosses bit and within weeks, Frank McKenna was on a plane out pitching NB for call centres.

We can’t study things forever and we can’t take have or even one quarter measures. The game is becoming highly competitive. Some guy at NSBI has a hunch that Bermuda hedge fund firms could be attracted to Halifax so he gets permission from Lund to get it done and goes out and gets it done. Same with Slemon Park on PEI. They said the Atlantic Technology Centre in Charlottetown would be a failure. Governments shouldn’t be in the real estate game, they said. It’s packed full and they are building another one.

In my book, the last great rainmaker economic development initiative in New Brunswick was started 18 years ago. It has created 22,000 jobs and been an overall success. But 18 years is a long time to go without a winner. We tried elearning (I hear it is making a comeback) but that just led to a dozen failed ventures all backed by government grants/loans. The province made some limited efforts in the area of IT generally but with very limited outcomes. There was some attempts to foster manufacturing, but again, with very little success.

We need a few rainmakers. Energy might be one. But it can’t be the only one. Unless we use ‘cheap’ energy as the foundation for a broad industrial development effort.

I say to the province pick a few and go for it. Data centres, elearning, translation, food, higher value back offices, animation, nearshore IT services, auto, aero, bio, nutra, something and just go for it. We may fail but we need to seriously try. Just scratching the surface will get us nowhere.

And if Gerry Pond truly thinks that we can do all of this without attracting a few anchor, global players, I must emphatically disagree. We need more entrepreneurs, that is true but we also need our fair share of the big boys.