Welcome to New Brunswick, BCE Inc.

From a recent TJ column:

How are we going to build and strengthen New Brunswick’s relationship with BCE Inc.?

This was the question that I had after reading about BCE Inc.’s absorption of Bell Aliant this week. BCE Inc., Canada’s largest provider of telecommunications services, is planning to buy the remaining shares of Bell Aliant it doesn’t already own.

BCE said it would be looking for $100 million worth of “synergies” from the absorption. It’s hard to see how “synergies” means anything other than a loss of high wage, specialized jobs in Atlantic Canada.

Several people have spoken to me about the BCE/Bell Aliant story since it broke on Wednesday. They are former employees of NBTel who lament what the region has lost since New Brunswick’s telephone company was merged into an Atlantic Canada-wide firm and now watch the remaining levers of power shift to Montreal.

The NBTel myth has persisted. I have been a purveyor of this myth as it is a compelling tale of success and innovation right here at home.

But now I have moved on and you should too.

We now have to treat BCE as just another central Canada headquartered firm with a tiny share of its overall revenue coming from New Brunswick. We can’t expect head office jobs or even middle management jobs. We can’t and shouldn’t expect special treatment or influence.

What can we expect? Just like any other big national or multinational firm, we need to make the case to BCE that this province is a great place to invest. We should use BCE’s vestigial ties to the province to open doors.

BCE subsidiary Bell Canada also announced it was buying two call centres in Moncton and Saint John adding a total of 700 new employees.

We should make every effort to convince Bell Canada to grow its national customer contact and back office activity in the province. Maybe New Brunswick could become a customer service, back office and finance centre for the entire company. Verizon, the second largest telecommunications firm in the United States, consolidated much of its back office and financial services activity in Florida a few years ago.

Back when BCE first bought a controlling interest in Bell Aliant, I had hoped the firm would have seen the value of keeping Saint John and New Brunswick as a national innovation hub. At the time, NBTel was easily one of the most innovative companies in the industry and that technical and entrepreneurial capacity could have been nurtured and expanded.

In my alternate universe, BCE would have positioned its New Brunswick operations as a centre of excellence in telecommunications innovation. New products and services could have been tested here first and then rolled out nationally. Instead of call centre agents we would have had a few hundred highly skilled engineers and programmers.

This is not as crazy an idea as you might think. The big U.S. telecommunications firms have specialized engineering and R&D facilities scattered around the country from Florida to California.

It’s not going to be easy to convince BCE to expand its economic footprint in New Brunswick. The former head of Nova Scotia Business Inc., Stephen Lund, once told me it was harder to convince Toronto-based executives to invest in Nova Scotia than those in Bermuda or Chicago. The Canadian executives, he said, bring all of the negative Atlantic Canada stereotypes to the table.

The longer term risk is that BCE and other telecommunications firms view Atlantic Canada as a stagnant or shrinking market for them and slowly chip away at the operations that remain here.

We need to convince these firms that New Brunswick’s best days are ahead of us. We need national and international firms to continuing investing in our province supporting population growth and expanding the tax base needed to pay for public services.

Welcome to New Brunswick, BCE Inc. I look forward to a long and prosperous partnership.