More on my June @LdnIncMag cover story on @NashJewellers #Ldnont

           When I was 15 I went to West Germany (as it was then) with my high school concert band. We spent two weeks playing concerts and billeting with German families.

            Leafing through some of the Oshawa Chamber of Commerce schlock we had given our host families, the father in the house where I was staying noted a reference to one of the city’s oldest buildings.

            “How old?” he asked in rudimentary English.

            Not knowing, I took a guess at something around 100 years.

            The look of disappointment on his face transcended any language barrier. In Europe, 100 years qualifies as fledgling. We didn’t talk about old buildings anymore, focusing instead on our common love of ping pong and ice cream.

            It’s safe to assume that German father would not be impressed with the milestone Nash Jewellers is celebrating this year. But for most people in London, Ontario, running a family-owned business for 100 years is indeed noteworthy.

            And that’s why I’m glad my story about Nash Jewellers at 100 is running this month in London Inc. magazine and not in the Wangen Weekly Business Journal. On this side of the ocean, it’s kind of a big deal.

            The official celebration is in November. That’s when the company will release a coffee table book about its history. Working with an archivist, John C. Nash has been researching his family’s past and putting the book together for months.

            He’s the third generation to run the business, following his father, John B. and his grandfather, John A. The pattern ended with the fourth generation. Colin, one of six John C. sons, bought the business in 2010 and moved it to its stylish new home on Wonderland Road North six years later.

            With 18 employees, Nash Jewellers offers a surprising array of services. It’s the exclusive home for brands like Rolex, Mikimoto, Gucci and John Hardy. Its talented designers create unique pieces. And its technicians repair jewellry and also fix glasses.

            Happy Anniversary Nash Jewellers. The Germans may not care, but lots of families in this part of the world have been relying on you for decades.

 

More on my May @LdnIncMag cover story @arcanebrand @start.ca #zucora

              The first time I interviewed Eric Vardon, he was a 26-year-old wannabe fashion magnate who had just co-founded a clothing company called AllMaple. That was in the summer of 2003.

              Three years later, the company was small but growing, and Vardon’s attention was focused on the chest of Pamela Anderson. Or that’s how I portrayed a particular moment in the second story I wrote about Vardon’s entrepreneurial exploits.

              Anderson was hosting the 2006 Juno Awards in Halifax. For the second consecutive year, AllMaple had supplied merch for the celebrity gift bags. Vardon and his co-founder Marco DiCarlo watched the show intently, hoping Anderson would change into an AllMaple shirt at some point in the broadcast. It wasn’t to be.

              More important than anything Anderson did that night was something about Vardon I glossed over at the time. AllMaple was one of at least three companies he was running at the time. It was an offshoot of an Internet arts magazine, which itself was an offshoot of the central business, Velocity Studio.

              Velocity was early in the website design business. In 2011, Vardon and a new partner, John D’Orsay, founded Arcane, which took the website design concept and blew it out to include marketing of all kinds, but particularly social media, search engine optimization and custom software solutions.

              I wrote a few stories about Arcane through the years, in particular when it moved to its sleek new home on Talbot Street – the Cube.

              I was there again last month, writing yet another story about Vardon and his latest career move. The cover story in the May issue of London Inc. magazine is about that move, a step back. He and D’Orsay are giving up some of the day-to-day responsibility at Arcane but continuing as two of the four owners.

              As ever, Vardon gives away little about what’s he planning for the next month or year or beyond. As capable as the company’s new CEO and COO are – and they’ve been working at the company, learning the ropes, for more than two years – it would be foolish to think Vardon is going to simply walk away.

              But it would be equally foolish to suggest he’s going to hibernate in his funky corner office and rest on his digital laurels. This summer, he and his wife will have their second child, so presumably that’s where some of his energies will go. However, you read it here first: Within two years, my bet is he’ll launch a new venture. And there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be there to write about it.

More on my Feb. @LdnIncMag cover story on pot producer @IndivaInc #LdnOnt

Difficult as it is to believe, it was the last-gasp, get-off-my-lawn Harper government that started the process leading to the legalization of recreational pot this July across Canada.

pot pic.PNG

That might not have been the Conservative government’s intention, but the changes it made to the country’s medical marijuana regulations five years ago paved the way for Justin Trudeau to promise legalization during the last election campaign. Once Health Canada started handing out licenses to grow and sell medical grade pot, it was only a matter of time until the recreational market opened up as well.

Estimates of the market fluctuate wildly, but they’re all in the billions of dollars. And that’s why more than 80 companies have applied to become licensed producers of marijuana in Canada. It’s not just the medical market but the promise of the larger recreational market that draws investors and dreamers. Beyond that is the even more lucrative possibility of exporting high-quality marijuana to Europe and other jurisdictions that embrace, or at least allow, its distribution and use.

My cover story in this month’s London Inc. magazine profiles Indiva, a London-based company with millions of dollars of investment and plans to start selling medical marijuana this summer. Its high-tech, growing facility is more like a medical lab than a greenhouse. It grows two strains of pot and is hopeful federal regulations will allow it to branch out into selling oils, creams and edibles in the coming years.

Meanwhile, it is relying heavily on master grower Pete Young, who has been a pot advocate for decades. He is in charge of making sure Indiva grows a sustainable, high quality crop. Company co-founder Niel Marotta has already expanded the London facility once to increase production to 3-million grams of medical marijuana per year. But plans call for much more expansion, 10 or 20 times as big, to compete in what he believes will be a robust and competitive market in Canada and worldwide.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering where all the pot puns are. Is it possible – legal? – to write about pot and not include puns? I don’t want to take any chances, so let’s end with this: Indiva is on a roll, aiming high, and proving where there’s smoke there’s fire.

More on my Sept @LdnIncMag cover story on @DavisMartindale #LdnOnt

            When I met Paul Panabaker in 1999, it was as the father of three young kids at the school where my daughter Emily had just started kindergarten. I had no idea that four years earlier he had merged his small accounting firm with a slightly less small accounting firm called Davis Martindale.

            As our kids went from JK to grade six at Brick Street public school – RIP – we became friends. Our kids played together on the weekends. We all went to the family fun nights at the school. We golfed on occasion, and Davis Martindale became the sponsor of the kids’ soccer team.

            Davis Martindale was growing and getting ready to move into its shiny new office on Commissioners, the site of a former Big V pharmacy. I wrote a story about the move for a local business rag, and learned a little more about what was going on at the firm.

            But let’s be honest, the goings-on at an accounting firm are not usually the stuff of Christopher Nolan movies. Aaron Sorkin maybe, but he has yet to give it a go. The absence of any Aaron Sorkin moments is something I mention in my London Inc. cover story this month, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the firm.

            Recognizing accounting is not seen as the most exciting of professional pursuits, Davis Martindale long ago branded itself the Accountants With Personality. And those personalities have relied on that slogan to define their corporate culture ever since. Yes, they have experts in every conceivable tax and business planning niche, and yes they’re members of an international association, giving them global reach. But it’s the personality and focus on being human that has helped the firm grow to be the largest independent firm, by a lot, in Southwestern Ontario.

            When I met Paul, I had no idea the firm would reach its current heights. I’m not sure he did. But it’s an accomplishment worth noting and celebrating. Congratulations to the accountants with personality.

 

#JayThomas will always be a #Christmas tradition #TheLoneRanger RIP

            If you watched Jay Thomas’ annual appearance on the Letterman Christmas show – and by watch I mean absorb and study – you noticed a few details that might have evaded a more casual viewer.

jay-thomas-1f5c301f-c781-4b7c-b9fd-65b85e298190.jpg

            I’m thinking about the story and Thomas’ annual guest spot earlier than usual this year because he died yesterday at age 69. He had a wonderful career playing comedic parts in TV and film, but for me and millions of Letterman fans, Jay Thomas was synonymous with Christmas above all else.

            The trademark Lone Ranger story could expand and contract from year to year, but always included a few central facts and phrases that somehow were as much of a holiday tradition as mistletoe, holly and egg nog.

            We had to wait; Thomas was always the second guest, often following some boring star who seemed to have no idea he was the lead-in to a series of beloved Christmas traditions.

            After some small talk, Letterman would ask him to tell “the greatest talk show story ever told.” Our delight was not just in hearing the story year after year but in watching how thrilled Letterman was to hear it annually. As so many of Letterman’s guests said and demonstrated, the bar was very high when you sat in the guest chair. If you came with funny or interesting stories, Letterman engaged and the appearance was a success – likely leading to many more. If you came with nothing more than a smile and the date of your movie opening, he could eviscerate you. (The latter often was more entertaining, particularly in the early days.)

            The Jay Thomas story was set in Charlotte in the 70s, when Thomas was working as a radio DJ, making personal appearances at car dealerships and other glamorous locations. He always mentioned his white man’s afro, his friend Mike Martin, his 10-year-old Volvo, the Red Roof Inn where the Lone Ranger was staying, and the moment when he and Mike went behind a dumpster to get “herbed up.”

            It would be a disservice to tell the entire story here. Watch it here to get the full effect. Of course, the story was just the beginning of the fun. From there, the two men would move on to the Holiday Quarterback Challenge, wherein they would take turns throwing footballs, attempting to knock a giant meatball from the top of the giant Christmas tree on stage.

            Years before, Letterman had stopped explaining why there was a meatball on top of the Christmas tree, but faithful viewers knew it went back to the early days on CBS, when local merchants were part of the show. To finish decorating the tree one year, a parade of locals came in, climbed a ladder and added: a pizza, a replica of the Empire State Building and then a meatball on top of the whole thing – the perfect symbol of the show’s ongoing irreverence and disdain for traditional talk show norms.

            In 1998, Thomas had bested then-NFL quarterback Vinny Testaverde and knocked the meatball off with a perfectly thrown spiral. That was the last time Testaverde appeared on the show, but every year Thomas returned and took turns with Letterman heaving footballs at the meatball. One of them usually hit it within the first 10 throws.

            With the meatball dislodged, Thomas exited quickly, often doubling back to grab the jacket he had removed so he could throw freely. That was followed by a slightly more traditional Christmas moment – Darlene Love singing Baby Please Come Home with a cast of thousands, all led by a joyous Paul Shaffer. (Watch the sound check from 2014 here; it’s great.)

            In 2013, Thomas was recovering from neck surgery and couldn’t do the show. Letterman had John McEnroe substitute and tell the same story. It was clear to careful observers he had studied the Thomas appearance from the year before because he delivered the story with the same beats and one-off details as Thomas did that year.

            In 2014, Thomas was back to wrap up the tradition on the final Christmas show before Letterman retired the following spring. We continue to watch that episode every Christmas at our house, just as we watch the Grinch and Charlie Brown.

            I wonder if Jay Thomas ever understood what an integral part of Christmas he was for so many people. For that as much as anything else he did, we will remember him. As the Lone Ranger himself might have said, “Rest in Peace, citizen.”

More on @LdnIncMag cover story, @Mobials, a #LdnOnt tech innovator

           Every time I have work done on my car at friendly, competent Leavens Volkswagen, I am pushed, poked and prodded to fill out a survey about my experience there. I am asked to answer a series of questions on a scale of 1 to 10.

            Fine and dandy, I know how that works. But wait, the survey comes with a note – a rather desperate note – letting me know that a score of 9 or less is considered a fail.

            “The scoring system is unusual,” reads a follow-up email the next day. “The unusual thing is 10 is a pass and 9 is a fail. If for any reason we did not pass, please let me know before filling out the survey so we can discuss the issues, make things right and improve our level of service. I hope we can count on you for those 10s!”

            So to sum up: It’s essentially a pass/fail survey, and before I even think about checking the fail box, I should touch base with the service department and see just how badly they really want to pass.

I don’t blame Leavens; that’s how Volkswagen has set things up. The company is not looking for honest feedback. It’s looking for data points that can be converted into awards that can be used to market dealerships.

            So how valuable are the results of such a survey? Wait, before you answer, remember, anything less than 10 is a fail. So go ahead and answer. Wait, before you click anything other than 10, please contact me so I can convince you to click 10. OK, go ahead. Just remember, we’re all counting on you to do the right thing.

            Is it any wonder that every car dealership, restaurant, supermarket, real estate agent, pet groomer and birthday party clown is “award-winning?” If you’re in business doing anything and you haven’t won an award, you might be dead. On a scale of 1 to 10, how alive do you feel? Remember, anything below 10 is dead.

            This nutty system tells us two things: Businesses recognize the power of good reviews and ratings, and they’re not shy about putting a corporate thumb on the scale to achieve them.

            Into this world enters Mobials Inc., the growing tech company I wrote about for the cover in this month’s London Inc. magazine. Mobials allows consumers to provide real reviews of car dealerships and lots of other businesses on sites like Kijiji and AutoTrader.ca. Because they are given freely, without any pressure to give all 10s, they are more valuable. And because they attract the attention of people actively searching for a new car, they are particularly valuable to dealerships in the business of selling cars to those very people.

            That Mobials product is called Reviewsii and is just the surface of what the company has in store in the next year or two. It plans to double or triple its current workforce of 21 and double its office space on Dundas Street in downtown London.

             It will push its review/referral model into all kinds of new sectors, and will probably end up doing something it hasn’t yet considered. Its founders take pride in the freewheeling nature of the workplace, and encourage blue-sky thinking and innovation. That’s difficult to quantify on a phony baloney 1-to-10 scale, so they don’t even try. 

More on @LdnIncMag cover story on amazing medical tech innovations #LdnOnt

Some medical breakthroughs I understand. Most I do not.

 Stat Strip: All business

Stat Strip: All business

Here’s one I get: The handy Stat Strip, a bandage marketed to clinics and hospitals. Instead of tearing off the paper of a typical bandage by pulling on the proper end or finding the little string running down one side, the doctor or nurse simply pulls on both ends simultaneously, revealing a bandage free of all paper, the sticky part ready to go and not stuck to a finger or crimped with the remaining wrapper.

The Stat Strip is all business and gets the job done, which is what you want in a clinic. But it’s not nearly as entertaining as novelty bandages like Elmo or My Little Kitty. And it can’t even compete with the best bandage of all, Bacon Strips, which, as you can see here, looks like you have a piece of bacon covering your boo-boo. Genius.

 Bacon strip: awesome

Bacon strip: awesome

These are medical inventions I can understand and incorporate into my day.

Although I use various painkillers and allergy medicines from time to time, I have no idea how they work or why a loading dose of ibuprofen is a good idea but a loading dose of Claritin is a waste of time. I’m grateful they work, but I don’t understand them.

You can multiple that feeling 100 times to understand how I felt writing this month’s cover story for London Inc. magazine. After a warm and encouraging reception to the magazine’s inaugural issue in May, the June cover is about a program to support local medical entrepreneurs – researchers in many cases who have ideas but need helping developing them and getting their product to market.

The BURST program is being shepherded by TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario, but is being supported by a dozen or more local organizations, many dedicated to medical research and development.

If you pay only casual attention to what’s going on in the London medical research world, you have some idea there are a bunch of groups doing a lot of interesting things. What you don’t know until you start interviewing some of the people running those organizations so you can write 2,000 words about the BURST program, is just how big their dreams are. There are people walking around in this city who have concrete plans to transform London into a worldwide medical innovation hub, something comparable to the way the Mayo Clinic transformed a chunk of rural Minnesota beginning 150 years  ago.

There are also all kinds of smart people with a host of cool ideas to solve specific medical challenges. And those are the people BURST is designed to help, giving 30 organizations $70,000 each in cash and assistance to invigorate their ideas and help create usable, marketable products.

The first 10 organizations were chosen in March and are using the funds right now. The next 10 will be chosen in July; the final 10 in November. Not every idea will flower into something amazing. But a few almost certainly will.

And that is the whole point of BURST – identifying the best ideas and pushing them forward so the world will benefit from what people here in London are working on all around us.

More on cover of new London Inc. (@LdnIncMag) real estate story #LdnOnt

I’ve never started a new magazine, and truth be told, I’m not doing so right now.

“OK Chris, thanks for the update. Good to know.”

             But I AM happy to be writing for the brand new London Inc. publication, whose premiere issue you can find here.

            The magazine is the creation of Gord Delamont, long-time editor of Business London, which for years he made the place to go for stories about interesting people running interesting businesses in and around London. London Inc. will continue that tradition, starting this month.

            Gord asked me to write about the city’s bonkers real estate market, a phenomenon fuelled by escalating demand from buyers living elsewhere – either in Toronto or offshore, largely in Asia.

            Real estate booms are weird things. Their effect for most people is theoretical. If I sold my home I could cash in…but then what?

             If you’re moving to a smaller community, that windfall could be wonderful. If you’re moving to another part of the city, you’ll quickly be caught up in the same forces that jacked up your selling price by $50,000 or $60,000 over asking.

            In an odd way, the increasing value of existing homes stops some from selling. Staying put keeps them out of the volatile market. So there are fewer homes on the market, despite the potential for bidding wars and unexpected offers. And if there are fewer homes on the market, the prices for those listed, of course, go up. Thank you Economics 20 in the Social Science amphitheatre at 8:30 Monday mornings.

            I talked to real estate sales reps and several people who tried for months to buy a home. They all reported a version of the same story: For many properties, the new normal in London is multiple offers – we’re talking 10, 15 or 20 frequently – and the need to forgo conditions on the offer you make.

            The system is such that people making the biggest purchase of their lives -- taking on six-figure debts structured so they pay down almost none of the principal for several years – cannot ask for a home inspection if they expect their offer to be accepted. How does that make sense?

            Sales reps are busier than ever, enjoying commissions on properties that often sell within days for well above asking price. But they’re also spending a lot of their time consoling clients who have just lost out yet again on a home they dearly wanted to buy.

           After I wrote the story, one rep told me he was waiting that day to get the bad news about an offer his client had made on a house. The client was from Toronto, as were all the people making offers on the house, about a dozen in all. His client had bid $50,000 over asking, and the rep expected to finish dead last.

            So goes the London real estate market, nowhere near as crazed as Toronto, but in unprecedented territory largely because of what’s happening there.

More on @BizLondon February cover about @CFMasonville Place #LdnOnt

It’s a question that probably can’t be answered, but I wondered about it anyway. What percentage of Londoners have never been to Masonville Place, the shopping and entertainment hub in the city’s north end?

I mean never set foot in the place for any reason. It has to be a tiny number -- maybe one percent or less? Even if you live in the south end of the city and scratch your mega-mall itch by wandering through the maze that is White Oaks Mall, you’ve almost certainly been to Masonville at some point in your life. The mall opened in 1985, so we’re talking more than 30 years of opportunities.

Even if you hate malls and do all your shopping at independent stores, did you never pop in to the Loblaws when it occupied the space now given over to Cineplex movie theatres? The theatres. Of course. Even if you’ve never purchased a widget or coffee inside the mall proper, you’ve probably seen a movie there. Or happily dropped off your kid for a movie birthday party. Or how about mini-golf? For the first decade or so, Masonville was home to a mini-golf course that wended its way through a third of the mall.

“I still hear from people about that,” says Masonville general manager Brian O’Hoski, who likely was in kindergarten when some lucky golfer made the first hole-in-one at the mall. I spoke with O’Hoski for this month’s Business London cover story about the latest iteration of Masonville, a $100-million renovation in two parts. It’s not just the next chapter for the popular mall, but also represents the current thinking of its owner, Cadillac Fairview, about the best way to draw foot traffic to its retail properties across Canada and around the world.

The most innovative change is still to come, in a year or so. That’s the Cineplex Rec Room, a playroom for grown-ups, with live entertainment, video and virtual reality games, and food and drink of all kinds. It will fill much of the space left when Target gave up two years into its disastrous Canadian experiment. (Target: If you like empty shelves, this is the place for you.)

In the meantime, Masonville has opened the first phase of the reno, a collection of 13 shops where Sears used to be. Even as Target was flaming out, Cadillac Fairview was buying back space from many of its anchors, Sears chief among them. The new offerings should produce at least twice as much sales revenue per square foot, according to O’Hoski. And that is what the mall business is all about – creating a world that invites shoppers to venture out of their WiFi enabled homes and shop in person, even if it’s their first ever visit.

More on @BizLondon January cover about @Startca #LdnOnt

 Satellite Blaster 3000

Satellite Blaster 3000

            Roughly three times every winter, I fill a bucket with warm water, grab a pump-action water cannon normally used around a swimming pool and head into the backyard. I trek through the deep snow, being careful as I step off the deck, and go to the side of the house  where I have a clear view of the Shaw Direct satellite dish mounted two storeys up on my roof.

            I fill the cannon with about two litres of water and lean against the fence to get the best possible angle. Then I fire the water toward the dish, trying to hit directly in the middle where snow and ice have settled in, intercepting the TV signal that has made it all the way to my house from a satellite in orbit high above me. It usually takes three shots to clear the dish surface, but high winds can play havoc with my aim. On rare occasions I have to fill the bucket a second time, but one bucket of water normally does the trick.

            It doesn’t happen during blizzards. During intense storms, the wind keeps the snow from settling on the dish. It happens when the snow is wet and falling gently. First it takes out my HD channels, then it comes for the standard def channels. If snow in the backyard is especially deep and I want to avoid going out there, I will live on standard def for most of a Saturday. But eventually, I give in and arm myself for battle.

            I doubt very much I’m the only one in this boat – or dish, if you will -- but I will admit I’ve never seen anyone else attacking his dish with a water cannon either. In any case, it’s an excellent reason to consider switching to another service. I swore off Rogers years ago and would like to continue that policy, in part because Shaw Direct is much cheaper. I have looked into Bell Fibe but not seriously.

            As you can read about in this month’s Business London cover story, there soon will be another option in London and surrounding environs. Start.ca is a small but surprisingly well-established communications company that until recently has focused on providing Internet and phone-over-Internet service to about 50,000 customers. Sometime before spring, when I could still be firing water at my satellite dish, the company will launch Start TV.

            Co-founders Peter Rocca and Darryl Olthoff started as small as it was possible to be, running a BBS while students at Fanshawe College. Reaching 100 customers was cause for celebration and prompted them to buy a whole whack of new modems. Twenty years later, they employ 130 and expect to nearly triple that in the next five years.

            Growth will come from two primary areas – although they also have an elaborate system of hosting company servers and linking them off-site via fibre optic cable. For several years, Start has been installing fibre optic lines throughout London, mostly downtown but increasingly out into residential neighbourhoods. That allows the company to provide whiz bang Internet service to thousands of businesses and homes for less than most of us pay for slow, unreliable copper-wire Internet service from Rogers and Bell.

           Of interest to those of us spraying snow off our satellite dishes, Start has finally worked through a maze of regulatory challenges, and will launch its own TV service in the next couple of months. If you live somewhere in reach of its fibre optic service, the new TV service will blow your mind. That’s because unlike Bell’s Fibe, Start will run fibre optic right into your house. There will be no copper wire logjam to gum up the high-speed data streaming.

          If you’re not in a Start fibre optic zone, you can still get the TV service, with its more intuitive features, for less than other TV options. I could very well be one of those customers next winter, which means this could be the last year I have to load up the water gun and head into the backyard.