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.

More on @BizLondon cover story on @SiftonWest5 high-tech community #LdnOnt

            On the morning of Nov. 8, I wrote my predictions for the U.S. presidential election on a white sheet of paper, much the way former Meet the Press host Tim Russert used to do on a low-tech hand-held white board. Then I posted it on Instagram.

            As you can see here, I gave Hillary 324 electoral college votes and Donald 214. I went all in and predicted the Democrats would ride Hillary’s coattails to take back the Senate too.

            The only doubts I had were about the totals – would Hillary take more states than Obama had in 2012? Could she take Florida and North Carolina from Donald? It never once occurred to me that I had the outcome wrong, just the details of how she would win.

            So sure was I, that I laid a bunch of online bets with the good folks at Bodog.eu, picking Hillary to win Ohio, Pennsylvania and even Iowa on her way to the White House.

            As you may have heard from your favourite news outlet, that’s not exactly how it went that day and night. Hillary lost the election, and I lost every bet I made. Rather than make more lousy predictions about what it all means and why so many were so wrong, I’ll settle for this: It’s damn hard to predict the future.

            You don’t have to tell that to Richard Sifton. The head of London’s most famous builders of homes and offices, he is keenly aware of the pitfalls of betting on the future. But Sifton Properties has been doing that since 1923, so he’s not about to stop trying to figure out how people will want to live and work in the coming decades.

            His boldest bet right now is West 5, a 70-acre development in London’s booming west end. As you can read in this month’s Business London cover story, he is using technology – some not yet invented or perfected – to build a community based, ironically, on neighbourhoods of the past. He wants to recreate the close-knit nature of communities from 50 years ago. The difference is the entire project will be as close to energy independent as he and his team can make it.

            Every residential, commercial and office building will be designed for maximum energy efficiency, much of it powered by an array of next-generation solar panels that will deliver electricity back to the provincial grid for much of the year. It’s about much more than solar panels, however, and one of Sifton’s jobs now and in the coming years will be to educate buyers and renters about the unique aspects of the project.

 “We’re trying something for the first time,” he says. “A lot of these elements have been used elsewhere, but we’re bringing them together for the first time.”

It’s a fascinating project with the potential to affect developments across the country because designers and developers are paying close attention to everything Sifton does at West 5.

More on @BizLondon cover story about @Rice_AG (Adam Rice) Updated! #LdnOnt

            After the soul-crushing death of Florida Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez last week, I heard someone smart compare him to Buddy Holly. His death at 24 was to baseball what Buddy Holly’s death at 22 was to rock and roll in 1959.

            It wasn’t just that both men died so young. It was that both had demonstrated prodigious talent and unmatched joy in what they were doing. They had performed just long enough to show the world what it would be missing in their absence.

            Stitched through many of the remembrances of Fernandez was a reminder of something we all know but often forget: Life is so damn fragile.

            That’s one of the themes in my Business London story this month about Adam Rice. At 31, Rice has survived more health scares than most people twice his age, the result of an addiction to pain medication that spiraled completely out of control nearly five years ago.

            Sober three years, Rice is running a tech start-up with a high school buddy, matching Fintech lenders with borrowers across the country. But that is secondary to his personal story of addiction, support and recovery that has led him to where he is today.

            At the lowest of many, many low points, his drug and alcohol abuse caused seizures that erased memories and left him with a diagnosed brain injury. With the help of family and friends – particularly an anonymous friend who is his 12-step program sponsor – he survived.

            Now he’s working hard to rebuild his life and reach the potential he once had before a fateful day in 2011 when he was thrown from his motorcycle in Southern China and began taking Oxycontin for the excruciating pain.

            Regardless of whether his business thrives, he is thankful each day simply for being alive. Life, after all, is so damn fragile.

* Update, Oct. 4

The response to Adam's story has been impressive. He and has family have deep roots in the community, and many of those people have reached out to congratulate him on his recovery and willingness to talk about his addictions.

In the story, I mentioned the toddler Adam and his girlfriend, Jessica Theilade, are caring for. I didn't flesh out the degree to which they have been, and continue to be, part of Ryder's life. His birth mother is an addict whom they supported during her pregnancy two years ago. She relapsed after giving birth, and Children's Aid turned to Adam and Jessica to provide kinship support for the little boy.

In February of this year, the birth mother agreed to give the couple full custody of Ryder, and they've been caring for him ever since, with a view to adoption. Spurred on by the experience, they hope to provide foster care for other children in need, of which there is an almost endless supply, quite sadly.

Adam is grateful for everything in his life at the moment, and laments the experience Ryder's birth mother had as a child and teen, in care and out of care -- a vicious cycle of addiction and abuse that is extremely difficult to break. Having fought so hard to wrestle his own addictions, Adam is hoping to break the cycle with Ryder. There's no better way for him to pay back the many people and agencies that helped him during his darkest days of addiction.

More re @BizLondon cover story on @LondonMusicHall #LdnOnt

            For several years, the London Music Hall was difficult to find, with a modest entrance across a vast parking lot, tucked into a row of better known downtown buildings.

            Today, it’s difficult to miss, as owner Mike Manuel continues chasing his dream of using live music to transform the entire downtown core. You can have your rapid-transit pipe dreams and let’s-all-cycle-to-work fantasies. My bet is on Manuel’s plan to reshape downtown London long before expensive infrastructure achieves the goal.

            When he started 12 years ago, his goals were decidedly more modest. Back then, he was just trying to avoid the lure of turning his Rum Runners concert venue into a night club. With a capacity of 400, it sat empty most nights, including Fridays and Saturdays, waiting for indie bands and sharp-eyed promoters to book the space.

London Music Hall: the place to be. Photo credit: Shawn Tron

London Music Hall: the place to be.

Photo credit: Shawn Tron

            Manuel’s determination paid off within a couple of years. Bands found his place and loved the way he ran it. So he expanded for first of many times, creating the initial version of the London Music Hall – a slightly claustrophobic hall that could hold 700 on their feet. Claustrophobic or not, it was such a hit that three years ago, he spent $1-million to completely reinvent the place. It now features two levels, sky-high ceilings, a killer sound and light set-up, along with room for 1,900 standing or 650 sitting. It is the best concert venue of its size in the city, and it’s busy all the time.

            As you can read about in this month’s Business London cover story, Manuel’s most recent move was to buy the iconic Nash Jewellers building, directly east of him. Plenty of folks breathed a sigh of relief when the building wasn’t Farhi’d – i.e., snapped up and mothballed, waiting for a tenant who never materializes.

            Rather, Manuel leapt at the chance to buy the building and is in the process of transforming it into a variety of venues. There’s an intimate performance space that will hold about 100. There’s a second floor yet to be developed that is likely to be a teaching space and music incubator of some kind.

            And, most prominently, there is the Jack Richardson Music Hall of Fame, a signature venue that will celebrate the city’s musical heritage and become the physical home for the music awards of the same name that have been given out for the last 12 years. “This is a tremendous opportunity,” says Mario Circelli, the ball of energy who founded the awards after several decades playing music, producing music and making films in London. He can’t wait to unveil the museum, possibly in November.

            That the Nash expansion is the logical next step for Manuel doesn’t mean it was an obvious one. He could very easily have passed on the project and continued running his very successful venue. But his dream is to bring live music to downtown London, creating something like visitors to Nashville or Austin come home raving about – live music all over the place, tucked into corners of the city, surprising and delighting visitors and locals alike. When it happens, the city will have Mike Manuel to thank.

 

Talking Olympic rowing with Silken Laumann, @BizLondon #LdnOnt

           Her call was 10 minutes early, and it sounded like she was in the back of a limo or Uber as she began to talk. The voice in Victoria belonged to Silken Laumann, a Canadian Olympic hero two decades removed. With the help of a chain of PR folks, I had contacted her to discuss Hudson Boat Works, the London, Ont. maker of elite row boats, many of which will appear in the upcoming Rio Olympics.

            Despite their best intentions, it’s common for a call or meeting arranged by a PR rep to be delayed or cancelled. You don’t need a PR rep if you’re not a busy person with lots of demands on your time. Laumann works with GoodLife Fitness, so it was their PR folks who told me when to expect her call. When my phone rang early, identified as GoodLife, I expected someone was calling to reschedule.

            But it was Laumann herself, apologizing for being early (!) and happy to talk about the boats she rowed during her career, her relationship with Hudson and other boat makers, and the importance of rowing to London itself.

            Much of what she said can be found in my Business London cover story this month. As she spoke, she stopped periodically to give directions to her driver. She seemed to know the area better than he did. But then she hopped right back into our conversation each time.

            She doesn’t row anymore but cheers for her son and daughter, both world-class rowers at their respective colleges. “I do triathlons for fun, as well as yoga and skiing, lots of activities,” she said.

           Laumann was among the very last Olympic rowers to switch from wooden boats and oars to carbon fibre, following the 1992 Games. In Atlanta four years later, she was in a Hudson carbon fibre shell and won a silver medal in single sculls. “Hudson knocked it out of the park with that design,” she said. “It was an outstanding boat.”

            Hudson has been knocking it out of the park ever since, supplying boats to competitive rowers and rowing clubs around the world. Its iconic shark fin will be visible on dozens of boats from various countries in Rio.

            As our conversation ended, Laumann arrived at her destination and told her driver where to park. “My son is driving today,” she said with a verbal wink. And with that, she said goodbye.

 

The greatest day of his life #LdnOnt

            After making my roasted chicken sandwich, the young man behind the Subway counter asked me a tentative question: “Are you Canadian?”

            When I nodded, he posed the question he really wanted to ask: “Why is the Canadian government giving money to refugees?”

            It wasn’t exactly what I expected to be discussing when I had walked in five minutes earlier, but it kicked off a conversation I won’t soon forget.

            The young man came to Canada 10 months ago from his native India. Every day, as he’s working he sees a man standing in a major intersection here in London, Ont., asking for donations from drivers stopped at the light.

           “Why does the government give money to refugees from Syria when there are people like that who need help?” he asked earnestly.

            I fumbled around and talked about how the Liberals wanted to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives in the last election, about how Justin Trudeau is the son of a prime minister who championed immigration and about how the Syrian refugee crisis was a humanitarian disaster that begged for a response. Blah blah blah. He listened politely.

            Then he said he’s heard people at the restaurant who don’t like Justin Trudeau. So we talked a bit about parliamentary governments, about how the Liberals could gain a majority with only about 40% of the popular vote.

            He nodded knowingly. He clearly knew something about the subject. But that wasn’t really what was on his mind. He was thinking about tomorrow, June 14.

            That’s the day he’s going to the Western Fairgrounds to be sworn in as a Canadian citizen.

            “It’s the greatest day of my life,” he exclaimed, smiling so broadly that I wanted to hop over the counter and give him a hug. Instead I reached over and shook his hand. I was thrilled for him, thrilled for this country and thrilled to have shared such a quietly powerful moment with a complete stranger.

            I have no idea what time he’s taking his oath Tuesday, but I will be thinking of him on the greatest day of his life.

More on #London's VersaBank (Pacific & Western), @BizLondon cover story

What does Back to the Future have to do with VersaBank in London? Nothing, really, but humour me for a moment.

In my Business London cover story this month, I draw a playful comparison between the classic movie trilogy and the niche bank that’s operated locally as Pacific & Western since it began 23 years ago. CEO David Taylor was one of the first to foresee a day when we’d do most of our banking remotely, rarely darkening the open-concept lobby of the local bank branch. In effect, he saw into the future, which was the only prompt I needed to invoke Marty McFly and Doc Brown in the story.

In 1993, Taylor and his partners bought the least expensive trust they could find – Pacific & Western in Saskatoon – to secure a financial institution with federally-backed savings insurance. He immediately closed its few branches in and around Saskatoon and launched his vision of a branchless bank. (There is still a Saskatoon office, which employs about 30 people and handles the deposit side of the bank. The lending is managed from London.)

There was no Internet to speak of at the time, so the bank created its own software to help users connect and manipulate their accounts. As the Internet arrived, they adapted, always managing to stay ahead of competitors by writing software that made it incredibly easy for customers to be customers.

Technology has been the bank’s driving force, and later this year it will make another move that serves to highlight its importance to its ongoing success. Having changed its name to VersaBank, it will move its technology people, some 25-30, from its downtown London office to an all-new tech centre near the airport.

Some folks believe the main reason for doing that is to allow Taylor, an avid pilot who built his own plane, to fly to work from his home north of London. That’s a secondary benefit. The primary reason is that VersaBank owns the building and had run out of room downtown. Inspired by a tour of Google’s New York presence, Taylor decided to create an “innovation hub” at the airport property, precisely the kind of tech office you might imagine, with open spaces, pods, foosball tables, bicycles -- all in an effort to spark creativity among code writers.

The bank will continue to be a niche player. And investors may continue to lament its sluggish stock price. But it turns a profit and never misses its dividend payments. With a new name and a sparkling new home that focuses more than ever on technology development, VersaBank is entering a new phase. Which, honestly, has nothing to do with Back to the Future.

More on @voices @BizLondon May cover story #LdnOnt

When I hear about a tech company or tech start-up, I often imagine a Google-inspired cliché.

You know, the kind of place where there’s a foosball table on every floor, and  recent grads mingle casually, making and drinking fancy coffees on the hour, sitting behind banks of flat computer screens, typing away on an indecipherable project that likely involves code of some kind. The dress is decidedly casual; shoes are optional. There may be dogs roaming the office, and everyone is at once laid back and working extremely hard.

The output and productivity are a mystery, as sometimes is the revenue model, but the place hums and looks like a great place not just to work but to hang out.

Like many clichés, this one is based on a kernel of truth. Many tech offices look like that, and many people love working in that type of atmosphere. But Google and Apple and Facebook didn’t become multi-billion dollar corporations by coddling employees with perks and benefits. They demand results, which can translate into long hours, crazy expectations and a lot of burnout among the foosball-playing, coffee-drinking proletariat.

My Business London May cover story is about Voices.com, one of London’s most successful tech companies. After several years of building its model and technology, it’s poised for significant growth in the next three to five years. Its founder, David Ciccarelli, hopes to crack $100-million in sales by 2020, up from more than $15-million this year.

To get there, the company is hiring at a feverish pace. Today’s 100 employees could be 200 later this year, 300 the following year and 400 by the end of 2018. Although some of those new people are the typical high-tech code-writers who fit into the foosball office cliché, most of them will be doing more conventional work: sales.

While one part of Voices.com focuses on the whiz bang technology that brings together voice talent and various agencies that hire voice talent, the other part is pounding the literal and figurative pavement, drumming up clients in North America and around the world. Like your local car salespeople, they work on a base-plus-commission system that rewards their success.

As Voices.com grows, it is gobbling up floor space downtown at 150 Dufferin Ave. One of its two floors is being renovated now to prepare for dozens of new employees coming on board every month. Most of them will be selling the company’s services rather than developing them. But that’s what it takes to crack $100-million in sales and perhaps go public shortly after reaching that goal.

Welcome back @AirshowLondon -- my @BizLondon cover story #LdnOnt

           If enthusiasm were enough to fuel a revival of London’s airshow, it wouldn’t have taken 12 years to get it done. If all it took was passion and commitment, Gerry Vanderhoek and Jim Graham would have created a new event in 2006, the year after the longstanding London International Air Fest was jettisoned.

            So no, enthusiasm is not the only ingredient required. You need sponsors and airplanes and pilots and volunteers. But without enthusiasm – an almost evangelical level of belief in the concept – you don’t find sponsors willing to hand over tens of thousands of dollars. You don’t get a thumbs-up from Canada’s CF18s and Snowbirds, not to mention the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor, the most sophisticated fighter jet in the world. You don’t get an agreement with Fanshawe College to include students from its aviation technology and public safety programs in the event.

            You need all of that to create the new Airshow London, a non-profit annual event kicking off Sept. 17 and 18 at the London International Airport.

            As you can read in this month’s Business London cover story, Graham, Vanderhoek and a few of their pals have been working for years to make it happen. When the London show died, they took their talents to St. Thomas, where they helped create the Great Lakes International Airshow. It runs every other year and is a go for this June.

            Three years ago, they left the St. Thomas show and turned their attention to reviving the London show. The key was to work contacts across North America Gerry (pronounced Gary) had developed over the years. “He’s a rock star in the airshow world,” Graham, CEO of Try Recycling, says. “Everyone knows him. It’s quite amazing.”

            The new airshow will be smaller than its predecessor, at least initially. The budget is a fairly modest $500,000, and organizers are hoping to sell at least 25,000 tickets. They hope the new September date, moved from the old June date, will be popular, and they hope -- really hope -- for good weather that weekend.

            With more than 500 airshows planned for North America this year, the new Airshow London faces real competition for exciting exhibits and planes. The lineup looks promising – an impressive display to kick off the new show. The team running it knows what its doing and may be the only people in London hoping summer goes by quickly so they get to their big weekend in September – something they’ve been dreaming about for 12 years.