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.

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.