BizLondon cover story on Adam Rice -- Against All Odds

Published in Business London, October, 2016        

           Lunch time could never come soon enough for Adam Rice. Working at an office job downtown, he watched the clock incessantly all morning. Waiting. Waiting. Counting the minutes until he could leave the office, change from his suit and tie to sweatpants and hoodie, then double back downtown, hoping no one would recognize him.

            Wearing his disguise, he would cycle through a growing network of drug dealers, desperate for his daily fix of Oxycontin. He’d take some immediately and save some for later, ducking into washrooms wherever he went to quench his thirst for more. When he couldn’t get Oxycontin or when it stopped giving him the high he needed, he added alcohol to the mix.

            Then valium. Then cocaine. He needed it and went to extraordinary measures to get it.

           “I was spending $700 to $800 a month on Oxycontin, just to maintain things,” he says. “I was engaged at the time, leading two lives. I would wait for my fiancé to fall asleep, then go out to buy drugs at night. I would drive to Toronto for drugs when I couldn’t get what I needed in London.”

            For a while he fooled the people in his life. For a while, he was the ultimate multitasker, juggling two identities, one of whom was taking ever greater risks, brushing ever closer to death.

            Every addict’s story is unique and yet so predictable. Inevitably, Rice, then 27, crashed. “I couldn’t handle it. I told my parents. I told my fiancé. I needed help.”

            Late in 2012, he went to the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph. His 35-day stay was covered by insurance, and he quit everything, cold turkey, with the help of doctors and therapists.

            “They told me to change everything in my life, to create a new life with new habits,” he recalls.

            Simple. And damn near impossible.

            Adam Rice is 31 today and running a promising start-up tech company with a high school buddy, Andrew Mackness. It’s a nifty concept that aggregates Fintech lenders across the country, giving consumers a way of securing a loan quickly and easily, bypassing traditional banks and payday loan shops. Known as LoanConnect, it’s the Trivago of consumer loans, the first of many products Rice’s fledgling company, Asset Direct of Canada Inc., plans to release in the coming months and years.

            But for all his early success, the business is something of a footnote to his personal story – a harrowing, exhausting and death-defying tale that begins officially in 2009, but arguably has roots going back to his pre-teen years.

            When he was in grade 8, he travelled with his family – he has a younger brother and sister -- on a nine-month trip around the world, visiting 30 countries and spending extended time in Nepal.

            “I looked at the people in Nepal who were building homes out of mud, with kids who had nothing but were so happy. I never forgot that, how happy they were with nothing, compared to kids back home.”

            After high school – Central then Lucas – he spent three years at Huron College before giving in to his first love: travel. He went to China and started teaching English and Western culture. He also completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong and earned his degree.

            “Then I met a guy from Germany, and we decided to start a company together.” It was a precursor to the aggregating service he runs today. In China, it focused on real estate. There is no single MLS-style listing of properties for sale. There are dozens. So Rice and his partner built a site that brought them together. And they worked with brokers to streamline the listing and sales process.

            It wasn’t going to be his forever business, and he never intended to stay in China long term. But he never got the chance to plan his next step.

            In 2011, he was riding his motorcycle through remote Southern China when he was hit and thrown from the bike. He had severe internal injuries. The only good news that day was that he had health insurance. However, the hospital did not have the O negative blood he needed. It was three hours away.

            “I didn’t have three hours,” Rice says. “I remember lying on the gurney and calling my mom, saying, ‘Sorry mom, I’m not sure I’m going to make it.’ They decided to filter the O positive blood they had because it was the only option. But they knew it would make me sick, and it did.”

            The surgery was successful in the sense that he didn’t die. But it was ham-handed otherwise and left him with much more muscle and nerve damage than was necessary to remove his spleen and repair his other internal injuries. The nerve damage, in particular, was a serious issue that would haunt him for years.

            “My dad flew over right away and was there with me for about two weeks. The pain was bad, like my stomach was on fire. That’s when I started taking Oxycontin, to manage the pain.”

            By the beginning of 2012, he was living with his mother and slowly recovering. Whatever progress he made recovering from his original injuries seemed to be offset by intense, ongoing nerve pain. In addition to Oxycontin, he was getting injections at St. Joseph’s pain management clinic.

            “I was getting hooked on the meds, and I was depressed. I had been in China, running this business, enjoying life. And now I was just trying to manage pain. I couldn’t do much of anything. I would watch the clock for the moment I could take my meds. For a while, I stayed on the schedule, but then I started to do it earlier. And once I started doing that, it turned into a major addiction. I couldn’t stop.”

            With the pain somewhat under control but his addiction metastasizing at an alarming rate, he began his double life – suit and tie to work, sweatpants and hoodie to buy drugs.

            When he emerged from his five weeks of treatment, he had a brief period of sobriety. But it slipped away one weekend at his family’s cottage, drowned in a bottle of whiskey and the illusory bravado a few months of recovery had created.

            “I decided I could handle things myself and I went up to the cottage with the whiskey to prove it. Within three weeks, I was right back to where I had been, only much worse this time. I was using everything I could get my hands on. My family was calling Homewood because they thought I was going to die. My sister picked me up to take me back to Homewood, but I remember she took my pulse when she saw me. I was in rough shape. I was seeing things crawling on my body. I thought I was on a cruise ship. The doctor at Homewood said I was lucky to be alive. My legs below my knees were blue and I needed a catheter.”

            The next plan was a long-term placement at Turning Point back in London. He lived there for seven months and started seeing a psychiatrist every day. She turned out to be Dr. Mary Bruckschwaiger. “She was very busy, way too busy to see me every day, but before she became a psychiatrist, she had been a medical doctor, and she had delivered me as a baby. Total coincidence. So she made time for me.”

            Despite the efforts of everyone involved, he relapsed again. It happened while he was still at Turning Point, proving – as though there’s any doubt – that addicts can fight through any obstacles to get what they crave.

            At this point, perhaps the only thing that could stop him finally stepped in. His body said, “Enough.”

            Standing outside the Apple Store in Masonville Place, he suffered a full clonic seizure. Still insured, he went to a detox centre in Waterloo, where he had another seizure. With bleeding on his brain, he was shuttled by ambulance to a Hamilton hospital where he spent two weeks, most of which he does not remember.

            From the bad joke department: Doctors diagnosed him with a brain injury and prescribed…narcotics.

            After two weeks in Hamilton, he hit absolute bottom, the last chance he was ever going to get. He spent six weeks locked up at the London Health Sciences psychiatric ward, meeting with a doctor and social worker every day. From there it was on to the Thames Valley Addiction Centre in 2013. He also began attending meetings in a 12-step program.

            “I attended 180 meetings in 90 days, and I connected with a friend I had in high school who became my sponsor. That finally worked. I’ve been sober now for three years. I’m very lucky for all the support I had. Very luck and grateful.”

            His sponsor, who remains anonymous, had looked up to Rice in high school and had been through his own hellish cycle of alcohol and drug addiction. “I saw him at a meeting, and we went for coffee. I was very happy to become his sponsor. He was ready to make a change.”

            Rice continues going to 12-step meetings. In fact, he enjoys them so much, they’re often the highlight of his day or week. He’s also sponsoring others.

            Two years ago, he returned to Western full-time for two semesters to earn a post-grad diploma in communication and management. He’s in the process now of parlaying that into an MBA from a school in Australia, studying by correspondence and taking regular, supervised exams in London.

            The idea for a loan aggregator business came when he was sitting in a dental chair and wondering how people without insurance paid for expensive procedures and products. He spent most of the summer of 2015 talking to home renovators and figuring out how to create a lending website renovators would recommend to their clients who wanted to finance their home improvements.

            LoanConnect is paid by lenders, much the way mortgage brokers are paid by mortgage lenders. Customers do not pay a fee, and the renovator or other business that refers a borrower to the site gets a $50 payment. LoanConnect receives about 50 loan applications per day and continues to add new lenders and products to its site.

            Parent company Asset Direct is located in a bright, third-floor office in the Horton Street Goodwill building, home to many a small business. “Without the support of Goodwill – the loans and office space – I wouldn’t have been able to get this business off the ground,” Rice says. He and Mackness share the office and banter back and forth during the day. The long-time friend knows all about Rice’s struggles and is supportive.

            The least surprising part of Rice’s story is that his relationship with his fiancé ended during his darkest drug days. He has since reconnected with a high school friend, Jessica Theilade. Together, they are providing kinship care for a youngster named Ryder, who will turn two in December.

            “We want to adopt him,” Rice says, eyeing a picture of Jessica and Ryder on his desk. “We’re going through the CAS process, and that is our goal.”

            Like the reformed smoker or annoying weight-loss friend who talks of little else but his changed life, the sober drug addict can veer into cliché at any moment. The refreshing part of Rice’s story is that he never does.

            He is genuinely thankful to the army of people who have supported him, put up with him and, quite literally, saved his life multiple times in the last five years. Not least his parents, Linda and Rob, and his siblings. He is genuinely worried about people he sees every day downtown who are struggling with addiction but do not have the insurance policies and resources to land them in private clinics and treatment centres.

            He can’t say enough about Goodwill for helping him launch his company. Ditto for Western’s Propel entrepreneurship accelerator, where he spent this past summer nurturing and growing his business.

            He may not yet realize how difficult it is to adopt a child in CAS care, particularly for someone with his recent history of addiction. But he genuinely believes young Ryder arrived in his life for a reason, that he can help give the boy a life he might not otherwise enjoy.

            He is committed to growing his business, working with Mackness to expand their quiver of services. And yet, it’s never going to be the most important thing in his life. He has the perspective of someone driving home from a funeral who promises to make some changes in his life. Rice is thankful the funeral isn’t his own, and he’s making the changes so many of us consider but never implement.

BizLondon cover story on Voices.com

Published in Business London, May, 2016

Here’s a question the big thinkers at Voices.com may have to grapple with in the next year or two: When does a huddle become a melee?

            For 13 years, since it began as the union of a handful of people and a nifty idea, the company has carved out 10 minutes right before lunch every day for a meeting of everyone who’s available. They hear about new products and initiatives, systems under repair and notable sales achievements. It’s a corporate mash-up of high school announcements from the principal’s office and a pep rally before the big football game.

            Five years ago, there were 17 people to accommodate at the huddle. Today there are 101. By the end of next year, there could be 300. And by the end of 2018, if things going according to the company’s ambitious plans, there will be 400. By then, they won’t all be working in London, but the majority certainly will be, and the huddle might start to look more like Friday night at Rock the Park.

            An ever-expanding huddle is perhaps the least of the many challenges Voices.com will face as it continues to grow, chasing its founder’s dream of hitting the $100-million revenue mark within four years.

            “We’re north of $15-million this year, and we’ve been doubling every year for the last five or six years,” says CEO David Ciccarelli. “Our medium-term goal is to reach the $100-million plateau by 2020. I think we’re on our way to doing that, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to make it happen.”

            Until recently, Voices.com was hiring one or two people every month, training them individually and integrating them with little trouble. “But in April, we hired 11 people,” Ciccarelli says. “And we’re planning to do that again this month, and next month and so on. We expect to have 200 employees by the end of 2016.”

            For many years, the story of Voices.com was that of a spunky tech start-up, navigating the world of funding, cash flow and market development with the goal of creating a lasting organization with international scope. Five years ago to the month, it appeared in this very space – on the Business London cover – where it was branded “all grown up.” Today, that grown-up company is poised for its next leap forward, with hundreds of new employees, eye-popping revenue growth and the likely creation of offices beyond its London base.

            If it continues to meet its market and revenue goals, it could very well go public, something Ciccarelli, 37, identifies as a personal, long-term goal. “I’m working toward eventually taking our company public. Exceeding $100-million in sales seems to be the threshold to get listed on NASDAQ. Be it three or four years away, we will get there eventually, I wholeheartedly believe.”

            The Voices.com birth story has a little bit of everything and borders on legend. Ciccarelli met wife Stephanie when she came into his Richmond Street recording studio, looking to lay down some vocal tracks. They recorded the songs, and, in 2003, created a business together. They also got married and had four children – three girls and a boy, all under 12 today.

            It would be a stretch to say they knew exactly what they were doing, but they had an inkling. They wanted to bring together voice talent and businesses that needed voices to record everything from commercials to training manuals to film narrations.

            Inspired by eBay -- when eBay was inspirational -- they set out to build an Internet-based directory of voice talent available for hire with a click or two of a mouse.

            Initially, they were just going to be the matchmaker, bringing the parties together and letting them make their own deals. But that changed early on, in part because of a visit Ciccarelli made to the set of Dragon’s Den in Toronto.

            By a series of happenstance connections, he found himself serving as something of a prop while the show was auditioning both hosts and guests. His pitch was well received, but rather than entertaining an investment offer that might have come as part of a regular show, Ciccarelli instead received some spectacular advice.

           “They told me the value was in owning the whole process from end to end, brokering the deal and handling the money,” he recalls. “It was a great idea, but we had no idea how to do that.”

            So the company created an escrow payment system called SurePay and patented it on both sides of the 49th. That smoothed the process and allowed for thousands of transactions to take place every month.

            Voice talent paid to subscribe and be listed. Companies hiring them paid 10 per cent per transaction. Voices.com handled the funds and distributed the money once the job was done. Neat and tidy. Today, the company uses the system to disperse payments of between $250,000 and $500,000 every month.

            As the company grew, so too did its pool of voice talent. It stands at about 125,000 worldwide now. If you’re looking for a woman in New Orleans to read your firm’s video pitch in English, Spanish and German, there’s a good chance you’ll find the right person in the Voices.com stable.

A more common scenario is as follows: Agency X is shooting a series of radio ads and wants an announcer with a British accent – the funny kind, not the snooty kind – in New York City. There might be 500 people who fit that bill, and Agency X can’t spend time listening to samples of every potential person. That’s where the real value of Voices.com exists. It’s also what separates the company from your basic Google search, a critical distinction in an age when aggregators are destroying entire sectors of the economy.

Agency X posts a description of what it’s looking for, and the Voices.com algorithm sends an email alert to the top 1,000 potential matches. Those likely matches have the option of sending an audition recording. Typically 50 to 100 might do so, and they are passed along to Agency X, which then goes through them and selects a bunch to pursue in more detail.

It’s a nifty model and it worked well to help Voices.com grow at rate of one or two employees per month for several years. As satisfying as that growth was, it wasn’t going to get Ciccarelli and his team to their $100-million goal. To do that, they needed to alter their model yet again.

But first, a twist on one of the oldest sales realities out there: It’s much easier to sell more to an existing client than it is to develop a brand new client.

“We realized we needed to land and expand,” Ciccarelli says, invoking a rhyming slogan with a small degree of sheepishness. “For example, we had one guy using our site to do Microsoft Money videos. Microsoft: Obviously, there’s more potential there. So we made a concerted effort to expand to different departments, to marketing and product development and HR. They all need voice talent at some point. We now have 73 contacts within Microsoft.”

The company has made similar inroads to other large clients, creating a kind of multiplier effect that’s fuelling rapid growth. There was just one problem as the percentage of clients tipped from small and medium-sized businesses to large, multinationals.

“Our payment model, which was ideal for self-serve businesses and smaller companies was not at all set up to serve large companies,” Ciccarelli says with a shrug. “You don’t have someone at Microsoft swiping their credit card to make a payment, something our smaller clients love being able to do. They need legal non-disclosure statements from the voice talent, they need other legal papers, they use purchase orders and a whole system of orders and payments. We needed to adapt immediately to create a full-service professional approach.”

Larger clients may hire someone to read a one-off script, but they are just as likely to be in the market for someone to spend 100 hours reading a book or lengthy product manual. To serve those clients, Voices.com delivers the specific talent, looks after the legal and payments issues and takes a much larger slice of the much larger pie, somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent of the fee -- substantially more than the 10 per cent it takes on smaller, self-serve jobs.

That’s where the growth is. And that’s why the company is hiring so many new people to search out clients, match them with talent and service the ongoing relationships.

“We’re primarily hiring sales, business development and account managers,” says HR Manager Kaitlyn Apfelbeck, herself a relatively new hire 18 months ago. She and a just-hired assistant are in charge of monthly training sessions for new employees and then implementing a carefully crafted program of matching newbies with each other to ensure they develop friendships as quickly as possible.

“After people have been here for three or four weeks, we interview them again to get an idea of how they’re doing and to see what’s been good or bad,” she says. “One of my biggest challenges as we grow quickly is to make sure I’m available to our employees when they have a question or concern.”

Salespeople work on a base salary with commission bonuses and have targets to meet on a regular schedule. The daily huddles are in part designed to boost their morale, creating a team atmosphere that may appeal to younger workers. The average age at the company is 32.

Responsibility for planning and running huddles is passed around to various groups. To accommodate the ever larger crowd, the company is renovating one of its two floors at 150 Dufferin Ave. The 6th floor soon will be home to reorganized workstation teams and an expanded lunch area known as Central Park. That’s where the daily huddles will take place.

There’s more room to expand on Dufferin, but eventually Ciccarelli expects to open branch offices. The first will be in New York, where there is the greatest demand for voice services. The timing isn’t set, but in the next year or two, there may be a video link from a New York office into the London Central Park, with employees in both offices sharing stories and encouragement before breaking for lunch in two very different settings.

So goes the growth of Voices.com, a company that began small and relies in equal measure on innovative technology and old-fashioned sales calls and commissions to drum up business and chase its lofty goals.

BizLondon cover story on Airshow London

Published in Business London, April, 2016

           As cool as it would have been, it simply wasn’t possible to wedge an aircraft carrier onto Fanshawe Lake to mark the return of a major airshow to London after a dozen years. Organizers, however, might have the next best thing.

            To accommodate some of the fighter jets coming to the new Airshow London – Canada’s CF18s in particular – a team from CFB Trenton will be on hand to deploy the whiz bang part of any aircraft carrier: the arrestor gear. Better known as the hook and cable system that snags jets as they drop onto the compact carrier surface, the gear is needed as a safety precaution whenever CF18s and comparable jets land on a runway less than 10,000 feet long.

            The longest runway at London International Airport is 9,000 feet, which means the mobile arrestor gear will be in effect, ready to catch jets if the need arises. It shouldn’t be needed, but the system will have to be tested…

            “It’s really quite amazing. There are two turbines to absorb the force of the jet being stopped,” says Gerry Vanderhoek, whose official title is manager, commercial services & passenger experience at the airport. Unofficially, he is the chief cheerleader and go-to expert of the rejuvenated airshow, the loss of which he has mourned for 12 long years. You better believe he’ll be there when the arrestor gear is tested.

            Gerry is pronounced ‘Gary’, but everyone calls him Hook. “I can still remember the feeling in 2005 when the airshow was cancelled. We had booked airplanes; it was ready to go. It was going to be a great show.”

            Vanderhoek’s disappointment was shared by thousands of fans across the region when the London International Air Fest died after running almost every year from 1930 on, the last 33 consecutively.

At the time, its demise was explained with vague statements about rising insurance costs in the post 9-11 world. That, of course, didn’t explain how the show could have continued for three years immediately after the terror attacks.

            “The old airshow was a for-profit event, and I think it just had trouble getting the sponsors it needed,” says Jim Graham, CEO of Try Recycling and chair of the new airshow board. His enthusiasm for the event matches Vanderhoek’s. Indeed, as they sit together discussing the rebirth of the show in London, it’s like listening to a couple of teenagers planning their first road trip to see their first rock concert in a van with all their buddies, right after getting their driver’s licenses.

            For a few years, Graham and Vanderhoek scratched their airshow itch by helping create the smaller Great Lakes International Airshow in St. Thomas. It runs every two years and is a go for this June. But their first love was the much larger London show. Almost from the moment they left the St. Thomas show in 2013, they began working to revive the London extravaganza.

So it is that Airshow London is happening Sept. 17 and 18 – a newly structured, not-for-profit show designed to showcase as much power and speed as organizers can round up from across North America.

            And it turns out Vanderhoek in particular has been able to round up an awful lot of power and speed, ensuring the new incarnation will kick off with the kind of roar needed to reintroduce the show to London with a bang.

            “Hook is a rock star in the airshow world,” Graham says, admiringly. “When we go to trade shows and other airshows, everyone knows him. It’s quite amazing.”

            It takes a rock star to lure Canada’s CF18s and Snowbirds, along with the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor, perhaps the world’s most advanced fighter jet. Its appearance in London is one of only two in Canada and six worldwide this year. Competition for premium aircraft is intense. There are a whopping 500 airshows planned in North America this year, many of which are large enough to compete with London.

            In all, the show will feature as many as 50 aircraft and up to 200 air crew, including more than 100 pilots. It’s an impressive debut for the revamped show, which organizers are determined to build as an annual event.

            “We see this as a legacy event that will support local charities every year,” says Dave De Kelver, Airshow coordinator and veteran organizer of numerous local events. His job will be to coordinate the expected 400 to 500 volunteers and to make sure everyone who buys a ticket is able to get into the show with relative ease and walk out with plans to attend next year.

            The business plan calls for attendance of 25,000 or more. That compares to the final year of the old show, which drew 100,000 fans and more than 75 aircraft. It ran in June, a more traditional date for airshows.

            Moving the new show to September increased the odds of attracting marquee aircraft. It also avoided the crushing calendar of weekend events typical in London starting in June and going into the summer. “You’ve got people back in town, kids back in school, and we also looked at weather patterns,” Vanderhoek says. “You have the best chance of good weather in September.” Perhaps most importantly, “the Snowbirds were going to be in the area in September.”

            If 25,000 people buy tickets, the show will generate revenue of roughly $750,000. Costs will bump up against the $500,000 mark, leaving funds to support local charities and also to prime the pump for next year’s show.

            The Airshow will donate to Children’s Hospital and Veterans organizations. It will also fund bursaries for aviation technology students at Fanshawe College. The tie-in with Fanshawe is a key element of the show. Students in the aviation technology and public safety programs will serve as volunteers and be eligible for co-curricular credits.

            All of that is crucial to making the not-for-profit model work. So too are sponsors. A handful have signed up already and fall into two broad categories. There are industry-related companies like General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada and Executive Aviation.

            And there are others like Billy Bee, Pacific & Western Bank of Canada and Callon Dietz that are supporting the event as a way of rewarding clients and employees. “You can offer them something different than going to a golf tournament,” Graham says. “There will be chalets for guests of the sponsors, and we can customize their behind-the-scenes experience.”

            Translation: If you bring enough sponsorship dollars to the table, you and your guests will get to see behind the curtain and won’t have to ride a bus into the airport Saturday morning.

            With 25,000 or more people expected, parking will be an issue. Guests of sponsors and those who buy premium tickets will get parking passes for the grounds. Others who opt to pay about $100 for a family of four will park nearby and be bussed in. “We can’t shut down the airport for the weekend,” Vanderhoek says with a slightly regretful grin. “It has to operate, people have to get to their regular flights, but we also want to make sure the customer experience at the Airshow is top notch. That’s Dave’s responsibility.”

            Tickets will go on sale next month at a variety of price points. One-day and two-day passes will be available, as well as VIP packages that include perks like a “runway experience,” a “chalet experience,” and a reception on the Friday evening before the official start Saturday morning. Anyone who signs up at the Airshow website will receive a notification of ticket sale dates and details.

            Organizers are doing whatever they can to deliver a great experience for everyone who attends the show. “We want to make it comparable or better than any other large event in the city,” says De Kelver, who has worked at many of them. “Whether that’s a one-off like the Memorial Cup or one the music festivals that happen every year. We want this to be a permanent event on the city calendar that builds from this year.”

            You can have all the clowns, trapeze artists and jugglers you want, but if your circus doesn’t have an entertaining ringmaster, you might as well pack up and go home. That’s why Vanderhoek booked legendary airshow announcer Ric Peterson to host the weekend. It’s like bringing in Vin Scully to call London Majors games.

            Peterson has been announcing airshows since 1985 and is an honourary member of the Snowbirds. “He’s great,” Vanderhoek says. “People will love what he does.”

            Airshows are not like car shows. No one is going to walk in a buy a jet that weekend. When you strip away the bunting and VIP chalets, the military pride and even the arrestor gear, what is an airshow really all about?

            “Power and speed,” Graham says without hesitation. “You’ve got pilots operating these incredible machines, pushing the edges of their capabilities. The raw power, the sights and sounds, are amazing to witness. That’s what an airshow is, and that’s what we’re doing in September. We’ve got an amazing lineup of aircraft and pilots, and it’s something you have to see and feel to really appreciate.”

            Organizers are counting on that intangible thrill to draw fans from across Southwestern Ontario and beyond. They know there was a dedicated fan base more than a decade ago, and they know people flock to shows across North America all summer. They’re confident they will attract tens of thousands in September, establishing Airshow London as an annual event, poised to grow in succeeding years.

@BizLondon cover story on Tribe Medical Group

Published in Business London, September, 2015

It’s probably the last thing anyone considers while being wheeled into the operating room, two minutes from a date with an anesthesiologist who will put you out for the next four hours.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good question: Where exactly did the hospital get that a) screw b) pin c) suture the surgeon is about to put into your body? Hospitals routinely order thousands of products, but let’s be honest: Who cares where they get the gloves, gauze and Kleenex used every day? What are the risk factors there?

Of more interest is that piece of metal or ceramic going into your body, often permanently.

The answer is surprisingly mundane. Hospitals and surgeons order the most sensitive items in much the same way they order the most ordinary items. They issue an RFP and look for the best deal. The good news is that price is only one factor used to make a decision. But it certainly is a factor. Maybe you’ve heard…health dollars are at something of a premium.

“About 80 per cent of our products are purchased on a contract basis, with vendors who provide a certain volume,” says Dr. Graham King, chief of surgery at St. Joseph’s Health Centre and medical director of the Roth McFarlane Hand & Upper Limb Centre (HULC).

“The other 20 per cent are lower volume, more specialized, products: things like a shoulder or elbow replacement. In those cases, the hospital issues an RFP and the results are evaluated by all levels at the hospital.”

Since 2008, a London company has been among the leaders providing specialized products for arthroscopic and minimally invasive orthopaedic surgical procedures. Although it was incorporated two years earlier, 2008 was the year Tribe Medical Group took its first significant step in becoming a national orthopaedic supplier.

That was the year it signed with Arthrex and became that company’s exclusive Canadian distributor. Tribe has grown impressively since then, racking up sales growth of roughly 20 per cent compounded annually. It has 80 employees, and sales this year will reach $36-million. The company has done a lot right to reach this point. But choosing Arthrex is still the most important thing it ever did.

“Signing with Arthrex in the summer of 2008 is what really moved us forward,” says Tribe president and co-founder Gordon McArthur. “We had incorporated in 2006, but things start to happen in 2008.”

Close to 90 per cent of everything Tribe sells is made by Arthrex, a company named before terrorists made anthrax a household name. Based in Naples, Florida, it began in Germany in 1981, when founder Reinhold Schmieding invested $60,000 of his savings and started making devices for the emerging field of arthroscopic surgery. As anyone who plays or follows sports knows, arthroscopic surgery uses sophisticated instruments to enter the body through tiny incisions, as opposed to open surgery that opens up large wounds that take much longer to heal.

Schmieding still owns the company, which today enjoys annual sales of about $2-billion (U.S.).

“We only partner with privately held companies,” McArthur says. “Publicly traded companies face more pressure to make quarterly profits. Companies like Arthrex make profits, of course, but can be much more innovative.”

In 2006, McArthur founded Tribe with Chris Johnson, a former Ottawa Gee-Gee football player. They had been working for another orthopaedic supplier and had started dabbling with their own company on the side. The opportunity to represent Arthrex prompted them to jump in full-time and go national in 2008. Johnson lives in Ottawa and runs the sales force of more than 50 people who work directly for Tribe across the country.

McArthur runs the head office out by the airport, where a team of 25 looks after operations and runs the warehouse, filling and shipping orders to many of Canada’s 900 orthopaedic surgeons. (That’s right, there are only 900 orthopaedic surgeons in Canada, according to McArthur. He says there are more than 100 who are fully trained but can’t get jobs.)

Tribe stocks about 4,500 SKUs in six general segments. Its mix of products is known as its bag, and Tribe salespeople have to be conversant with every product it contains. “They are meeting with surgeons, explaining why a given product is superior to something they might be using or offers something different,” McArthur says. “They have to know their stuff. Plus, there are about 600 new Arthrex products available every year. We don’t stock every one of them, but our reps have to know about them. They do a lot of training.”

The training begins before a rep even gets hired. Aware that its sales force is the lifeblood of the company, Tribe established a unique internship program. It takes on a group of four interns and provides housing and a stipend of nearly $3,000/month. The interns, typically graduates with health science or business degrees, attend classes run by Tribe personnel.

“They learn about surgical techniques and how our products are used,” McArthur says. “It’s the best way to get an understanding of what we do.”

After six months, the interns typically are offered sales jobs somewhere in the country, matching the needs of the company at the time. “We match the numbers with what we think our need with be,” he says. “I don’t know of any other companies that go to that extent to train their salespeople, to really educate them before they start working for them.”

A cynic might describe Tribe as a simple link in a chain that delivers medical devices from the manufacturer in Florida to an operating room somewhere in Canada. Collect the orders, fill the orders, rinse and repeat.

But the company’s customers – surgeons who rely on Tribe to deliver what they need to perform surgery – view Tribe as much more than a glorified order taker.

Tribe’s mission is to “put patient outcomes first in everything we do.” That simple statement drives everything it does.

“What sets Tribe apart is they don’t just care about making money,” says King. “They are always asking, ‘What can we do to help your patient get better results.’ Their employees think that way and are looking for ways to help.”

King is particularly grateful to Tribe because this spring the company donated $100,000 over the next five years to support the James Roth Research Chair at the HULC. The donation was matched by Western as part of a $3-million fundraising campaign. The donation was one of many Tribe has made in recent years, including another $100,000 of product to the LHSC for research.

“The other thing about Tribe is that it’s London-based,” King says. “That makes a difference for us because we get unparalleled service.”

If 2008 was the most important moment in Tribe’s development, 2012 is next on the list. At that point, the company had revenues of about $15-million and was growing impressively. But its foundation was still that of a small startup, dealing with issues as they came up and not as focused on the future as it needed to be.

“It was a tipping point,” McArthur says plainly. “We didn’t have the infrastructure we needed to support our growth.”

That’s when the company hired its first chief financial officer, Nicole Archibald, a CA with two decades of experience.

“We introduced SAP Business One and began running the infrastructure with it,” she says. “That was a big reason we were able to double our sales in the last three years.” In fact, Tribe has performed well enough to land on Profit Magazine’s Top 500 small businesses in 2014 and 2015.

To accommodate growth, the company moved to its current Sovereign Road location two years ago.

While Arthrex is Tribe’s primary partner, it also partners with LifeNet Health, a Virginia-based supplier of bio-implant technologies, cellular therapies and organ procurement. It’s not just organs that are donated when people die. Surgeons can also use cartilage, tendons, skin and ligaments.

In a typical anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction, for example, doctors typically use the patient’s own hamstring tendons to stabilize the ACL. That means there are two procedures: one to harvest the tendon and another to repair the ACL. Two incisions, two wounds, more time to heal.

Working with LifeNet, Tribe supplies doctors with a vast array of bio-implants. By its nature, it will never be a major part of the Tribe portfolio, but when a doctor needs something exotic, Tribe delivers.

The newest growth area is the veterinarian market. Dogs rupture their ACLs too, and Arthrex supplies vets with everything they need to perform the surgery – along with many more. Tribe now has a full-time manager of veterinarian supplies and expects sales in that area to grow.

In its new headquarters, with the right infrastructure in place, Tribe is poised for continued growth. With Canadian healthcare budgets what they are, continuing at 20 per cent annual growth could be a challenge. But the growth of arthroscopic procedures and the aging population combine to create real opportunities – not to mention the potential vet market.

“We’re focused on helping patients,” McArthur reiterates. “That’s how we’ve been successful, and it’s what we will continue doing in the years to come.”

@BizLondon cover story about @JodiSimpson & @CityMatch

Published in Business London, July, 2015

Recall the last time you had a vacation coming up – two solid weeks to go anywhere you wanted. France? The Caribbean? Maybe a Baltic cruise?

Consider the number of hours you spent checking out all the details of your accommodation and itinerary. Leaving the flights and rental car aside, how many hours did you or your travelling companion spend reading reviews, booking meals and events, investigating the hotel or ship, considering excursions and brushing up on local dialects and customs?

Was Fodor perched on your nightstand for weeks beforehand? Did you grill friends and acquaintances for tips about your destination? Did you panic every time it rained there, despite being two months from your arrival date?

Many a traveller has done most or all of this, whether they’ll admit it or not.

Now imagine you’re not just taking a vacation. Imagine you’re moving to the city permanently – picking up your entire family and heading to a place you’ve never visited, and barely heard of, for a great career opportunity. How much investigation and worry would such a move generate? Is it even possible to do enough research before arriving to start a new life in a new city?

Across London, firms and organizations of all sizes are constantly reaching out around the world in search of the right talent. We hear about it most in the tech sector – where will the next wave of creative coders come from? – but it’s happening in all kinds of offices with all kinds of jobs to fill.

If a business can’t find the person it needs, well that means trouble, my friend. Right here, I say trouble right here in the Forest City. With a capital T and that rhymes with P.

Unlike the Broadway stage, where a snappy song and crisp choreography can save the day, the solution for businesses scouring the world for talent is more complicated. Enter, stage right, Jodi Simpson. Ms. Simpson is dressed in a well-tailored business suit and wields her iPhone the way a fencer wields her epee. Relying on a lifetime of contacts and a let’s-chat-over-the-back-fence demeanor, she has created CityMatch, billed as “your community concierge.”

For a fixed fee, she will help a company’s new employee, and his or her family if applicable, get acclimated in London. And that means everything from helping find a home and school, to matching someone’s beekeeping hobby with the right contacts to make it happen.

“We go through a full discovery process,” says Simpson, 44, sounding somewhat like a lawyer at Harrison Pensa, where she was director of marketing for five years prior to starting CityMatch in May.

“We go deep with the person being hired and the entire family,” she says. “I want to know what brings them joy, what they are looking for in the city, what will make London feel like home.”

Hired by the employer, she can be involved during the recruiting process. Someone considering a London job might not want to ask a potential employer every question that comes to mind. Odd hobbies and interests are none of an employer’s business, certainly not as it relates to the prospective employee’s family. Simpson provides a confidential sounding board for questions as part of the recruiting dance.

“If someone is coming to interview and check out the city, I’ll meet them at the airport and take the spouse around the city while the person spends time talking to the employer,” she says.

“The challenge is we might not even know what concerns a person’s spouse has,” says Frank Barretto, manager of Mutual Concept Computer Group Inc., a software developer that provides back office solutions for its owners, a collection of Canadian mutual insurance companies. It employs nearly 60 people and has a turnover rate of about 10 per cent per year. That’s a respectable number in the tech sector, but it still means Barretto is looking to hire a handful of key people every year.

“Our latest challenge was finding a quality assurance manager,” he says. “We went for six months in search of the right person and finally found the person in Mississauga.”

When he heard about CityMatch, Barretto hired Simpson right away, becoming her first client. “People are huge investments,” he says. “You don’t really know for 12 to 18 months how it’s going to work out. And you can’t have strife in one part of your life and expect to have success in the other parts. But when someone is new, he or she doesn’t know us. Over time we’ll become colleagues, perhaps friends. But in the first few months, they are unlikely to talk about issues someone in their family is having living in London. We don’t want to lose someone over something we’re not even aware of.”

Barretto is hopeful Simpson can help him ensure his transplanted employees are happy. “I’m looking for big things from Jodi. I have high expectations.”

That’s fine with Simpson, who has her own high expectations for her business. She started thinking about creating something like CityMatch right around the time she began working at Harrison Pensa. She was fresh off a five-year stint at TechAlliance, as director of programs.

“Finding and keeping people is a huge issue for tech companies,” she says. “I saw it a lot at TechAlliance. It’s a real challenge.” She also saw it through the eyes of her at-home partner, Shawn Adamsson, a partner at Ellipsis Digital (featured in Business London, May, 2015).

Simply having the idea, however, was not enough five years ago. Instead she happily took on the marketing duties at Harrison Pensa. The concept ebbed and flowed but never left her mind.

“It finally was the right time for me to start this after thinking a long time about what I could do that was different. The concierge concept really fit with what I wanted to do and what I was already doing in my life. I’ve always talked to new people, welcomed them to the city. So I thought I could leverage my contacts and do something I love doing.”

Companies are aware they need to impress recruits and help them get settled. Some tackle the job in house and are fairly good at it. Some farm it out to a real estate agent who finds the person a home, runs down the school situation and might even produce a fruit basket on closing day. But that’s not nearly enough in many situations.

“Relocating can be a confusing and intimidating process,” says Heather Coy-Robinson, HR manager at CarProof. “It’s exciting to have Jodi spearheading an exciting new service that adds some warmth and comfort to relocation.”

Simpson charges a set fee, geared to the circumstances of the employee coming to town. If the person is single, the fee is $2,700. For a couple, it’s $3,100. A family of any size is $4,800.

Employers pay the fee, and some have contracted with Simpson to include her services in their job description and pitch to out-of-town prospects. She is still fine-tuning the process, but in general she works with her clients for 30 to 90 days. During that time, she does everything from help find a home, line up healthcare options for people and pets, track down daycare service, find social clubs and volunteer opportunities, provide school info and take people on tours of the city.

She might take the teenagers out to check out some of what London can offer them. She might have lunch with a spouse to help figure out what his or her life will look like after the family makes the move.

To make everything happen, Simpson relies on her informal network of friends and associates, along with a more formal group of partners. Among them: the Realty Firm, Harrison Carter Group leasing, #LdnEnt, Downtown London, Forest City Sport & Social Club, and Life Made Easier, a daily task concierge service.

In addition to her primary settlement package, Simpson offers an after-care program for the weeks and months after an employee arrives. “I touch base and see how they’re doing, see what I can do to help them settle into the city more easily. Many times, issues and questions don’t arise until several months later.”

Simpson also reports back to employers about how their new employee is doing. “I keep private issues private, but in general I let employers know how things are going with progress reports.”

For some like Frank Barretto reports like that could mean the difference between success and failure with a new key employee. “I want to know how things are going, but I also like having Jodi there as someone a new person can talk to comfortably. Respecting people’s privacy, she can advise us if there’s an issue we need to address.”

Simpson is happy to take on that role, but warns, “I can’t fix dysfunction in an organization. This works because an employer recognizes the value I add and wants to support a new employee and his or her family. I can’t be a band-aid if there are no other supports in place at the office.”

Three months into her new venture, Simpson is meeting with executives all over the city. She focused initially on the tech sector, but has received calls from managers in other sectors too. They’re all looking for a solution to the ongoing challenge of finding and retaining talent.

If Simpson’s dream comes true, CityMatch will play a role in keeping people in London and building a stronger, more vibrant community. That’s what really gets her excited. And that excitement is the reason businesses are keen to get her working for them.

@BizLondon cover story on @LDNRoundhouse

From May, 2015, Business London:

Let’s be honest: This is an awful lot of fuss over a middling steak house that served its last strip loin nearly 10 years ago and was a boarded-up blight on Horton Street beginning in 2007. For two years now, we’ve been hearing about plans to renovate the one-time restaurant into something more glorious.

The fuss, of course, isn’t about the former Great West Steak House at all, but rather about the original use of the building, long before it was converted to a restaurant in 1973.

In 1887 -- the same year the federal Liberals chose Wilfred Laurier to lead their party -- Michigan Central Rail built a roundhouse to service and store steam locomotives it used on the Canada Southern Railroad, which it owned and operated from Windsor to Niagara Falls.

Because steam locomotives either couldn’t move in reverse or required a considerable amount of effort and jury-rigging to do so, railroads began building giant turntables, on which locomotives could be rotated. Then they built large buildings around the turntables, with storage facilities like spokes on a wheel to accommodate several locomotives at a time.

By their nature, roundhouses tended to be architectural wonders – circular structures built on grand scales. Enormous beams, spectacular windows, cavernous open spaces. You know, the perfect place to open a steak house.

Last month, nine years after they purchased the building, Patrick John Ambrogio and Slavko Prtenjaca, partners in Creative Property Development, celebrated the rebirth of the London Roundhouse at the official opening of the first phase of its redevelopment.

On hand, among others, were their first two tenants: Nielsen IT Consulting Inc. and rtraction, which recently divided itself into two new operations, Ellipsis Digital and Engine SevenFour.

Nielsen IT designs and installs communication infrastructure for businesses. Its new office is next to the Roundhouse but shares a wall with the original structure, a wedge in the circular design of the reimagined building.

The new rtraction offspring have moved into the 5,500-square-foot Roundhouse itself, a move that took much longer than partners David Billson, Shawn Adamsson and Josh Dow hoped when they signed up for the project.

“It was a long year in our temporary office next door,” Billson says with a wry smile. That would be the bunker-like Southside building immediately to the east of the Roundhouse that will be replaced in the next phase of construction. “This,” he says, motioning to the grand space in which his 31 employees now work, “was worth waiting for.”

Perhaps the funniest line in an October, 2013, CTV story about the renovation was this, from reporter Bryan Bicknell: “The London Roundhouse project is expected to be complete by early next year.”

Those were the intentions, but as anyone who has ever tackled a renovation knows, there are always surprises. And so the first phase of the Roundhouse took an extra year or more to complete. As Billson says, it was worth the wait.

He and his colleagues now work in what is arguably the most beautiful office space in London. The original beams have been restored and are as much art as function, soaring more than 20 feet above the ground. The arched windows are spectacular and let it an almost unmanageable amount of natural light. The design, by celebrated local architect John Nicholson of Nicholson Sheffield, is the perfect mixture of old and new, ideally suited to what Ellipsis Digital and Engine SevenFour do every day.

If you’re not sure what that is, you’re not alone.

Simply put, they handle digital media demands for organizations and companies of all sizes. In the last few years, the two parts of the business have been separating to a greater degree, so rtraction reorganized itself in conjunction with its move to new offices.

“The teams were splitting apart in what they were doing,” says Adamsson, VP of strategy. “It was getting difficult to do professional development together because they were doing such different things.”

Ellipsis Digital is the larger of the two, with roughly two-thirds of the workers. It is also the more public face of the overall organization, creating websites, running social media campaigns and dreaming up new ways for clients to capitalize on available digital tools.

Engine SevenFour, whose 10 team members will develop applications designed for larger projects, will create some of those tools. It will continue working for the company’s biggest client, the syndication arm of Disney TV.

Both groups will be writing computer code, but Adamsson, who pads around the office in sock feet, says much of what Ellipsis in particular does is imagination – dreaming up the ideas and then executing them, rather than getting excited about a new technology and figuring out a way to use it.

“We have the expertise here to be able to execute anything we can imagine,” Billson says. “That’s something that sets us apart. If we want to do something, we can do it.”

For example, the company famously runs the Worst Charity Website, giving the site chosen each year as worst a free makeover. That project hints at a change in direction for Ellipsis, with much more emphasis on working in the arts, culture and non-profit world. That meshes with Billson’s commitment to volunteerism; he chairs London’s Pillar Nonprofit Network.

But it still has plenty of traditional business-to-business clients as well. Last Christmas, the team now operating as Ellipsis devised an interactive Christmas greeting for the law firm Harrison Pensa. Explaining why it was a hit, Billson uses a phrase not commonly associated with the holidays.

“It allowed them to measure the engagement of their Christmas card.” It did so by encouraging recipients to play an interactive video game prompted in the card.

Billson is a big believer in measuring and tracking every aspect of a campaign. He’s been tracking the productivity of his own office and noted a significant dip while they were camped out in the next-door bunker for a year.

“It will be really interesting to see how this new space affects our productivity,” he says. Despite the presence of a foosball table and other distractions, it would be surprising if productivity didn’t jump dramatically.

“People like being here,” Adamsson notes. “It’s a great place to walk into every morning.”

If the rtraction folks are giddy about the Roundhouse, the Creative Property Development partners are ecstatic. Ambrogio and Prtenjaca have been friends since they attended Central high school together. They started Creative part-time initially but went full-time in 2004. They own 80,000 square feet of rental space on Richmond Row but have turned most of their attention to the area known as SoHo – South of Horton.

Many parts of the area, including the Roundhouse, are on the north side of Horton. The acronym describes an area recognized by the city, along the Horton Street corridor from Adelaide Street in the east to Thames Street in the west. Creative owns 24 properties in the area, and plans to transform the entire area.

Financed without equity partners, the two friends see SoHo as more than a development.      “We have a vision for the area. We grew up there and went to school there. It means a lot to us,” Ambrogio says. They see the Roundhouse as the hub not just of its immediate area but of the entire rejuvenated SoHo area.

The next phase is to add sections to the Roundhouse, in a circular fashion, like pie pieces organized around an outdoor courtyard. That will replace the Southside building to the east of the Roundhouse. One of the tenants in the next phase is Royal LePage Triland Realty, which hopes to move in toward the end of 2016.

We see it as a great opportunity to be part of a historical site transformation and what is sure to be the next landmark business hub in London,” says co-owner Peter Meyer.

Creative is looking for other tenants and may announce its next one as early as this month. “Something related to hospitality,” Ambrogio offered cryptically in late April.

Costs for the first two phases will be “upwards of $10-million,” Ambrogio says. The Roundhouse alone ran about $4-million.

The third phase Creative has proposed is a tower of 15 to 25 storeys on the northwest corner of the Roundhouse property. It would be a mix of residential and commercial and cost roughly $45-million. Plans optimistically call for it to be built by 2020.

“We see this as a renaissance of the area, the creation of a Horton gateway to downtown,” Ambrogio says. “Five years ago, we couldn’t give away parking spots in this area, and now we have all kinds of businesses and people asking us about what we’re doing. People are waking up to it.”

The biggest cheerleaders have been the rtraction folks, who have celebrated and documented the Roundhouse transformation at every turn, researched the building’s history and mounted an unrelenting Twitter campaign to document every aspect of the project.

The first phase alone justifies the hype -- and the wait. It was never about a steak house at all. 

@BizLondon cover story on Fortune Minerals

February, 2015, Business London cover story:

If patience is a virtue, Robin Goad might well be in the company of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

If he had participated in the famous delayed gratification study that tempted children with marshmallows, Robin Goad would have been the kid who sat there all morning, not tempted in the least, waiting for the greater reward after all the other kids had gobbled up the tasty treats.

If Robin Goad had been in charge of Target Canada, the U.S.-based retailer would not have cut bait last month and announced plans to flee, two years after breeching the 49th Parallel.

Whatever else he is, it’s safe to say Robin Goad is a patient man.

He’s also an optimist. You have to be optimistic to create a mining company based in London, Ont., where the only miners are Saturday morning garage sale fanatics, pawing through piles of junk in search of treasures – loosely defined.

You have to be both patient and optimistic to start that company in your basement in 1988 and keep it going and growing without ever selling an ounce of minerals until 2014, when you generated your first operating revenue in 26 years.

With revenue finally flowing from a Colorado silver mine, and the promise of hitting it big with a bismuth/cobalt mine in the Northwest Territories, Fortune Minerals Ltd. has run head long into the great commodities collapse of 2015. When the price of a barrel of oil drops into the spare-change range, investors lose their enthusiasm for commodity exploration of all kinds. Nevertheless, Fortune is poised to take off, potentially rewarding the patience of president and CEO Robin Goad and his small collection of investors and employees who share his patience and optimism, at least to some degree.

“I was a rock collecting nerd,” Goad, 57, says, explaining in a round-about way why he ended up in the mining industry. “I started studying at Western but left to spend a year or two in the mines. School didn’t really interest me, but I didn’t want to be in the mines my whole life, so I came back.”

The mines in question were Lamaque gold mines in Northern Quebec. When he tired of that life, he discovered the geology program at Western. For a rock nerd, it was the perfect fit. Degree in hand, he created Fortune, going public in 1989 with an over-the-counter penny stock. It was a sideline for several years as he worked as a mining consultant, but in 1996 Fortune discovered and claimed a mine in the NWT. Its potential prompted him to go full-time with Fortune, attracted investors from around the world and sustained the company to this point.

The NICO mine, 160 kms northwest of Yellowknife, is the platform on which Fortune was built. It contains gold, copper, cobalt and bismuth. It’s never a bad thing to find gold and copper, but back when Fortune made its original find, no one knew how valuable bismuth and cobalt were about to become to the world’s high-tech economy.

It’s no secret lead has become a four-letter word. No one wants it in their pipes or paint or Pepto-Bismol. Yes, bismuth is a non-toxic ingredient in all kinds of stomach settling products. It’s also a perfect substitute for lead in potable water sources, sprinkler systems, auto rust protection, brake linings and clutch pads, and those tiny black dots around the edges of your car’s windshield. Known as frit, the black compound protects the adhesive that keeps the windshield in place as you bomb down the 401 at 120 km/h. Every new car contains about two ounces of bismuth around the windshield.

NICO accounts for 12 per cent of the world’s known bismuth reserves, an attractive alternative to China, which has 59 per cent of the known supply.

The cobalt story is even more encouraging for Fortune. If you were to name the items nearly every person you know uses every day without giving them a second thought, batteries would be near the top of the list. Every mobile device, from phones to laptops to tablets, are powered by increasingly sophisticated lithium-ion batteries. So too are cordless appliances and tools.

Some early adopters rely on lithium-ion batteries to power their automobiles. If the future of cars is Tesla and other electric vehicles, then the world is going to need a whole lot more cobalt, which accounts for 60 per cent, by weight, of a lithium-ion battery, and 15 per cent, by weight, of a nickel-metal hydride battery.

Tesla alone has plans to produce half a million lithium-ion batteries by 2020, at a $5-billion U.S. plant under development in Nevada.

Two-thirds of the world’s mined cobalt comes from the Congo, and China refines nearly half of the world’s cobalt. A North American source could provide a more secure, economical source for a host of burgeoning industries.

But of course electric cars are much more attractive to consumers and investors when gas is selling for $1.20/litre at the pump, not flirting with 80 cents every evening. No one knows where oil prices are headed – hands up everyone who predicted the current decline – or when they will rise again. The price of oil is something like physics’ elusive, all-encompassing theory of everything, a variable that captures an endless number of factors: Middle East peace, terrorism, a new Saudi king, the global economy, the Keystone pipeline and about 100 other variables.

What seems certain is that oil and commodity prices will rise again one day, as they always have in the past, and that the world’s demand for power in its many forms, will continue to grow. China alone, whether its economy has slowed or not, is a bigger automobile market than North America and Europe combined. And then there’s India.

So Fortune Minerals is sitting pretty, no? Well, maybe. You can only wait so long for your bismuth/cobalt mine to come in. The regulations and hurdles Fortune has faced trying to develop the NICO mine make wind turbine construction look like a weekend treehouse project. At this time last year, Fortune still had never earned any operating revenue. It had assets of $134-million and a market capitalization just shy of $32-million. Its share price had dropped to about 15 cents from a high that year of about 45 cents. It needed to transform itself into a producing mine. And that’s when the company got interested in silver; specifically, the Revenue Silver Mine in Ouray, Colorado.

Cheek by jowl to the famous Telluride ski resort, the mine produced its first silver around the time Sir John A. and his cohorts were stringing Canada together with the thread of the CP Railway. Like a grand old home of that vintage, it continued to operate but had fallen into disrepair of late. When Goad heard it was for sale, he was intrigued.

“We had a great skill set in this company, people who have run mines and know how to do so very efficiently,” he says. “We had an operational team here, ready to go, and we needed to deploy them. The mine had great potential.”

What Goad doesn’t say is that having an operational team in place, waiting, say, for a bismuth/cobalt mine in NWT to finally start operating, is bloody expensive. A little revenue would offset those costs and keep his key people in place, ready to go when NICO was ready. So Fortune bought the aptly named Revenue mine, more than tripling its employee count to about 180. And then it went in and had a good look around. Back to the grand old house analogy – it was a bit of a fixer upper.

In fact, the damn thing has been draining cash from Fortune since late last year, not injecting cash as anticipated. “There were a few challenges, but we expect to reach the breakeven point in February, later than planned,” Goad says. “And the commodity price of silver has dropped about 25 per cent since we bought the mine,” he says with a shrug.

Still, Fortune is now a producing mineral company, something it’s never been able to say when talking to investors. “It makes a big difference, to be a producer,” says investor relations manager Troy Nazarewicz. “Investors look at you differently when you have production, no question.”

Nazarewicz joined Fortune nearly four years ago and has helped attract investors, intrigued by the potential of NICO and also by an anthracite coal mine Fortune is working to develop in northwest B.C. Among them: POSCO of South Korea, a 20 per cent partner in the Arctos Anthracite project in B.C. and Procon Resources Inc., owned in part by Chinese mining interests, which owns 17 per cent of Fortune stock.

The coming two years could well provide the payoff Goad and Fortune investors have planned for and dreamed of for decades. The silver mine will finally provide some cash flow. If the NICO development proceeds on something close to plans, it could start producing in two years or so. Plans for the mine include a large refinery near Saskatoon, to process the bismuth and cobalt. The mine and refinery would employ 250, among them 80 engineers.

Further into the future – and no one really knows when it will happen – the Arctos project in B.C. could create 600 jobs and deliver rare, high-quality anthracite metallurgical coal. Distinct from thermal coal used to heat buildings, metallurgical coal is used in steel manufacturing.

Put it all together, and it’s possible to be nearly as optimistic as Robin Goad. As he looks into the short-term future, he does his best to temper his enthusiasm with a dose of reality.

“We’re well positioned,” he says. “With a producing mine and two promising projects.”

He waits a beat, and then his enthusiasm gets the better of him. “Our commodities are interesting. NICO is not just a mine but a vertically integrated project serving the huge battery market. Bismuth is one of the safest metals there is.” And so it goes for another minute, a soliloquy reflecting the positive outlook that’s helped propel Fortune to the cusp of success.

One way or another, Team Goad will know fairly soon whether the optimism has been warranted for all these years.

@BizLondon profile of @STARTECHdotCOM on occasion of major expansion #LdnOnt

On Jan. 27, 2015, Startech.com announced plans to expand and hire 75 people. Here's my Business London profile of the company from 2010 when it employed about 140 people.

 

StarTech makes connections around the world

              Congratulations. As IT manager, you’ve done the research and chosen a brand new computer system for your office – new servers, giant flat-screen monitors and software that syncs with Blackberrys being used by your sales staff.

 A week after installation, the system is a big hit, surpassing anything you dared hope for. Then the president of your company comes walking out of the boardroom with a problem.

The high-def projector, purchased for five figures last year, won’t play the PowerPoint presentation from his laptop. He has seven key buyers in there, and the best he can do is ask everyone to crowd around his laptop screen to see the presentation he spent all month putting together.

“You’re the IT guy,” he says in frustration. “Fix it.”

           --------------------------------------------

            Every day, around the world, there are thousands of people trying desperately to connect a new piece of technology with an old piece of technology, the latest and greatest with what, not so long ago, was also the latest and greatest.

Sometimes they can do it, but often they cannot. They download new drivers, call the help centre and reboot until their index fingers start to cramp. “It’s supposed to work! What’s wrong with this thing? Aarrrrrrrgh!”

If you think about the number of companies pumping out new technology every week, marketing to a niche here and a niche there, setting their own performance parameters and creating new operating systems – if you think about all that, it’s really a wonder so many machines talk to and work with each other.

I can take my Sony Walkman MP3 player, plug it into my Dell laptop, using a generic USB cable, fire up a free version of Media Monkey operating in Windows 7, and download a podcast that originally was destined for Apple’s iTunes store. Then I can plug that Walkman into an iRock adapter, plugged into the lighter socket of my car, tune the radio to the same frequency and listen to the Tony Kornheiser Show, broadcast locally in Washington, D.C, while tooling around London, Ontario, taking calls on a Google-based, HTC-manufactured Droid phone, on the Virgin Mobile network (always pulling over to use the phone, of course).

So, ya, there’s an awful lot of technology that works great together, against all odds. And generally, it seems to be getting better. Plug-and-play has moved from a hurtful taunt to something approaching reality.

However, there’s a large building on Oxford Street East, out near the airport, that’s testament to the fact that lots of technologies still don’t connect very well with each other, no matter how many patches and drivers are brought to bear on the problem.

It’s the home of StarTech.com, where 105 of the company’s workforce of 140 go to work every day. For 25 years, StarTech has made money by helping people connect things that are difficult to connect. For 25 years, IT managers and their ilk at companies large and small have turned to StarTech for a cable or adapter or splitter or switch to make their technology work together.

 “There’s always new technology with new parts,” says Paul Seed, a co-founder of the business. “Connectors are needed in the IT world; it’s that simple.”

Seed and his co-founder, Ken Kalopsis, began working together when they were students at UWO, members of Delta Epsilon, solving another technology challenge that students and others faced on weekends.

It seems quaint now, but the duo’s first business was something called Video Van. “We rented VCRs to people so they could watch movies,” Seed recalls.

In the early 80s, VCRs were still a novelty in many homes, too expensive for most students to buy. Seed and Kalopsis drove around in Seed’s blue, 1972 LTD and delivered the bulky machines, primarily to students.

At its peak, the business owned about 100 machines and had them in circulation all across the city. By the middle of the decade, however, the pair realized their days were numbered.

“It was revolutionary at the time, but it wasn’t a scalable business,” Kalopsis recalls. “We would have needed a lot of capital because the market was splitting and going in two distinct directions – big stores or convenience stores. We weren’t either, and it was time to move on.”

StarTech was their next venture, and 25 years later it’s clear they made the right choice.

That wasn’t obvious initially. Back then, Seed and Kalopsis simply chose something that interested them and which they figured had the potential to grow.

“We wanted to get involved in a growing market, but instead of going with a high-volume, commodity-based model, we decided to focus on specialized products. High volume was very capital intensive,” Kalopsis says.

They also acted on a lesson they had learned in the VCR game. They had no interest in hitching their fortunes to a specific technology that could very well be obsolete in five years or less. Instead, they diversified and began selling parts that connected technology, whether it was brand new and revolutionary or a legacy technology, as old gizmos are euphemistically known.

By focusing on specialty products and covering new and old technology, they built what essentially was a recession-proof business. In good times, companies buy new technology and need to connect it to their existing platforms. In bad times, companies squeeze more time out of their old technology and need help making it work with newer technology all around them.

It all started rather humbly. The company’s first product was a keyboard dust cover. They sold 85,000 of those in their best year. Then they developed an anti-static, anti-glare cover for CRT monitors, which – remember -- delivered plenty of shocks and glare in their day. StarTech grew incrementally, adding products as markets emerged, importing from Taiwan and building a reputation as the place to go for hard-to-find connectors and parts.

“There was no real breakthrough moment,” Seed says, although he does remember an emergency call from a U.S. company with 40,000 computers, all useless because of a missing connector.

“We found the piece they needed. If we can’t find it, we design it. You can buy a six-foot USB cable anywhere. We have the six-inch, right angle cable that you can’t find anywhere else.”

This year, StarTech expects revenue growth of about 30 per cent. Two years ago, when the world teetered on the edge of economic ruin, the company still enjoyed 5 per cent growth, something almost any business would have taken quite happily.

The two partners own the business 50/50 and split the duties clearly: Seed, who is president and CEO, handles product management and internal operations while Kalopsis, who is vice-president, handles sales and customer relations. The duties have changed back and forth over the years, but for the last decade or so, when the company has experienced its greatest growth and success, that’s the way they have divvied it up.

“We’re fortunate to have a good relationship still and complementary skills,” says Seed, the quieter of the two.

Kalopsis, who once was national president of the Reform Party and then its offspring, the Canadian Alliance, is more of a talker. He’s still very interested in politics, but his official role now is as supporter of his wife, Nancy Branscombe. She was reelected to city council in ward 6 last month and once ran for federal office under the Canadian Alliance banner while living in Peterborough.

Kalopsis and Seed travel extensively to trade shows across North America and Europe. The majority of sales are still in the U.S., through a network of value-added retailers, many of whom sell through catalogues or websites. The market is IT professionals looking for specialty connectors.

A dozen years ago, StarTech moved its U.S. warehouse from Port Huron to just outside Columbus, Ohio. It now serves the American market from a 56,000-square-foot warehouse there.

The company’s first venture into Europe was the U.K., six years ago. In the last year, it has expanded into Spain and the Netherlands. In the next year, it has plans to expand into France, Belgium and Portugal. The biggest European market, Germany, is a bigger challenge and a goal for down the road.

To mark 25 years in business, StarTech is working on a new look, with a new logo. But it isn’t changing the nature of what it has been. When pushed to reflect on a quarter century in business, Seed talks about the people who work at his company, whom he credits for its success.

“It’s a team of really good people.”

There must be something to that because StarTech last month was named one of the country’s 50 best small or medium-sized employers, for the second time in three years. The list is compiled by the Queen’s School of Business and Hewitt Associates and relies on anonymous employee surveys to rank employers.

            Not bad for two frat boys who used to rent VCRs to student partiers and built a business on a keyboard dust cover.

 

@bizLondon October cover story on @London_airport

From his spacious corner office at the north end of the terminal building, London International Airport president Mike Seabrook has a great view. He can see the tarmac and most of the runways. He can see some of the businesses that operate on airport property, building aircraft, training people or, in the case of Western’s Three Little Pigs hangar, studying the effects of extreme weather.

He might even be able to see the hangar where he stores the RV-8 tandem-seat plane he built at home and flies for fun.

            Beyond all that, however, he sees something else. Looking past the airport’s 1,500 acres, he sees opportunity. Over the horizon are 2.2-million people who last year drove to a different airport – Toronto, Detroit, Flint, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls to name a few – to catch flights. That compares to half a million who passed through the London airport, arriving or departing.

            The desire to capture some of those 2.2-million passengers within his airport’s catchment area has been the primary motivation for everything Seabrook has done since becoming president in May, 2012. And it’s the reason he has set the airport on its most ambitious expansion program since 2003 when it spent $20-million to renovate and enlarge the entire airport.

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@BizLondon cover story about Moffatt & Powell

From Business London magazine, @BizLondon, July, 2014

 

            Nancy Powell-Quinn has a vivid childhood memory of typical Sundays, stretching back three decades. Coming home from church, her father would detour to his lumber and building supply store in Strathroy to catch up on paperwork while it was closed.

            “My older sister Jennifer and I were dressed in our Sunday best and we would run around the store, playing in the showers and having a lot of fun,” she recalls. “It was great.”

            Today, Nancy, 35, could easily recreate the moment with any of her own children – boys, 6, 4 and nearly 2 – in a setting very much like the one she and her sister enjoyed some 30 years ago.

            Her father’s business was Moffatt & Powell, a lumber shop founded in 1956. Since 2010, Nancy and her husband, D’Arcy Quinn, have owned the company her father built with his past and present business partner, Keith Moffatt. Her father continues as an advisor and interested observer, but they have owned it for the last four years, during which time they have modernized and expanded, doing what it takes to compete against behemoth competitors in an industry as sensitive to economic slowdowns as Ontario voters are to Hudakian austerity plans.

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