The economic forecast was sunny for most respondents to the first MNP Business Leaders Survey, presented March 3 at the Cowichan Economic Outlook over breakfast at the Cowichan Golf Club. But the panel’s comments suggested rainy days ahead for local companies if we don’t improve our competitive position.
Make it easier to do business in the Valley, was the blunt message from the survey (72 per cent of respondents want to see Duncan and North Cowichan amalgamate) and from panellists. “The regulation all businesses are facing is unbelievable,” said Randy Bertsch, president of Island Savings Credit Union, adding that government red tape is the biggest limitation to his organization’s growth.
Within his own financial industry, Bertsch said managing new regulations and stringent reporting demands has cost the company about $800,000 to implement. “We’ve had numerous risk-averse lending policies implemented which made it difficult to do business with you,” he told the crowd. “Our regulators today are making it very difficult. In fact, they’d probably be happy not to see us grow,” he said “I have never seen anything like this before.”
Bertsch shared another chilling fact: Island Savings’ lending portfolio grew by 21 per cent in the greater Victoria area in 2015 but only two per cent locally.
Centralized promotion and more business-friendly, streamlined regulations would help companies compete with Langford and Nanaimo, said the panelists.
“We are fractionalized. If we found a way to get together then we could become more competitive,” said Janet Docherty of Merridale Cidery, referring to the many business groups and initiatives in the small communities within the Valley. She said more work opportunities here would help the agri-tourism industry’s workforce survive through the shoulder seasons.
Bertsch agreed. “Both Nanaimo and Langford had image issues and they’ve done a good job of changing that,” he said, adding that he has about 25 specialized employees who choose to work from Nanaimo or Victoria because their spouses can’t find work locally.
Despite a lack of work for some new residents, survey respondents said skills shortages were a challenge. This issue as well as government regulation issues can be addressed through partnerships, said Cathy Robertson, event moderator and general manager of Community Futures Cowichan. “That’s the best outcome of a survey like this: learning where we can work together.”
For one of the area’s established manufacturing companies, transportation is the big challenge. “Transportation is a hot point for us since 65 per cent of our business is export. It’s not just cost but time,” said panelist Scott McKay, general manager of Pro Mac Manufacturing Ltd. “On the flip side, 35 per cent of Pro Mac business comes from servicing local industry.”
In the survey, many cited marketing of the Cowichan region as a tourism destination as a primary economic development goal. And due to a benign climate and great recreational options, selling the idea of living here isn’t a problem either. “It’s clear that business understands how important livability is to the economy,” said Julie Scurr, Chamber president.
The event was hosted by the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce, MNP and Community Futures Cowichan. Marsha Stanley and Chris Duncan from consulting firm MNP delivered the presentation with results from a January survey of more than 200 company execs in the valley. Over half said their business performance had improved and over 60 per cent said they were optimistic about the coming year for the Cowichan economy.