Passion and entrepreneurship: development tools for a changing economy
by Peter Donovan
In both land management and community development, people are trying methods that do not involve large inputs or infrastructure, but concentrate more on the ecological potential of the site or community to generate resilient development or production on its own.
In March of 2000 I visited Stettler, Alberta, and New Westminster, British Columbia. Each locality, for two years or more, has had a Sirolli-trained Enterprise Facilitator giving free, confidential, and one-on-one coaching to people with ideas for starting or expanding businesses.
"The key," Sirolli says, "is to find ways to let the community take responsibility for its own economic success. Enterprise Facilitation presents a social technology for allowing this to happen. It is the only way we have found to actually train people in the community to be responsive to the overall needs of entrepreneurs."
Currency amounts quoted in this article are in Canadian dollars.
STETTLER, ALBERTA--Ninety kilometers east of the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, where most of the recent economic growth in Alberta has occurred, agriculture, oil and gas are the primary industries in and around this town of 5200. A recent fluctuation in the oilpatch cost the town 57 families.
In the early 1990s the town hired an economic development officer. "Her job was to bag a big company and drag it kicking and screaming to Stettler," says city councilor Jim Hunter. After two years, "only one job had been created--her own--at a cost of $150,000."
The Town Council impaneled a committee of local businessmen to look for alternatives. Don Peters, a farm equipment dealer, heard Ernesto Sirolli present his bottom-up method of developing local business. An Enterprise Facilitation project was starting in nearby Camrose.
Says city administrator Rob Stoutenberg, "lots of our growth has come from within our own entrepreneurs, even though we were out chasing large smokestacks." One of the larger businesses in Stettler is Jiro Manufacturing, where 65 people make gas compressors and wellhead equipment in a 40,000-square foot plant. Jiro grew from a local start.
"I was interested in keeping small communities alive, this one in particular," said Barry Gitzel, a chartered accountant who is a lifelong resident of Stettler, and who has seen both of his children leave. "We just can't keep pumping our best people into the cities." Edmonton is 140 km northwest, and Calgary is three hours to the southwest.
The Town Council, though skeptical of Sirolli's philosophy, decided to try Enterprise Facilitation. The project was funded at first by a $75 surcharge on the city's business licenses, plus a small property tax assessment. Gitzel served as chair of the board of directors for the new Heartland Enterprise Development Society.
In April 1998, the Society hired Gaye Stewart as the Enterprise Facilitator. She has a background in counseling, including a stint teaching personal growth to ex-convicts. She is forthright and enthusiastic about her job, which is giving free and confidential management coaching to anyone who seeks it in connection with starting or expanding a business in the town or county. Since May 1998, 400 people have been repeat clients.
Immediacy and responsiveness result from the program's simplicity. Gaye does not book appointments too far in advance.
"When they come to a facilitator, clients can get the issues out of the way," she says. "They just need someone to talk to. It's a big part of facilitation. For so many business programs, the human element is missing."
Sirolli's facilitator training emphasizes management teamwork, which most small business lack, and the importance in business of doing what you love. Self-fulfillment is the main driver of business development.
"Men are the hardest because they hang on so hard. I tell them, it's okay to swear. Usually they apologize and get to the issue--and it's not about money, usually."
"I'll do whatever it takes," she says. "Many small-business people suffer from the 'impostor syndrome,' as in, 'Who am I to be doing this?' But do you know how hard it is for some people to talk to a banker or an accountant or lawyer? But they have to do it or the business won't go."
"It's very tough to listen day after day to what's wrong. When things are going right, they don't call you."
She has two rules. "Number one: I throw out ideas, you decide. I don't decide for you. Number two: give other facilitation clients a chance [to supply a product or service that you need]."
Nonprofit organizations also come. "It's no different than helping anyone else. You can't just work with one segment of the community. Nonprofits create jobs. Those people then have money to spend in businesses."
"If the only way you can get new dollars in your community is through nonprofits, go for it. If you don't look at the community as a whole, you might as well pack up your cards and go home. Facilitation allows us to do that. When they come through the door, they're not just a business."
With the town, there was some disagreement about the funding from the start, in some cases from downtown merchants. Says Gitzel, "some people felt, why should we be paying to bring in competition?" But, he says, "for the benefit of the town, you want the best businesses."
City administrator and project board member Rob Stoutenberg said in March 2000 that "it takes a while for a community to understand it. The support level has grown. It surprises me, some of the ideas people have locally. Often you're not aware of them till you get into the loop. I realize how many entrepreneurial people there are."
In 1999 the County of Stettler, noticing that the program was helping start and expand businesses in the county as well as the town, began providing about a third of the project's operating expenses.
The program does not offer financing to entrepreneurs. Dean Killam, manager of the local Alberta Treasury Branch bank, has been on the board since December 1999. He says of the project, "it's fantastic. Being a banker, I often get a lot of people who are interested in going into business. They have their idea, but they have no clue how to start. I pass them on to Gaye. In a month or more, they come back, and I get someone who has done marketing research, who has done financial research, who knows more about how to produce their product better. They are more rounded. And if you have two businesses, and if one is rounded and the other isn't, we know which one will survive."
Because no one is equally passionate or skilled in finance, production, and marketing, Sirolli trains facilitators to help entrepreneurs get help with the aspects they are not as focused on. "It's a fantastic concept, this three-legged stool of the trinity of management. If one leg is short, your stool is lopsided. The program is basically entrepreneurial coaching--what to look for, how to look, and where to look."
Says Gitzel, "85 percent of the clients don't have good financials. The big thing I see with it is that people in the community are helping each other."
Killam also likes the community-building aspect. "People are more willing to help each other. When new businesses open, they have more choice, they're happier."
And Gaye has also helped businesses close gracefully. "We changed the look, made the store look fuller," she says of one effort. "I used a counseling approach, helped them see the future, helped them see the need not to buy inventory for Christmas. When the doors closed, there were still some outstandings. They didn't stiff local businesses. They were able to get out of it with their dignity intact, and their credit rating not too badly damaged."
Prairie Wind Welding
Bob Damberger grew up on a farm outside Donalda, a hamlet outside of Stettler, and spent 20 years working in the oilpatch. After a severe auto accident, his ideas turned toward home business. He had been doing all types of welding, and began making quite detailed and realistic weathervanes, rain gauges, and signs. He took a 9-day federal-government sponsored training called Business Opportunity Support Services (BOSS), which helped prospective entrepreneurs decide whether or not to take the plunge, and helped prepare them for what they would encounter.
He and his wife Merle decided to do it. He tooled up his shop, and began turning out weathervanes. Merle says, "our customers are amazed. They bring him a picture or idea and he makes it work." In the fall of 1998 his accountant suggested he call the Enterprise Facilitator in Stettler, Gaye Stewart.
"Gaye explained what she did. She asked me, did we have stumbling blocks, how big did we want to get. She gave me contacts--in manufacturing, boxing, packaging, in advertising. She helped us design a trade-show strategy. In 1999 we did 19 trade shows, and got an excellent response. She coached us on how to compete with similar products, how to move a superior product to the customer."
This past year Damberger did fewer trade shows, but the ones he did appear in were bigger and resulted in more sales. About 60 percent of Prairie Wind Welding's sales are direct to customers, the rest through retailers. His weathervanes, signs, and rain gauges are beautifully designed and finished, detailed, and durable.
The Heartland Enterprise Development Society, he says, "is an awesome idea. The BOSS course was invaluable, but it's great to have someone in your home area who knows where to go, someone to turn to as coach. That meant a lot to us." Enterprise Facilitators "know when to listen. They know when to talk."
"Our workforce has changed," Damberger says. "Ten or fifteen years ago, we never heard of home-based business. After 25 years of working for others, we're tickled that our first foray has gone so well." He hopes that in a few years, growth of his business will enable his wife, and his daughters if they want to, to become part of the team. His daughters enjoy working with computers and he hopes to use their talents.
"A home-based business gives you an opportunity to use your creativity, to create quality items that people want to buy. I take pride in my work." Working in the oilpatch was often solitary. He likes the interaction with people in selling his work, and at trade shows. "It's fun meeting new people, from all walks of life. There are good people out there."
Working from home is also an issue in the town of Stettler. Says Gaye, "we need to start looking at a different structure for home-based business--the fee structure of the town business license, for example. We have to really start working on public perception--that it's okay to work out of your home. Some things are absolutely not intrusive on your neighbors. The whole perception about home-based business has to change."
Murray Manson of Stettler is also a welder. For 22 years he has been anchoring support cables for oil wells. Soil sampling is an essential part of this job. He is heavyset and down to earth.
He noticed that the open spill trays that were sometimes placed under fuel tanks and chemical tanks didn't protect the ground from contamination. They overflowed from precipitation if vacuum trucks didn't empty them. Animals would sometimes drink out of them.
Out driving one day, he counted 560 steel fuel tanks in five miles. They were all common 500-gallon steel tanks, on stands, in various stages of decrepitude. "There's got to be a better way. Are we going to get to where we have to pay $1 a bottle for drinking water?"
In 1992, Manson came up with an idea of secondary containment for a 500-gallon fuel tank that completely enclosed the tank with ultraviolet-resistant polyethylene. "Nothing can get in, nothing can get out."
Polyethylene containers are manufactured using rotational molding, whereby a quantity of plastic is slowly heated by gas jets inside of a rotating steel mold, until it forms an even coating on the inside of the one-piece mold. Manson discovered that the plastics industry, particularly the rotational-molding segment, was close-mouthed indeed. After some tense moments and confrontations, he was finally able to take a few surreptitious photos of a rotational mold.
He spent the next two years making a small-scale model at first, at night in his welding shop after his other work was done, and learned by trial and error. Then he designed a full-scale mold. "It took me five months to make my mold. It was all grinding-wheel cuts--no torch."
Given the obvious deficiencies and expenses of open spill trays, Manson thought his idea of complete secondary containment, that could be retrofitted to existing tanks and stands, was timely. Laws were making it more difficult and expensive to sell property contaminated with fuel and chemical leakages. He applied for a Canadian patent. "I had to look up every word in the dictionary."
Advancing his idea in officialdom was a challenge. "For the ivory tower, you need your best suit and tie, your best snap-on lips and kneepads."
There was lots of stress. "A vicious wolf was at the door. It's just me and my wife. How can we market this? I can't change the world. I gotta change. Could I actually pull this off, see this project to completion?"
He came to Gaye Stewart. She found technical expertise for plastics, marketing contacts, and helped him foresee the financial considerations involved with a manufacturing startup. "I never had that kind of help before. She's a mini tornado. She can beat down doors. She's a social navigator."
Says Gaye, "until Murray came out with the Enviro-Tub, there wasn't an alternative to the foolish spill trays. It's time for the legislators to get tough on contamination. Murray is now ready to fill a big order. He doesn't make rash decisions." There's been some interest from some large oil companies.
"I had no money to put this on the market," says Murray. "I just received my American patent. We're creating all kinds of employment. It's a little ahead of its time. They're still buying the spill trays, but they're getting more complaints. The associated costs with Enviro-Tub are zip. An insurance company, an environmental company could be marketing for us."
Sales are slow but steady. "It's been fun," says Murray. "Rotation molding is like baking a cake. You can't let it fall."
But in December 2000, the Town Council of Stettler, provider of $37,800 annually to the Heartland Enterprise Development Society, withdrew their funding in a surprise decision. The county councilors, providers of $15,000 annually, were upset.
As of February 1, 2001, Gaye Stewart is no longer providing free management coaching to Stettler entrepreneurs. "This is not a program that should be run at a government level," she says. "We've never had a grassroots commitment. The businesspeople who recommended this in the first place didn't stay on the board, and from the beginning the town council felt pressured to do it."
The pace of business startups and expansions had slowed. Gaye Stewart says that more people are looking harder at what they do, and acquiring skills before they actually open. "A lot of people are reevaluating their lives." She adds, "we've seen better decisions made this past year."
Barry Gitzel comments that "we were created by the town council and we were extinguished by the town council. It's a political situation, driven by which way the wind blows. We tended to assist people in the lower socioeconomic strata, people who are intimidated by going into business."
"We didn't get as much local press as we would have liked. We didn't blow our own horn, we were very quietly going about our business. There was also the confidentiality aspect--we kept a lot of the stuff to ourselves."
Since May 1998, 49 business startups have benefited from the management coaching and networking provided by the facilitator, as well as 90 existing businesses that sought to diversify or expand. These businesses created an estimated 76 new jobs. About two-thirds of the businesses and jobs were in Stettler, the rest outside the town.
City administrator Rob Stoutenberg comments that "a slightly different avenue should be looked at in the long run--for example, a strong chamber doing some business initiatives. Some facilitation may be part of mix in the future. Several businesses have benefited from that in the past."
Manson observes, "Gaye got stuff happening. She's been a real barnburner. She jumped right on this stuff, right out of her house, lots of road work on the computer. She helped us with some of the stumbling blocks. She found out how to increase manufacturing capacity if it took off. She did what she was supposed to do."
"Everybody's got a dream. You've got to be a small company before you get to be a big company."
When asked what she had learned from the facilitation project, Gaye said, "it really reinforced for me what I already knew about people. It doesn't matter where you go in the world, there's people who have dreams and are creative and will make it happen. Some people need more help than others, but it's there in every single community. And I knew that all along."
"I think it's a real shift in the way we think. People are taking more responsibility for their own lives, they're not looking for someone else to do it for them anymore, and that's why programs like this work. This is the way of the future. This is how we fill the gaps of an economy filled with big corporations."
"The people that I've met are phenomenal. Sure, maybe they don't know where to go to start--basically that's all I do is find them a place to go to get what they need. But if I wasn't here they'd do it anyway."
"In Alberta, in the early 1980s, there was way too much money around. And since the oil crash, people are expecting to be downsized, they are better prepared. They've started realizing that we're not all going to work for big business anymore, we're not going to have job security like we used to. And then you get people like Bob Damberger who has started something on his own, and it's working for him, and he's telling all his friends and his neighbors, and he's happier than the dickens, he maybe isn't making as much money, but he's happy. People are looking at people like Bob and saying I could, it could be me. I'm guessing ten years from now it will just be the norm and they won't even need facilitators, they'll just do it anyway. I think communities will pull together and get a lot stronger, and you'll see more of the old time, neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends. I think the Me Generation is dying."
"Enterprise Facilitation is cheap compared to chasing smokestacks," says Gaye. "It is an investment in developing the community. People who are involved in facilitation are more willing to help others. Every community should have an Enterprise Facilitator."
Board chairman Gitzel says the Enterprise Facilitation model "has worked here beyond my wildest expectations. The resourcefulness of the people, the entrepreneurial stuff that was out of sight. You don't realize how many people have been tinkering, and they have no idea of what to do. The people who come--it blows you away. Your neighbor could be the next Thomas Edison--a hidden talent you never dreamt was there. That was the biggest surprise, and it was exciting."
NEW WESTMINSTER, BRITISH COLUMBIA--In the oldest incorporated city in western Canada, the pace of change has been picking up. Sawmills, pulp mills, tugboat operations, warehouses, and breweries have been the economic mainstay of this city of nearly 55,000 people on the lower Fraser River. With the arrival of the SkyTrain rapid transit system in 1986, downtown Vancouver is twenty minutes away. Decaying frame apartments are gradually giving way to high-rise riverfront condominiums. The glittering, bright blue Westminster Quay Public Market occupies a former mill site.
Targeted problems include high unemployment, street crime, empty storefronts, and general deterioration, particularly in the downtown area along Columbia Street. In between the upscale shops and refurbished offices are a day-labor exchange, a methadone clinic, an adult theater, and check-cashing establishments. The city is a vibrant mix of the old and the new. After English, the mostly widely spoken languages in New West are Punjabi and Chinese.
"New West is a working-class town, with a high rate of rental occupancy," says Jack Bass of the Downtown Business Improvement Association. "We never recovered from suburban shopping malls. There have been attempts at revitalization."
In 1997, Bob Williams of the VanCity Credit Union suggested to the New West Community Development Society that they contact Ernesto Sirolli and learn about Enterprise Facilitation.
Vicki Austad of the Community Development Society was interested in something that would enhance and develop the local economy. "We invited Sirolli to come speak to our Society members and other key players in the community," says Austad. "There was some energy around it, we saw that it was a viable concept. We got the city's Economic Development committee excited about it. We had some support from VanCity Savings Credit Union, but it wasn't enough. In 1998 we were able to secure about $50,000 from the federal government--but there were lots of conditions." The funding, from Human Resources Development Canada, was targeted at moving people off unemployment benefits.
Ernesto Sirolli gave a one-day board orientation and training in August 1998, and they advertised the Enterprise Facilitator position. They hired Suzette McFaul.
Says Austad, who is on the board of the New Westminster Enterprise Facilitation program, "we had a little less than 100 applications. We interviewed the best ten. We looked at ourselves and said, it's not going to work. One of the learnings for me was that this isn't a job that you can hire on the basis of education and experience. That doesn't mean that Suzette doesn't have the education or experience. There were other people who appeared, on the basis of their resumes, to have more education and experience than she did. She was about number two on our second top ten. I knew within three seconds that she was the person we would want to hire. You hire based on personality, on enthusiasm, on fire in the eyes."
Suzette McFaul remembers, "I saw the paper, and it was the way you worded it--have a passion for the community, helping people get into business. I've helped people get into business my whole life, for personal economic reasons, and did very well at it. In this particular instance, it turned my personal outlook 180 degrees."
Austad says that McFaul "comes from this huge background of helping people start franchises. She's married that now to an appreciation for and understanding of the whole community and how the whole enterprise-development kind of energy can be joined with an energy for community."
Suzette began work in January 1999. "We have 22 people on the board. Government, professional people. After two months, I had to ask them to stop making introductions because my client list was so huge. We came out of the starting gates really quickly. I had clients the week after training."
"The gratification is huge. Economic development was never in my past history, or dealing with people who didn't have money. It's opened up a whole new life for me in terms of having a heart for people in the community. I wouldn't trade this job for the world."
"My biggest surprise in the first couple of months was the number of doors that were opened within the community. We're 50,000 people and 7.5 square miles. We have that small-community feeling. When I was calling up companies saying, I need your help to help this particular entrepreneur get started, doors continually opened. I've never seen anything like it before, it was really a huge surprise."
"The second surprise was the amount of money that continued to come back into the community. The small-business person who wants to open up a small retail store will use a New West construction company, a New West alarm company, and New West fixture company, a New West insurance company. People feel that they've gotten help from Enterprise Facilitation and they need to give back."
Tanya Baal started Full Spectrum Art Supplies on New West's main street in August 1998. She went to Suzette for financial advice in September 1999. She was interested in a loan, and some help with a marketing plan. "My whole marketing plan was based on a relative who got sick." She needed to reach art groups.
Suzette pointed out the mistakes in the marketing plan, and helped Tanya focus on what she needed to do. She helped her set up means of tracking advertising to find out what was effective. Suzette also helped her reach people, some of them clients of the program, who wanted to do art classes.
Tanya used her bank loan to buy framing equipment, as there is a high margin on framing, and she can often sell art supplies to her framing customers. Last year Full Spectrum was Business of the Year in New West.
"The reason Suzette is successful is because she's no-nonsense. Everyone else is afraid to upset someone. If you're being ridiculous, she'll call you in. People need the honesty."
Suzette McFaul tells of a client, a sidewalk chalk artist, who literally did not have an address. In order to have a city business license, and legitimately be open for business, he needed an address.
Full Spectrum Art Supplies supplied the address. "She gave back to the community," says Austad. In addition, Full Spectrum displayed the silk-screened T-shirts of another new business, displayed pictures for sale by local artists, and advertised the opening of a new local bookstore to her mailing list.
VanCity Credit Union supplied a high-risk loan of $1,000 to get artwork framed so a man could sell his artwork. "There's a flower shop that's quite busy, so she took the artwork and put it up on her walls," says Vicki. "She gets the advantage of having artwork on her walls. He gets a place to display it."
"The advantage of this kind of model, the most important positive result is not economic development but the development of community. The economic development comes along as a secondary result of developing community, because people know each other and trust each other. Knowledge develops about who knows who, who has what, where you can get what done, so you're more inclined to work in your community, spend your money in your community, and when that happens you're more inclined to be there for each other and support each other. That's why I was interested in this project."
Competition for existing business is a common concern. Says Suzette, "one of our first scenarios was the gentleman who wanted to get into the security business, installing alarm systems. There are lots in New West who do that. One of our larger companies here is an alarm company. I called them up and asked them could you help this client who wants to get into the alarm/security business. The larger firm, which has been here for twenty years, took him under its wing, showed him how to do invoicing, etc. But in return he does all their monitoring. First of all, the established business didn't question, can you help--they helped. Secondly, they ended up winning by it anyway. It's very interesting that we haven't had that response yet [of resistance to competition]. The community continues to open up their arms. They have that mindset. I didn't place it there, it's there. That's what makes it special."
"There are five coffee shops along our main street. Maybe I have a client who comes to me and says I want to open a sixth coffee shop along main street. It's up to me as a facilitator to make sure that they do their homework, to say opening up the sixth might not be a great idea. I don't tell them that, they will prove it themselves, and decide themselves not to open up that sixth, so that competition doesn't arise anyway."
"There's confidence within the community in this particular project because of the people that we have on the board, to know that we wouldn't be doing things that didn't make sense."
Says Austad, "one of the problems we encounter is people who come in and want to start businesses who are mentally ill. We've had some difficulties with that, from an integrity point of view. There are a lot of people who have mental illnesses who are quite brilliant. We had one gentleman who had written a book and wanted to publish it. Suzette wasn't sure that the book wasn't brilliant."
"The whole Enterprise Facilitation model is about identifying a step. When you have mastered that step, we'll give you another thing to do. We determined that the very first thing this guy needed to do was to learn to bathe regularly and stay on his medication. Until he did those things, we couldn't move to another level."
"It's a very orderly process. We've had people come in and say, I want money. Well, if you want money, I can help you get it, but here are the steps you have to go through. Somewhere between once in a while and often, people don't do the steps because they're not prepared to sweat that much. They want the cookies without baking them."
"One of our clients was on income assistance," Suzette says, "which is our welfare system here, and he had not a penny. After a year we have a prototype software program that he had developed, and about $400,000 in financing, including the government and the national research council putting in $150,000 on top of that. So he's definitely on his way."
Tajh Leitso of Blaze Telecommunications is an Internet service provider, and also does patron-management software for libraries. One of his clients wanted a coin-operated network printer so that patrons browsing the internet could print pages, pay the cost, and not take up library staff time. Leitso built such a device. In 1999 he approached Suzette for connections to venture capital.
"She helped me organize the business into several components. Suzette provides lots of very helpful information on programs and resources available, from federal to international. Mainly it was business advice, resources and information--being a small business owner, I didn't have time to research on my own. I didn't know these programs existed--programs to enhance exports, for example."
"She's done her homework. She opened up a wide array of options for my second business." Leitso's Currency Activated Systems now employs six people, and is exporting coin-operated network printers to the U.S.
"The program's excellent, especially for small business owner, helping to grow your business from the ground up."
The city of New Westminster is now one of the project's major funders. Last year they appropriated $20,000 from the Special Projects fund for the Enterprise Facilitation effort, and this year they have funded $40,000 of the program costs. Says city councilor Calvin Donnelly, "we've had economic development before that didn't show much result. This is the first that has showed some real results. The hard work that has been put into this has paid off."
"I've always been self employed. I enjoy seeing other people succeed." The simplicity, and the lack of complexity of the Enterprise Facilitation effort are assets, he says.
Mary Pynenburg is the city's planning director. "People always focus on the big thing. A lot of people think they are doing economic development. But who is actually getting results?"
"It's a really interesting idea--bottom-up and grassroots. Suzette doesn't have an office. You can quickly feel comfortable in an office--it's your turf. This is very bottom-up, very lean."
McFaul has helped clients negotiate the city's ordinances and regulations. Says Pynenburg, "If you come to the city and ask the wrong question, we'll give you the wrong answer. People might have gotten discouraged and walked away, and we never hear about it. Suzette has the opportunity to play an independent advocacy role. She's not a city employee. It's awkward for city employees to coach someone how to beat the system."
"She can shepherd people. She's had some very good experience. You need someone who is sympathetic to the applicant. You need someone who is tenacious. She lives here. She already knows and has ties to the community."
McFaul had been contacted by a retail lumber company with 47 employees. "They were looking at several municipalities, New West being one of them. They had walked into City Hall and got a flat outright no, just because of regulatory," she says.
"We actually changed the policy to where it made sense. They didn't see it that way at first. They didn't issue business licenses until the actual business was going to be open. When you have offers of purchases sitting on the table subject to a business license, we're talking a million-dollar project here, the City Hall is saying we can't give you a business license. Now they can give a comfort letter saying if you follow this, you can get a business license. That's a huge step. The city ultimately won by having these 47 people."
Says Austad, "she's a real terrier at City Hall. She doesn't take no for an answer, is charming the whole way about it, but knows what she needs to do to advocate on behalf of her clients, and goes ahead and does that, to the point that she was having so much difficulty that it culminated in the city administrator inviting her to meet with all the department heads and chronicle her difficulties with various processes around the city's regulatory system."
The city has 800 employees. "In dealing with any large bureaucracy, you need somebody who can navigate that way. The last thing a fish sees is the water it's swimming in. You need to be removed from it in order to chart relief."
Councilor Donnelly agrees. "The city needs some outside stimulus, then the city can cooperate."
"To me this is counseling program," says Vicki Austad. "It's listening and relationship building."
"A prime client example was a woman who came to me wanting to open a restaurant based on Nigerian food," Suzette says. "We were going through the steps. By the end of the session we found that her passion was children's book writing, and she's off and running on children's book writing."
"You don't just get people developing businesses," Vicki says. "You get people developing relationships and caring about what happens to each other and being invested in each other's success."
The funding challenge
So far, the project had helped 47 businesses start, with 151 new jobs, with gross sales of $22.2 million, and with new investment of $4.1 million. The direct cost of the program has been about $200,000, or approximately $1,300 per job created with the program's help.
In spite of these results, funding for the program's continuation has not been secured. Most government and foundation funders in Canada have specialized interests and constituencies.
"The [Enterprise Facilitation] model makes sense," says Vicki Austad. "We have been free to mold it to our requirements." Because of the Human Resources Development Canada funding, part of Suzette's time was allocated to working with long-term unemployed people.
"Folks who are normally high-end need help basically with two things: they need help dealing with the city's regulatory processes, and they need help with the financing," Austad says. "They are high-end, low-maintenance. The other folks, the ones that come from the targeted side of things, are typically low-end, high-maintenance kind of individuals. They need a lot of hand-holding."
"To me the ideal funding combination is about 40 percent targeted. If the funding were to come only from the city, they would want to support big business and enhance the tax base. The funding has to be multileveled, and we have to provide avenues for marginalized people to access the services as easily as people without barriers."
Human Resources Development Canada's continued funding is not certain. Despite focused outreach, the Enterprise Facilitation program failed to reach or help the number of long-term unemployed specified in the initial agreement. Of the 47 new businesses started with the program's help, 27 of the owners described themselves as low-income.
Last year the Enterprise Facilitation program received some funding from the VanCity Foundation, a community foundation. "We had submitted a proposal to a committee whose mandate it is to deal with marginalized people. They looked at the list of businesses that were helped and saw these multimillion-dollar businesses. Their first (in my view, narrow) perspective was, why are we supporting something that is a service to people like this? They can afford to pay for their own service. Suzette and I pointed out that Suzette frequently connects smaller businesses to larger businesses and therefore they support each other, which is the kind of networking that wouldn't happen otherwise."
"One of the things that I think this program has the potential to do is to create the opportunity for dialogue between people who are interested in education, people who are interested in the social aspects of community, and people who have interest in the business side. If people learn to listen to each other and recognize each other as having a contribution then the end result is going to be a richer and more well-nourished community on all sides."
"Without the big guys, the little guys wouldn't survive," McFaul observes.
"Without the facilitator, the little guys wouldn't even know about the big guys and the big guys wouldn't even know about the little guys," says Austad. "And they wouldn't care. It's that ghettoization that happens. I don't support that anymore. I used to think that people needed to be treated differentially. But the more I see of the folks that come into our Community Skills Center and do their own independent job search, and the more I see about the successes that people have relative to this program, I think people rise to the level of expectation. People are capable of a whole lot more than a typical community-development mandate, which says 'pity poor you, we're going to extend a hand downwards to help you out.' It doesn't work as well as something that says here is a service that anyone can access, and that ties people to each other."
"And I never do the work for them," says Suzette. "So they rise to the top. Our success rate in the first year of business is 100 percent."
New West city planning director Mary Pynenburg observes, "people on the political left see Enterprise Facilitation as a social service. People on the right see businesses and jobs. Where the two meet are in jobs."
"It's not a social program," she says, and "it's not strictly motivated by the bottom line. It's got some very good measurable results--real businesses, real jobs."
She adds, "new businesses give business to existing businesses. Businesses tend to be more stable and sustainable. We're starting to see the second-generation aspect: additional employees, sales per customer increasing. The ratio of time and energy to results is good. So far we've had a zero percent failure rate" in the businesses assisted.
Dan Mott, an electrical contractor with 150 employees, is a third-generation New West resident and current chairman of the Enterprise Facilitation board. "The overall philosophy is bottom-up rather than top-down. It helps renew my optimism that something government funded can be a success. But the funding outlook is not good. We haven't been helping the marginalized. We helped four young guys right out of high school get into a record business, but they weren't long-term unemployed."
"There's so much value in this board structure, so much value for clients at that [startup or expansion] stage," he says. "It's an instant network. Something can be done with a group, outside the bureaucracy--we have success by helping people [from on the] outside of government." Even without the two large businesses that were assisted, the lumber company mentioned earlier and a biotechnology firm, "the success is still huge. Suzette has made the New West project."
Patterns of Choice, Spring 2001