Wrap your Business in the Flag
Canada is a ‘wonderful’ brand that can be leveraged by organizations competing on a global stage
– a realm where too many homegrown firms are failing
By Liz Bernier
We already know Canada is a name that inspires pride and recognition around the world. But what we might not know is this: It’s also a potential brand — one that’s been consistently underutilized by Canadian organizations.
That was the central message author and consultant Doug Williamson delivered at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.
“I want you to understand that this brand — this wonderful, well-regarded, credible brand called Canada — is under-leveraged around the world,” said Williamson, president and CEO of the Beacon Group. “We haven’t done a very good job of taking the brand called Canada and wrapping it around our companies and having them go out to explore the rest of the world.”
The country is falling further and further behind, he said. The opportunities are endless but the vast majority of small and medium-sized Canadian companies are not competing on a global stage — 77 per cent of our trade is with the United States of America.
“We suffer from a deficit of ambition. We’re not hungry enough. Now, I’m not talking about the big banks that have been very successful internationally or the big insurance companies that have been successful internationally or the large resource companies… there’s no question that we have a number of very successful multinational corporations. But they are in the minority when it comes to the Canadian business landscape,” he said.
“One of the reasons we are where we are is that we’ve had it way too easy in Canada… in fact, our good fortune of residing just north of the U.S. market, and our good fortune in fish, minerals and farming, has meant we’ve been able to be very successful up to this point — more by good luck than hard work.
“The fact is, we’re amateurs when it comes to the global environment.”
The competitive landscape has changed and we can’t afford to continue to underutilize our national brand, said Williamson.
And this isn’t just a challenge for large corporations.
“(It’s) Canadian businesses in Moncton, Saskatoon, Kamloops, Brockville… because they’re the real face of Canadian business — it’s not Bay Street. And out there, the pain in middle-market, middle-sized companies is significant,” he said.
“In every other country that’s successful today, the engine for growth is their mid-sized companies. But we don’t have enough of them, we’re not diversified enough.”
There’s a huge transformational challenge facing Canadian business in all sectors and companies of all sizes — and we have to come to grips with, or at least have a willingness to acknowledge, the fact that we need to have that type of major transformation, said Williamson.
“We can’t be successful in the future by doing what we’ve done. What got us here won’t keep us here,” he said.
“I’ll just ask you to think: Are we hungry enough? Are we ambitious enough? Why don’t we play business the way we play hockey? Why are we afraid to go into the corners with our elbow up when we have business internationally, yet we admire that when we play hockey?”
If we really want to overcome this ambition deficit, we need look no further than “hidden champions,” said Williamson.
“These are companies you’ve never heard of, who have over a 50 per cent market share, who by definition are twice the size of their competitor, and who have dominated and continue to dominate a niche,” he said. “Over 80 per cent of them come from small countries.”
One of the first lessons we can learn from these hidden champions is around the importance of leadership, said Williamson.
“They’re all led by executives who have a very fierce resolve to change the world. They have a deep, deep desire — they’re patriots, and they are tenacious. So tenacity is key.”
These organizations also have incredibly high performance standards, he said.
“They are really tough on their people, they deal quickly with underperformance and they treat their star performers in a very special way. They understand a simple rule of economics: Fair does not mean equal.”
These companies operate in a highly decentralized manner, putting accountability firmly on the shoulders of executives. They’ve decided to dominate a niche and, as such, they have incredibly crisp focus — they know exactly what they’re good at, said Williamson.
Another common characteristic? These organizations are incredibly driven.
“They have lofty ambitions. If you go and visit some of these companies, you’ll discover that their expectations for growth are in the 20-to-25-per-cent-a-year range. When you look at Canadian companies, it’s almost as if we’re afraid to set the bar too high for fear we fail — so let’s set the ambition bar low and at least we can make it. That’s not a trait of a hidden champion,” he said.
Hidden champions also have a “glocal mindset” when moving internationally, said Williamson.
“When they go to a country, they don’t send bucketloads of expatriates… they try to be part of the local community and they represent themselves that way,” he said.
“The vast majority of hidden champions are from small towns, not big cities… and there’s an issue there that’s interesting, because they understand community. They understand family, they understand roots in the community, they understand common sense, they understand practicality.”
Innovation is another key trait behind these organizations’ success.
“They’re serial innovators… they’re the ones that kill their own products and reinvent before they allow a competitor to kill their products. And it’s the difference between a Sony and an Apple,” he said.
Related to innovation, there is also the necessity of “going with the flow” and being comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
“In the world we live in today, there is no executive or company that is smart enough to predict the future. So if you’re not building a resilient organization, an adaptable organization, an organization that can go with the flow, you’re not going to be set up for success,” he said.
“It’s time to rethink the game.”