Small Business, Big Impact

The state of Alberta’s backbone

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Illustration Kyle Metcalf

Small- and mid-sized businesses in Alberta have experienced the ­highest highs and the lowest lows, says Amber Ruddy, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Federation of ­Independent Business (CFIB).

Her ­organization’s business barometer – which measures business owners’ optimism about the province’s economic future – points to a diminished level of confidence in the economy (though it’s still ahead of where it was in 2008). Small businesses have a bevy of concerns, including general economic conditions and the decisions of the new NDP government to raise both corporate taxes and the minimum wage: 50 per cent of businesses said the latter would result in higher prices, and 29 per cent said they’d have to cut back on their current number of employees. And nearly a third of all respondents said they were not confident in the government’s commitment to small businesses. More startling is the fact that, according to Volume 11 of the ATBs Business Beat survey, the portion of small-and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Alberta that feel their business will be the same or better off in six months decreased six points to 67 per cent.

But Ruddy also says that ­businesses in Alberta have certain advantages.“They’ve faced tough economic times before and they understand the impact of the resource sector,” she says. They’ve learned to adapt to boom-and-bust cycles, and can adapt more easily than the province’s economic giants by being nimble and staying committed to the client.

This is certainly true for Lu Mascaro, the owner of Uppercase Press in ­Edmonton. Inspired by her Italian grandfather, who was a letterpress printmaker for 30 years, she started Uppercase from her home studio. She didn’t know much about the industry, but she inherited her grandfather’s ­dedication to the craft. And while she still has a part-time job to help pay the bills, Mascaro has grown her business by ignoring economic difficulties and focusing on producing a better product. “If it wasn’t something I’d truly fallen in love with, I probably wouldn’t be doing [it],” she says. “It’s not an easy market.”

It’s a similar story for RefineCo, a ­Calgary-based software company that ­manages data for clients in a wide range of industries, from health care to ­agriculture to oil and gas. RefineCo’s CEO, Eric Veenendaal, has seen his company’s revenues increase through the most recent slowdown. In fact, RefineCo has never been busier. The company has 20 full-time employees and has grown by responding to customers’ needs. “It took a few customers coming in our front door and telling us their needs and us basically saying, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t help you,’ for us to wipe our table clean and look at it with an entirely new approach,” Veenendaal says. But that re-evaluation was crucial, and the ­company has since generated more value for its ­customers without hiring anyone new.

Ruddy reiterates that Alberta is still a strong business jurisdiction, and that business owners have much to gain from staying focused on their objectives and adapting to the circumstances. The ATB Business Beat survey* found that 73 per cent of SMEs have made at least one change to manage their business through the downturn. “Entrepreneurs in Alberta are resilient, and I think that some of them look at downturns as an opportunity,” says Ruddy. “Businesses try to weather the storm as much as possible before making drastic moves.”

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