2018 Impact Luncheon: Keynote Address from CEO Brad Ferguson

Jan 9th, 2018

Five and a half years ago, in front of the Winspear Centre, I was sitting on the curb with Stephen Mandel. Literally sitting on the curb discussing what he thought our city needed over the next five years and what changes were needed if Edmonton Economic Development was going to be a relevant organization in Edmonton’s future. He told me to do three things:

Build the best possible organization you can with the best possible people.

The second, make the organization a platform for innovation and big ideas.

And third, turn it, outward facing, so it can be of value to the community and eventually to the region.

And, as we shook hands to walk away, like Columbo, he looked back and said, “and one more thing … when the day comes, be sure to leave it in better shape than which you found it.”

I value Stephen’s advice – always have and always will.  Which was very different than the advice I received on my first day on the job at EEDC where I arrived at my office and sitting on my desk, there were three numbered envelopes wrapped with a bow with the words “Open When You Run Up Against Problems You Cannot Solve.”  Well, I couldn’t help myself, so I opened them right away. I opened the first envelope, and inside was a cue card that said, “Blame your Predecessor.” Thanks, Ron. I opened the second one, and it said, “Restructure the Company.” And finally, I opened the third envelope, and the cue card said, “Prepare Three More Envelopes for the Next Person.”

Well, it’s been a wonderful five years. We accomplished exactly what we set out to do. I used all three envelopes at different points along the journey.  And I have now prepared three more envelopes for the next CEO. So today, I would like to do some reflection, some storytelling about brand building and, as always, some navigation about the challenges that still lie ahead.

Before I start, I’d like to thank the four former CEOs of EEDC for being a part of today. Everything we accomplished over the past five years was built on the foundation that you built, and each of you was responsible for a leadership era in our City’s history, and each of you left our business community better off than which you found it. And we thank you. (Applause)

I’d also like to thank Mayor Don Iveson and Edmonton City Council, past and present. As my predecessors can attest to, a key reason an arm’s length organization exists is to bring private sector thinking into the public sector, to help the public sector achieve their long-term goals.  So, for giving me the latitude to always put the economy first, for the latitude of building an incredibly persistent team and for the latitude of operating with a respectful dose of irreverence, Mayor Iveson we thank you, too.

Every leadership era is defined by a grand challenge – something that needs to be overcome. When we started on this journey, the challenge was not the low price of oil, the recession, differing political ideologies or an unstable investment environment. Although all important parts of the journey and stories unto themselves, the grand challenge we faced and had to be overcome, was this vulnerable identity and self-esteem of Edmontonians. “Why would anyone ever want to be from Edmonton? What is there to do there? Why would you ever want to visit the city? Invest there? Own a business there? Go to school there? Live there, Die there? We all heard these questions, but as a city, we didn’t really have answers.

Five years ago, in the dead of winter, Edmontonians would go down to Phoenix, Palm Springs or Mexico, arrive at the hotel, and the concierge would say, “Where are you from?” And, the Edmontonians would say “I’m from Edmonton.” To which the concierge would say “Oh, too bad.” And proud Edmontonians would be frustrated because they had no language, stories and tools to talk about their city, to defend it, to speak positively about it. So, they just sink their chins into their chests, avoid eye contact and quietly walk away. That was our challenge, that was the reaction and the feeling, we needed to interrupt and forever overcome.

Five years ago, City Council created their economic development plan called The Way We Prosper, with tremendous input from the business community who identified Goal #1 to be “A Confident and Progressive Global Image.” City Council, our Shareholder, then tasked EEDC with delivering on that goal, and that goal was really what would define the past five years.

And it started early. I was one month into the job when we got called up in front of City Council. It was budget time, and we were requesting a bit more money for marketing and positioning our city. It was Councillor Amarjeet Sohi’s turn to ask questions, now Federal Minister of Infrastructure, so he leaned into the mic and asked, “Mr. Ferguson, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rank Edmonton’s brand?” I think that’s when, as the cheerleader for the city, the CEO of EEDC, I probably should have given the safer, safe answer that everyone wanted to hear – five, six, seven or eight, maybe. But instead, I decided to speak the truth. I leaned into my mic and gave us a score of 1.5/10 – a brutal score; but a brutally honest score – but it highlighted the magnitude of the work that was still ahead of us and needed to be done.

At Procter & Gamble, we learned that building a global brand typically takes ten years and $100 million. Our challenge was that we didn’t have $100 million and, if we were lucky, we would have one election cycle of 4-5 years at best to deliver results.

So, with that context and $1.5 million per year from the Edmonton Image & Reputation budget, we set out to fundamentally reshape the Edmonton brand from the ground up. Starting with a grassroots engagement campaign called Make Something Edmonton and a 5-year goal of having Edmonton starting to appear on lists of national or international rankings, and Edmonton starting to be positioned as one of the exciting cities to watch in the northern hemisphere.

Most cities launch glossy advertising campaigns, which are expensive, short-lived and ineffective. With the help of our friend Todd Babiak, we decided to do something very different. We focused on what we call the seven drivers of economic wealth: foreign investment; new business growth; tourists and visitors; conferences and conventions; major events; talent, students, and researchers; and direct flights. We believed that if we could get all seven aligned to a single brand strategy, then we could: (1) leverage our marketing dollars and compete as one against bigger cities with bigger budgets; and (2) help economic development become a team sport, where everyone was engaged and proud, and working towards a unified brand.

In most cities, these drivers are typically managed by separate organizations that protect their territories and rarely get along. We were lucky. With EEDC’s conglomerate structure, we saw an opportunity to create a platform and a team approach to brand building, and to align the seven economic drivers … through what we call, a bowling pin strategy, where we would build the Edmonton brand up by knocking down one pin at a time and, eventually, turn the 1.3 million people in the Edmonton Metro Region into our collective marketing department.

Wherever we went, whatever we did, with every story we told, people started seeing their story as part of the Edmonton story – the Make Something Edmonton story – and no matter where you came from or what you were trying to do, whether you wanting to build North America’s first mosque or its first Food Bank, or a new festival, or the highest ranked cycling race ever before in Canada, whether you wanted to build a video game company, a protocol for islet cell transplants, an outdoor yoga studio, a downtown arena or the smartest pipelines in the world … your stories, our stories,  all centred around one common theme … that if you are willing to take a risk, if you have the courage to take an idea to reality, to build, to make something, Edmonton was your city.

And we told that story over and over, for five straight years.

Our first bowling pin was the entrepreneurs – a very identifiable group belonging to places like Startup Edmonton and TEC Edmonton, EO, YPO along with everyone working in garages or co-working spaces that were doing some amazing things, but they had never celebrated their entrepreneurism together. So, we celebrated them, we told their stories when the media was starving for good content, we put on conferences, and we got this very identifiable group of young CEOs and their staff engaged with their city. And it worked. Our entrepreneurs started shifting the Edmonton brand from an industrial brand to an entrepreneurial brand in a very short period of time.

From there we launched our consumer brand – Explore Edmonton. Under the leadership of Maggie Davison, we took the same brand essence and built a 52-week calendar of festivals and events such that we could give every person from Ft. McMurray, Fort St. John, Grand Prairie, Cold Lake, Saskatoon, Regina, Lloydminster and Red Deer, those within a 400km radius, a reason to visit Edmonton 4 times a year, stay 3 nights per visit and spend $350 per day, which would give us, not the sexiest, but one of the more lucrative tourism markets in Canada – and it would create a rhythm, an energy and a pace in our city that we never had before. We brought in journalists and bloggers to experience our city, and write articles about our food scene, fashion scene, arts scene and entertainment scene and publish them around the world. But to visit, to build itineraries, we needed some major events.

So, that was our next bowling pin. Edmonton had great summer festivals and events, but we, as a community, needed to make Edmonton a great winter city. We targeted the Red Bull Crashed Ice event and, with the City of Edmonton’s support, we had the courage to wrap the track around this Shaw Conference Centre so participants could be televised around the world plunging into our river valley with Edmonton’s skyline at the backdrop. We targeted 18-34-year-olds, as they were our future labour force, taxpayers and baby makers, and they came in droves. We had over 70,000 below the river bank, 20,000 on Jasper Avenue and 5,000 in Churchill Square, all helping Edmonton become a great winter city – and helping drive new interest in outdoor winter events like the Flying Canoe Volant, Nuit Blanche and the Deep Freeze Festival.

The excitement around our consumer brand allowed us, in partnership with Edmonton Destination Marketing Hotels and the City of Edmonton, to go after bigger events, and be the host city for events I assume you all remember: like FIFA Women’s World Cup, the ITU World Triathlon, FISE and the Tour of Alberta. Large-scale, outdoor, mostly free events allowed all of us, but especially 18-34 years old, to emotionally connect with their city, to be proud of their city, and to send new images and pictures of our city that have never been seen before, all over the world, with pride.

The next pin was one that was long overdue – an integrated conference and convention centre strategy for our city – finally bringing Edmonton’s two major convention centres under a single leadership and management model.  It took four years, a number of Board meetings, and a lot of courage by City Council, but as of January 1st, we are now able to market our city’s conference and convention space as one team, with one voice, under one banner, without undercutting each other. It’s a huge breakthrough for our city.

Over the past three months, we successfully welcomed 80 full-time and 611 part-time staff from the Edmonton EXPO Centre to the EEDC family, and I would like to thank Edmonton City Council for having the trust in us to deliver, and to my friend Tim Reid for the many late-night discussions, the occasional scotch and the commitment for us to always remain friends throughout the negotiation process.

Our economic brand positions Edmonton as a key place for foreign and domestic investment, and a brand that helps Edmonton-based companies export and find distribution channels in new markets.

In 2015, under the leadership of Glen Vanstone, we launched “Invest in Edmonton Region” where we told the stories, the same brand stories, but of companies that either took the risk and invested here and were met with unparalleled success, or companies that came from here and were now exporting all over the world.  Companies like Siwin Foods and Sunterra who have doubled their volume into the Asia market over the past three years, or companies like Progressive Foods and Pura Botanicals who are now exporting to Japan for the first time, and so many more.

Our export stories allowed us to position Edmonton as a progressive-thinking distribution hub, and we had some big wins, like attracting HelloFresh who selected Edmonton as their western Canadian distribution centre for ready-made meals. And of course, Aurora Cannabis and Canopy Growth, the two largest medicinal marijuana manufacturers in the world, who chose Edmonton and the Edmonton Metro Region as their western Canadian home.

These new industries and new sectors are attractive to that 18-34-year-old market, and they complement the excitement in our technology sector, where we told high-growth stories coming out of companies like Jobber, Granify, BioWare, Gfycat, Yardstick, Intuit, Showbie and SAM which grabbed the attention of venture capital and private equity funds across North America. Or Google Deep Mind’s decision to pick Edmonton as their first North American location. These companies and the stories I’m talking about now join the traditional stories of PCL and Stantec and The Running Room and Canadian Western Bank, Gilead and The Brick that we tell all over the world.

Building our economic brand and our success overseas would not have been possible without the support of two people: Minister Deron Bilous from the Government of Alberta and Dylan Jones, Deputy Minister for Western Economic Diversification and the Government of Canada, and I would like to thank them for their leadership. Because, together, we worked to design a program that would double our efforts in foreign markets, and Glen and his Trade & Investment team were able to produce more than double the results for our city and region – so we would like to thank you. (Applause)

The journey we all were on over the last five years has changed our trajectory forever. And when you change your trajectory, you get noticed a little bit along the way. Canadian Geographic Magazine voted us Canada’s Top Winter City, National Geographic listed us one of the Top Summer Places to Visit, and we are listed as one of Travel & Leisure Magazine’s Top 50 Destinations in the world and Airbnb last month now lists Edmonton as their third highest global growth destination. Edmonton is ranked #9 amongst the Top 10 Global Sports Cities, ahead of Melbourne and right between Tokyo and New York. And our culinary food scene was frequently recognized, with Air Canada awarding 3 of their Top 10 restaurant honours to us in 2017. That little bowling pin strategy was working, and we were all well on our way to achieving an “A Confident and Progressive Global Image.” And then the phone rang.

It was October 21st – this past year. The call was from the head of Resonance Consulting, a global firm that ranks The World’s Best Cities and City Brands based on six detailed attributes – place, product, programming, people, prosperity and promotion. This is the Holy Grail of our industry, the list we all want to be on. They’ve never ranked Edmonton before, but we knew they saw us win a place branding award in London in 2016 and they saw us do a keynote address in New York in 2017, and we knew there was growing interest. When the phone rang to let us know we were on this year’s list, we were delighted, but we actually went into damage control, seriously going into damage control, thinking the first year we surely would be 98th, 99th or 100th and our critics would be all over us for not doing our job. Then, the next day at 10:00 am our time, 5:00 pm in London, the list came out … and there we were, debuting at #60 right between Bangkok and New Orleans – the perfect spot for Edmonton. (Applause)

Five years of effort, 1.3 million people in our marketing department, and this, folks, was a big day for your city, and the entire Edmonton Metro Region.

It is key for us to understand that the articles and rankings didn’t judge us on a single slogan or ad campaign. Instead, they judged us on who we are, as Edmontonians, as a unique collection of people on this particular bend of the North Saskatchewan River, on the sum of all our parts.  Those from away, who come here and write about us or assess us to rank us, see something special, even though we don’t always see it in ourselves sometimes.

At EEDC, every member of our team believes it’s time for Edmontonians to embrace our collective story, with pride, with confidence, and maybe even with a little swagger. Maybe, through something like this.

As we look forward to the year ahead, there is much to be excited about and an equal amount to be nervous about. The overall economy is experiencing an uptick, but interest rates are now following close behind. The price of oil is above $62, but local producers of Western Canadian Select are still getting $25/barrel less. Our rig count is back to pre-recession levels, but profits down the value chain have yet to follow. Unemployment is starting to come back, now down to 7.5% but Edmonton’s unemployment rate is still 32% higher than the Canadian average.

Regardless of those ups and downs, our private sector businesses are marching forward.  We have more Edmonton-based companies than ever before selling into China, India, Japan and Korea. We have more Edmonton-based companies than ever before investing in new technologies. We have five condo towers and two hotels looking to put a shovel in the ground, and groups like Edmonton.AI wanting to create 100 Artificial Intelligence companies in the next two years. That’s one company a week – who will help fill our surrounding office towers as they grow and expand. We also have tech companies graduating out of Startup Edmonton and the Telus T-Squared incubator every month, healthcare companies to be graduating out of the Merck Accelerator at TEC Edmonton and a new cannabis incubator coming on stream in the months ahead.

The low Canadian Dollar continues to be a boon to our exporters, and it will continue to drive tourism for our region. We have another Red Bull Crashed Ice coming in early March. Tom Ruth and our partners from EIA have a new daily direct flight to San Francisco on Air Canada starting May 1st. And, of course, Len Rhodes and his team will be bringing home the 106th Grey Cup in late November.

But, if you think we can just walk into the next five years thinking the world’s your oyster, thinking we can just sit back and enjoy the ride, you are gravely disappointed. Growth opportunities will be hard to find, and the competition has never been as fierce. Growth will require a new level of risk that will make many existing businesses uncomfortable. Growth will require investment in new technologies, new people, new markets and new programming languages like Lisp or Prolog or Python. And that’s traditionally been uncomfortable territory for many of our business owners. And when we rely on great investment firms, like our partners Deloitte, to navigate our way forward.

The new normal will be anything but static. It will be fiercely competitive – competing against every other city on that Top 100 list with lower cost structures, lower tax rates, less regulations, faster approval processes, better demographics, more density, better market access, more direct flights or higher levels of hunger that accompany their entrepreneurism.

And that will bring about a test for our city. As the price of oil is driven higher and higher by emerging market demand and geopolitical instability will restrict supply even more, the question ahead for Edmonton is: Will we choose to play as a confident and progressive Top 60 City in the world from here forward?  Or, will we go back to our complacent ways when the next oil boom starts, which will likely be within the next 12 months?

Regardless of the price of oil, if the world GDP is growing at 3.4%, then we need to be growing at 4% in order to be gaining market share – and gaining market share needs to be our collective mindset.

If gaining market share is our collective mindset, and Edmonton is growing at 4% per year, it’s amazing how it changes how we talk, how we plan and how we make decisions. If companies, our population and our GDP is growing at 4% a year, we would double the size of Edmonton in less than 20 years. What if we told that to the world?  What if we told that to Air Canada? What if we told that to Nordstroms? Or Red Bull? Or Google?

Four percent is a mindset. Gaining market share is a mindset. Being the Capital City of Alberta is a mindset. Overtaking Calgary to become Canada’s 4th largest city is a mindset. People want to be part of something that is exciting, that’s growing, that’s winning. People want to be a part of a city that is rising in the rankings, home to the top university in the country, the best hockey team in the NHL, and the greatest opportunities for our youth.

A 4% mindset, changes the way we do projects, finance projects, and the timelines in which we complete projects because we need to get those people and that capital freed up to start working on the next project. It’s a mindset. It changes how we think about density and transportation and parking. It changes how we do procurement. And, it changes the way we use technology because everything we do needs to be smarter, faster and cheaper than we do today, and much better than it has ever been done before.

For five years, I’ve stood at this podium talking about complacency, technology change, emerging market change, demographic change, environmental change and the need to put ideological differences aside and achieve compromise in order to grow, not spend or cut, but grow our way out of the current economic predicament.

I understand that sometimes these ideas are uncomfortable. But I took this role with the goal of increasing the prosperity and wealth of Edmontonians, increasing & investing in initiatives that grow our economy, improving our competitiveness and building the Edmonton brand. And I will always challenge those initiatives and policies that do otherwise, in this role or the next.

It’s nice having a 5-year plan and an end date, as it motivates you to get things done. In that time, we doubled the size of EEDC. We took a budget of $32 million and grew it where next year it will be almost $70 million. We now employ over 1100 people. Our work delivered almost $200 million in economic impact last year, up from $126 million four years earlier when we first started measuring impact  – that’s over 9x return on every City of Edmonton tax dollar we receive – all while reducing our reliance on the City of Edmonton tax dollars and tax levy from 48% when I started to what will be 25% next year.

Five years ago, my Chief Operating Officer Derek Hudson and I set out to redefine what an economic development agency is capable of doing. We brought in an entrepreneurial culture and set out to accomplish what “that former mayor on the curb” challenged us to do, to build an organization that had the strategy, knowledge, processes, tools and culture to compete and win.  Our Board Members over the past five years, gave us the courage and encouragement to go make you, the community, proud. And through the process, we created an organization that is now considered to be one of Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures. It’s been an incredible journey.

The Executive Team we built – the people on the screen deserve so much credit, as they are the best team I could have ever asked to be a part of. We have laughed together and cried together many times. We have experienced the full economic cycle, political cycle and relationship cycle that comes with the work we do – the highs and the lows.

But every single day, these people, and the 1100 people that work alongside them get up every morning knowing they have been given a unique responsibility, a responsibility to build a city that is remarkable.

The EEDC that is here today is better than we found it, and I can proudly say that you, the business community, are in very good hands.

It has been my absolute pleasure to serve.

And I thank you, very much. Thank you.

Brad Ferguson
President and CEO
Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *