Resilience is the Waterloo way
August 22, 2013 Communitech
Over the last 30 years, since our family chose to move to Waterloo Region, I’ve spent a fair bit of timing telling others around the country why this region is so attractive.
After all, any newcomer, on their first drive around the Region’s streets, usually discovers finding their way around can be a challenge. Yet that first impression easily gives way to other, more valuable discoveries.
Who can argue with two great universities, a leading-edge college, economic and cultural diversity, a drive to work that takes only minutes, low cost of living, lifestyle, real estate prices, a great community…in any particular order. And that’s how we saw it back then, in the mid-1980s, before we even came here. It not only helped bring us to the community, but convinced us to put down roots and stay.
Through 15 years chronicling business at The Record, then 12 years handling national media and public relations for Manulife’s IPO and various business ventures, there’s been plenty of opportunity to move, but no need to look elsewhere.
We chose Waterloo Region coming in from Western Canada, where I was reporting on the Prairies’ multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry and leading a Regina newsroom team covering the Colin Thatcher murder case. Our oldest of three sons was born in Regina, yet both of our families have roots in southern Ontario dating back to the late 1700s, including to when Kitchener was known as Berlin. So the next step after our son was born was initially to find a job closer to home and our families.
Looking at eight newsrooms in Toronto and across southern Ontario, this area quickly shot to the top of the target list, for some obvious reasons. After first accepting a job with The Canadian Press in Toronto, two days later, we chose Waterloo Region instead.
This area offered some very clear advantages in the mid-80s, but a closer look at the location, economy, culture and resiliency here made it even more attractive at the time.
Names like Seagram, Labatt, Schneider and Electrohome were household brands, all with a major local presence. Hugh Sloan Jr., famous for his testimony through the Nixon Watergate hearings, was president of Kitchener’s Budd Canada.
When we arrived here in 1984, I quickly heard about a number of entrepreneurs growing businesses from one-man shops. Frank Hasenfratz at Linamar, Klaus Woerner at ATS, Val O’Donovan at COM DEV were a few shining examples of business founders building ideas into powerhouses. (I’ll never forget that very first chat with Frank, trying to convince him to do his first media interview, long before Linamar went public and became the major employer it is today.)
Around that time, Research In Motion, OpenText and others also were just beginning to put a new stamp on this region for decades to come with their high-tech innovations and leading-edge teams.
If we look around today, there are a full range of homegrown ventures (Desire2Learn, Sandvine and many, many more) mixed with global players who know Waterloo Region’s ability to produce top innovators and business builders.
When our local economy did head south, and at times it did, it wasn’t for long. Today’s recent turmoil at BlackBerry is only the latest hurdle to be met, following much broader declines of the local manufacturing and brewing industries once so deeply rooted here. Yet this region historically transcends its challenges.
The difference now is that this area offers a far wider range of advantages and support, most notably much deeper synergies between its universities, college, business, start-up communities, innovators and investors, all pushing to build the next national and global ventures.
It’s fitting that today’s Communitech Hub, for example, is based in the former Lang Tannery building, once the largest tannery in the British Empire. The tannery business itself has been long gone for decades, but the building’s current occupants hold the same kind of mission – to launch some of the strongest companies in the world – and not just one.
Visitors today who take their first steps into the Hub, the Waterloo Accelerator Centre or other many centres of this region’s economic backbone, can feel the energy and focus from several generations of innovators and investors. Mentors and successful businesses of all types, all within their sight range and easy reach, give them and this region a massive advantage.
If there’s anything that this area has shown over the decades, it’s been non-stop resilience and innovation – and a focus on finding even better solutions when the chips are either up or down.
Giving birth to businesses is nothing new to Waterloo Region. And the rebirth, and how quickly they happen here, is something to behold.
Tom Nunn is principal of Tom Nunn Strategic Communications, which he set up in 2011 with clients across Canada in a range of business sectors, including high-tech, finance and real estate.