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Chamber of Commerce sessions in Sudbury seek to bring small business concerns to the table

Power, labour crunch affect business
Sudbury Chamber of Commerce president Debbi Nicholson (at left in background) provided a series of forums for local small business owners to speak their minds about obstacles they face in running their companies.

Small businesses in Sudbury have been feeling ignored.

This much was made clear during summer sessions run by the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce as part of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s “Small Business Too Big To Ignore” campaign, launched in May and wrapped up in September.

The Sudbury Chamber held four sessions over the summer to give local businesses with 100 or fewer employees a platform to discuss obstacles they have faced in recent years, and potential solutions.

“I think it’s about having their voices heard, and having the development of a more pro-business co-system,” said Andre Dumais, a session chair and the business development manager at Black Rock Engineering.

Employing nearly three million Ontarians, and often supporting big business, the Ontario Chamber argues that small businesses need more support from the province.

The sessions focused on the top three obstacles to small business success that were highlighted in an associated Ontario Chamber report: a lack of access to the workers they need, key infrastructure gaps, and the rising cost of doing business.

“We’re a small business in the context in that we do a lot of business startups. We’re like Dragons’ Den in real life,” said participant Gilles Lebeau, vice-president of Milman Industries.

There are other bureaucratic and operation barriers as well, said Lebeau.

According to the Ontario Chamber report, electricity costs have increased from 4.7 cents to 18 cents per kilowatt hour since 2004, a 383 per cent increase. Lebeau said that energy costs are his biggest concern, and one that came up often in the session he attended.

“Even if you’re a hairdresser, they’re really concerned about the energy costs,” said Lebeau. “We have a lot of projects that people come to us to look at, and I’ve refused to look at them because they have an energy requirement. We won’t even look at it anymore, and that’s bad. There are a lot of potential jobs that just don’t get created.”

Lebeau said electricity isn’t the only potentially prohibitive cost associated with doing business. He pointed to other costs like a rising minimum wage, WSIB fees and property taxes. Accessing or navigating these systems was also a burden, he said.

“One of my fundamental rules of business is overheads kill small businesses. That hydro bill each month is an overhead. They’re already being choked by a bunch of other things because you can’t control that,” said Lebeau.

Lebeau said other attendees echoed his sentiments, and he hopes the provincial government will see their feedback as a chance to improve their services for small businesses.

“It was interesting to see you’re not alone. When I was sitting in that room, I realized I’m not the only one having serious problems,” said Lebeau.

Attendee Melanie Morin, president and CEO of StaffStat, said that one of their major challenges is finding suitable employees, reiterating the Ontario Chamber’s emphasis on the issue.

StaffStat relies on software professionals, but a Cambrian College course that equipped locals with these skills is no longer running, and it’s been noticeable to Morin.

“I would say, with us, it’s very specific because the program is no longer available at Cambrian. We have limitations,” said Morin. “When you’re looking for individuals to come in and work, there tends to be a sense of entitlement.”

Morin and Lebeau both said that Northern Ontario Heritage Fund (NOHFC) and FedNor funding does help offset some of the labour issues they face, but Morin said it’s not enough.

“In terms of solutions, we talked about funding being available to Northern Ontario companies. It’s limited and geared towards very specific things and services. There’s very limited funding we can access ourselves,” said Morin.

“The ideal would be an understanding of what our struggles are, just really understanding that we are definitely different, but that we should have access to the same kind of funding and same kind of dollars as bigger businesses,” said Morin.

Now, participants are hoping their words don’t go unheeded.

“The Chamber is pretty good at getting the voice out there, but whether it falls on deaf ears is not up to me,” said Morin.

The feedback from Sudbury and other participating communities will be featured in an OCC report to be released during Small Business week in October.

“I think because it’s a provincial endeavour it’s very significant. I don’t dare say the Sudbury voice will be the top voice, but what excited me is that the threads that come out of these dozens or hundreds of sessions are going to have some weight,” said Dumais.