For generations, strong leadership has driven Winnipeg’s thriving economy. From developments in new areas of the city to revitalizing those needing a boost, local entrepreneurs have stepped up to ensure Winnipeg is the place to be for generations to come.
When Eastside Group of Companies launched in 1978, independent industrial manufacturers in Winnipeg weren’t front and centre on the global stage. Thanks to networking, and of course quality product, the landscape has shifted in favour of Manitoba businesses.
“You go to events and you meet people and that brings attention to the manufacturing,” said Chad Brick, Eastside’s President. “I’ve heard it a few times that they’re like, ‘Ah, you’re Canadian. You Canadians always do what you say you’re going to do.’ I get a lot of pride when I hear that because it is very true. That transparency and trust goes a long way. That’s been the foundation of a lot of our growth. We don’t try and be someone we’re not.”
The family-owned business exports products throughout North America and Brick said that Eastside’s work is seen on many prominent vehicles, some in high-traffic consumer areas.
“If you ever go to New York and take the subway, the outside of that subway train is covered in Eastside parts,” said Brick. “We’re big into the ag sector, so MacDon, Buhler—all their outer skins on their tractors are Eastside products and you see those all over the world.”
It’s that long-standing reputation of quality work and craftsmanship that keeps Winnipeg on the map.
“There’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit here,” said Brick. “A lot of people are just really handy. If you can’t buy it, then make it. There’s a lot of problem-solvers, there’s a lot of ingenuity.”
One such problem-solver is Tribal Councils Investment Group of Manitoba (TCIG). It recognized the need to reduce waste around the world so the company discovered a way to help cut plastic use and preserve the land. Over the past five years, TCIG has focused on building a group of companies: the Spirit Healthcare Group of Companies.
“We now have over 20 products,” said Heather Berthelette, TCIG’s CEO. “Going forward, our PPE (personal protective equipment) will be made from compostable material. Thanks to our partnership with PADM Medical, these products will be much more environmentally friendly. Our landfills are really filling up with all the plastic and the pandemic has even increased those numbers by quite a bit.”
Berthelette noted this is the first time an Indigenous company has been “at the economic table in healthcare products.”
She continued, “We’re playing with some pretty big players, and hoping to brand 50 more products this year. We are truly a Canadian company with 100 per cent Indigenous ownership right here in Treaty 1 territory.”
Building on solid relationships
“It’s an incredibly tight-knit community and one that we’re very proud and fortunate to be from and operate in,” said Shea Robinson, President & CEO of ROBINSON, a distributor and retailer of plumbing, electrical, HVAC and lighting products. “It’s a community that you can draw upon the vast experience from your neighbours. I believe that having the variety of industries that operate within the city has fostered the business community to become one of the best-regarded business communities in Canada.”
Robinson’s grandfather founded the company 85 years ago and “we tell Winnipeg’s story continuously.” Shea noted, “there’s a willingness within the community to make Winnipeg a better place to live and to work,” outlining the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“I believe that as business leaders in our community, we’ve got a voice and we’re in a position to help bring education and awareness to important community matters,” said Robinson, pinpointing efforts with Canada’s truth and reconciliation and the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities. “We do what we can to support a more positive, inclusive community.”
Having to adapt in the wake of pandemic shutdowns and most recently with supply chain shortages has prompted businesses to rely on strong working relationships across all sectors. As Eastside’s Brick explained, however, the business scene in Winnipeg is competitive and that benefits companies like Eastside who don’t view competition as a bad thing.
“We’re buying from the same vendor that our competition is buying from just to make sure we have that much more negotiating power,” said Brick. “We try and spec the same materials sometimes so that if I’m out and they have some extra, or they’re out and I have some extra—we’ve done lots of that, even pre-pandemic. Trying to make Winnipeg better and more competitive doesn’t mean we have to be competitors.”
As with most construction businesses, Concord Projects had to make adjustments to its operations in light of supply chain concerns. While some moves were meant to be temporary, many stuck because the new benefits outweighed previous advantages.
“Supply chain issues are a real challenge,” said Nolan Ploegman, Concord Projects’s President & CEO. “Lead times are much higher. It’s forced us to really look at where things are coming from. Can we source in Canada? Does it have to come (across) the border? What are the lead times? A lot of proactive planning is going on today than maybe ever before.”
Ploegman outlined one example where utilizing local relationships ultimately maintained the integrity of a construction project when the company couldn’t rely on its usual supplier.
“Steel joists were a major issue this past year with supply availability and price,” said Ploegman. “The original supplier had given us a really long lead time where the joists weren’t going to arrive until after we thought we should be done the project. It became a real dilemma. We partnered with one of our local steel partners and ended up hiring a local structural engineer. We ended up designing the joists ourselves, not buying them from the supplier and we worked with our trade partner for them to fabricate those joists in their shop and turned an eight-month lead time into a three-month lead time.”
Both the pandemic and supply chain issues forced companies to reevaluate how they interact with their clients and maintain a positive customer experience. For Qualico, a leader in homebuilding, land and commercial development, property management, and building material supplies, it introduced new technologies and communication tools for its customers.
“We utilize technology today in a very different manner to engage with and interact with our customers,” said David Eggerman, Qualico’s Regional Vice President. “We now have an online sales concierge service where customers can interact with a live agent on the other side of their computer, their text, their phone at a time that’s convenient for them.”
At some points, social distancing and provincial health regulations made it difficult for customers to visit a show home and tour the property as they once would. Qualico focused on the digital experience as consumers flocked to the internet to do their research from a distance.
“We pride ourselves on having one of the top reputations in the city,” said Concord’s Ploegman. “Relationships and reputations go a long way in a market like Winnipeg. That just speaks to how you treat other people. You’ve got to be fair and treat people with respect. When you know everyone and there’s history together you can figure out that one problem because you want to keep working together on the next project. Those relationships, they help us the most during times of adversity.”
Location, location, location
Manitoba is home to one of the largest Indigenous populations in Canada. With First Nations territories throughout the region, Winnipeg was the ideal central location for TCIG to maintain its regional operations and serve the province’s seven tribal councils.
“Winnipeg is on Treaty 1 territory and there is a large Indigenous population that is ready and able to do business,” said TCIG’s Berthelette. “Indigenous businesses are well structured, competitive and set up to do great business, to make great partnerships. Winnipeg is a pretty big, small town. It is nice to have those doors easily accessible. There has been some incredibly strong leadership in some of the bigger corporations in Winnipeg.”
Wawanesa, a mutual insurance company founded in 1896 in Wawanesa, Manitoba—200 km west of Winnipeg—is proud of its roots and excited for its continued growth in Manitoba’s capital.
“Our roots are essential to who we are as a company,” said Graham Haigh, Wawanesa’s Senior Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer. “We often say that one of the things that sets us apart is we deliver small town service in a big city industry. We find that attitude present in Manitoba as a whole.”
While expanding in Canada and the U.S., Wawanesa continues to grow in Winnipeg. It operates out of six buildings in the city and is currently building a new North American headquarters in Downtown Winnipeg’s high-profile True North Square.
“We are committed to this city and to employing a growing talent base in Winnipeg,” said Haigh. “We hope to be able to convince more young people and young families that Winnipeg is a place to grow your lives, and we’re going to give them a good opportunity to work here. We are in our 125th year of operation and not many companies can say that. To still be based in the province that we were founded in is important for us.”
The True North Square project, a mixed-use retail, office and residential complex, drew the attention of many business leaders in Winnipeg and the first to sign as a tenant was Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP (TDS), Manitoba’s largest independent law firm.
“They needed an anchor tenant to attract other tenants and other investment, and TDS was proud to be the first organization to sign a lease,” said Mark Howe, TDS’ Director of Business Development and Client Relations. “We wanted to be part of the revitalization of downtown. We wanted to be part of this transformational project. We’ve been in there over two years now and the building is completely full and it’s the place to work.” Howe added, “At a law firm, the people are the product, and since moving to True North Square, TDS and the firm’s clients have benefitted from record talent attraction.”
Howe noted that TDS has long supported Winnipeg’s Downtown and the True North Square development was the perfect opportunity to continue that commitment. In recent years, the area has seen substantial growth from the local business sector to draw more people to the heart of the city.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had half a billion dollars of private investment going into Downtown Winnipeg for one project,” said Howe. “And now the rest is history.”
Colliers, one of the world’s largest commercial real-estate firms, has identified what makes the city thrive.
“The great benefit of Winnipeg is it is a central hub as it relates to distribution across the country,” said Dan Chubey, Colliers’ Managing Director. “Going down into the U.S. and being very much rail-connected through all major centres in North America. Whether that’s in technology, manufacturing or distribution they are looking at Winnipeg as a great place to invest. From a geography perspective, we have that benefit going for us.”
Outside of manufacturing, the Winnipeg business community was concerned about the use of office space in the downtown area and throughout the city with many organizations implementing work-from-home arrangements for employees during pandemic lockdowns.
“We are seeing a heightened focus around the office footprint and what that looks like,” said Chubey. “For companies that are going to stay in their current space, they’re rethinking either how their space looks today, how to attract and retain talent, whether or not they actually need to create more space to ensure that their employees can maintain social distancing.”
In the end, Chubey is confident that most businesses can find a home—and success—in Winnipeg.
“We’re open for business for any industry, in any company,” said Chubey. “I can find solid, tangible reasons for them to invest in our city—from the geographic benefit to our very diversified economy, which has been a contributor to our long-term, stable growth.”
Commitment to community connection
The pandemic has shifted how people communicate for business and in their personal life. Rogers, one of Canada’s leading telecommunications companies, has committed to keeping communities connected with its reliable technology and people-first approach in a number of ways including:
Rogers provides devices as critical support and essential digital lifelines to women’s shelters, regional Pflag Canada chapters and local organizations to keep youth connected to mentors.
Rogers for Business and Peguis First Nation collaborated to advance the region’s infrastructure with new tools and solutions to connect community members and provide them more economic opportunities for their respective businesses.
“We know the importance of connectivity and continue to invest in our networks across Manitoba, from large cities to rural, remote and Indigenous communities,” said Larry Goerzen, President of the Alberta and Prairies region at Rogers. “Networks are the backbone of the digital economy, supporting businesses and driving prosperity in Winnipeg and across the province.”
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