There used to be an old commentator on U.S. radio namded Paul Harvey who became famous for his And Now the Rest of the Story segments. He would tackle some intiative from a new angle and provide insight that no one else bothered to consider.
I always think of Harvey’s segment when I hear some government official pontificating about the success of an economic development initiative like, for example, when the former Prime Minister of Ireland spoke recently about the Irish economic miracle in a speech in Saint John. He waxed on and on about the cooperation and the support of unions and industry and the marshalling of all government officials behind the initiative.
And I was left thinking about the rest of the story. The story behind the story.
In my mind, I have this romantic notion of a few key leaders getting together in the late 1960s in some Dublin bar with copious amounts of Guinness with a vague idea that would change the world as they knew it. They set the stage – declining population, shrinking industries, low incomes, depressed attitudes, intransigent unions. Then they hammered out ideas about how they could transform the Irish economy. Finally, one bright young idealist (remember this is my romantic notion of the thing) suggested that Ireland could become the back office for Europe. The gateway for business in Europe. Call centres, accounting centres, development centres, regional offices. Ireland would attract some of the top global companies to set up on the Emerald Isle.
And it worked. It took 20 years and an aggressive shift in attitudes, unions, the education system, and government itself – but by the mid 1990s, Ireland was leading the world for foreign direct investment.
What a romantic idea. A few leaders with a powerful vision transforming a way of life.
In our own way, we had a mini-version of that through the 1990s (until it was truncated in 1999). McKenna’s vision was to turn New Brunswick into North America’s back office. Call Centres, accounting centres, customer service and ultimately software development and higher end jobs. During the 1990s, an estimated 10,000 jobs were created as a result of this initiative. For this vision, he was named Canada’s Economic Developer of the Year.
After Frank, many others took credit for this initiative. NBTelers. Government leaders. Local leaders.
But there is another side of the story. A side never mentioned in the press or acknowledged by the politicians.
You see, Frank came into power in 1987 with a notion to attract business to New Brunswick. He knew that you could not grow an economy without significant external investment (note to current government) but, what most people don’t know is that he had very little success until 1991 – four years after he started.
Around 1990, a little known economic developer working for the provincial Department of Economic Development (or maybe it was called Commerce and Technology) named Kevin Bulmer was looking around. He was evaluating how other provinces and states were tackling this issue of turning around an economy.
There was a major, structural change occuring that would profoundly influence Kevin and ultimately set the stage for 10,000 new jobs in the province. Telecommunications deregulation in the United States was leading to more competition which was driving down costs and leading to significant new innovations. This telecommunication paradigm shift was also occuring (although belatedly) in Canada.
Omaha, Nebraska had become the ‘call centre’ capital of the U.S. (although that term wasn’t used) promoting its central location which made it the ideal for mail order distribution and for taking/making calls.
Kevin saw, before everyone else, the emergence of 1-800 numbers, the massive decreases in costs and the new emergence of the telephone as the tool to facilitate customer service and transactions. He began to socialize the idea of New Brunswick becoming the next Omaha of Canada. With its bilingual workforce, good telecom infrastructure and ample available workers (12% unemployment), New Brunswick, if promoted heavily, could attract dozens of top shelf global corporations.
And he was right. Frank McKenna grabbed this idea by the horns. Legend has it he made 30 cold calls a day to major corporations in North America. Legend has it that Frank had a suite on reserve at the Royal York because he spent so much time in Toronto pitching CEOs.
And the rest, as they say, is history – literally. Just when Frank was getting his stride in the mid 1990s, the media (led by our friends at the T&T) started a deliberate campaign to force Frank to quit. He had once said that a Premier should only stay in power for 10 years (after the 17 years of Hatfield). The media dusted off this statement and ran story after story until the day that Frank quit – almost exactly 10 years after he started as Premier.
At least he had the integrity to stand by a promise (more than I can say for some) and he has been handsomely rewarded in his post-politics life.
But I digress.
The rest of the story is this. A guy by the name of Kevin Bulmer had an idea. That idea exploded into the single most impressive job creation effort – directed by government – in the province’s history.
My question is this? Who is sitting around the cafes and bars of New Brunswick today and envisioning a province that can attract the best global companies to help us rebuild and grow new industries? Certainly not NextNB. I have read almost every word coming out of that think-down-the-tank and besides a blantant push for more UNB funding there is not much good there. Where then? Some are calling for more immigration. Some are calling for more R&D. Some are calling for more tourism.
Where’s the next big idea? Is it e-Learning? Will New Brunswick become the world leader in electronic learning with thousands of developers creating multi-lingual content for the globe? Not likely. Just ask Rory McGreal who was NB’s e-Learning Czar in the 1990s. He left a few years ago, totally frustrated, and now is developing the e-Learning industry in Alberta. Is it forestry. Chuckle, chuckle – this doesn’t need an explanation. Is it aquaculture. Let’s cross our fingers, but…..
Where’s Kevin Bulmer when you need him?
He’s around and maybe, if we get lucky, he’ll have another transformational idea.
Somebody buy that guy a drink.