B.C. business council report targets province's 'lacklustre' reputation

Vancouver is suffering from a "lacklustre reputation as a business centre" and needs to attract more head offices, according to a new report from the Business Council of B.C.

Province should market itself to attract corporations, not just tourists, say experts

A new report from the B.C. Business Council says Vancouver has the potential to attract corporate head offices. ( Canadian Press)

Vancouver is suffering from a "lacklustre reputation as a business centre" and needs to attract more head offices, according to a new report from the Business Council of B.C. 

"I think we're seen as a lifestyle jurisdiction by those who even think of us — and most don't," said Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president with the business council.

The council's latest report examines recent data from Statistics Canada and says "B.C. punches well below its weight" when it comes to the number of head offices compared to the size of its population and has fewer high-paying jobs as a result.

  • Alberta: 10 head offices per 100,000 people.
  • Ontario: eight head offices per 100,000 people.
  • B.C.: seven head offices per 100,000 people.

​Finlayson said the province hasn't done enough to make itself attractive to big businesses, which forms a foundation in the "corporate ecosystem" by then engaging smaller, related businesses and supply firms.

"If I was in government, I'd be spending less time worrying if we have an environment where somebody will start up a business in their garage — because we excel at that," he said.

"I'd be asking the question, how come we don't have more significant-sized companies?"

The B.C. Business council also says the province is doing more to attact tourist than large businesses. (CBC)

Problems include regional discord, cost of living

Finlayson said part of the issue is that individual cities work on their own instead of banding together to promote the whole region.

But the report also cites the Lower Mainland's high cost of living as one of the major impediments to attracting big businesses. However, it says early successes with initiatives like the Vancouver International Maritime Centre and HQ Vancouver have shown that those obstacles can be overcome.

Yuen Pau Woo, president of HQ Vancouver, also points out that leading business centres around the world battle against high housing prices.

"The high cost of living is relative. If you're playing in the arena for head office cities, then we don't have a high cost of living — we're not more expensive than London and New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Singapore," he said. 

Woo said Vancouver has the makings of a destination for corporate offices — including liveability, infrastructure, and talent. 

Vancouver even has one characteristic that could help it pull ahead: low wages. Although it's not an attractive quality for residents, it's potentially enticing for business. 

Most of the business council's report rings true to Woo, but he also points to other reasons why Vancouver has fallen off the map for corporations.

"We've become complacent because in the past 10, 15 years we've been riding the crest of a commodities supercycle that artificially increased incomes without increasing output," he said. 

Since that cycle has now come to a crashing halt, said Woo, provincial leaders may be lured out of their sense of security.

Major business centres like New York and London are more expensive to live in than Vancouver, says HQ Vancouver president Yuen Pau Woo. (Getty Images)

'I don't think we can play in that game'

But UBC urban studies professor Tom Hutton said Vancouver can't compete with already-established cities like New York and London.

"I don't think we can play in that game," he said. "I don't see any way that we can incentivize or leverage large multinationals in coming to Vancouver," he said.

Hutton said although Vancouver scores high on the liveability scale, larger urban centres have better infrastructure.

The concentration of corporate power has moved away from smaller centres like Vancouver to a small assortment of major cities because of globalization, Hutton said.

He suggested governments should focus on supporting the businesses already in B.C. by encouraging innovation and start-ups instead.

UBC urban studies professor Tom Hutton says B.C.'s lagging resource economy is one of the reasons why there are fewer corporate offices than there once were. (Getty Images)

With files from Lien Young