Chris O'Neill has one mission he hopes to achieve on his homecoming as the new country director of Google Canada: he wants to get Canadian businesses up to speed in taking advantage of the internet.
Despite having great digital literacy, Canadian companies still haven't realized that an increasing number of their customers are online and that the internet can help them grow their businesses internationally, says O'Neill, who was born in Toronto and grew up mainly in Goderich, Ont.
The first task on his agenda will be to meet with senior business leaders to find out what their needs and issues are.
"Canada is one of the most wired countries in the world … there's a great opportunity for businesses to think differently about digital and the web in general," he says.
"The internet is where things are going to be if they're not there already, and Canadian businesses need to anticipate that and get there. It does take a while to really embrace the internet and really figure out how you can use it to transform your business."
His views echo those of other Google executives, including president of global sales operations and business development Nikesh Arora and chief financial officer Patrick Pichette — a fellow Canadian — who have both recently expressed dismay over Canadian companies' slow move to the web.
O'Neill acknowledges that Google's views on Canada may ultimately sound self-serving given that much of the company's income comes from selling ads online, but the argument applies whether it is involved or not.
The internet is 'where your customers are'
"To be a relevant company today you really need to have digital capabilities and really understand what the internet means because that's where your customers are," he says. "You could take the word 'Google' away but that message still stands up."
O'Neill, 37, comes to his new role after several sales and operations roles with Google in the United States, most recently as retail industry director there. He spent most of his youth in small-town Ontario, where his father managed a Canadian Tire store, then attended the University of Western Ontario.
O'Neill got his business degree at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and moved to the United States in 1998, where he worked as a management consultant and at HSBC.
He joined Google in 2005 and now replaces Jonathan Lister, who has moved on to social-networking site LinkedIn, as Google Canada's country director. O'Neill will be based in Toronto and oversee the firm's operations in Montreal, Ottawa and Waterloo, Ont. Google has about 150 employees in Canada.
Along with Pichette, O'Neill is a member of the C100, a non-profit organization based in Silicon Valley devoted to boosting Canadian technology and entrepreneurship. The group mentors and provides contacts to Canadian companies in an effort to get them more exposure internationally.
The most effective way of building Canadian success stories, O'Neill says, is by creating a strong culture of innovation within a company. That's what will ultimately keep talented Canadian workers from migrating to bigger technology companies in the U.S.
"You really have to surround people with a culture that really fires them up. You have to create a culture that celebrates innovation and lets ideas thrive," he says.