Edmonton economic boss bids adieu, touts bolder approach to business for the city

The head of Edmonton’s Economic Development Corporation says business and governments need to be bolder to move the economy ahead.

'You can never take your foot off the gas,' says Brad Ferguson

Edmonton Economic Development Corporation president and CEO Brad Ferguson encourages businesses to take risks and look to global markets. (John Robertson/CBC)

The head of Edmonton's Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) says business and governments need to be bolder for the region to prosper.

Brad Ferguson, in his final speech as the president and CEO of the EEDC, said the business community should aim for four per cent growth instead of the two per cent projected by economists.

"Four per cent growth is a mindset," Ferguson said Tuesday at the Shaw Conference Centre.

"When someone like the Conference Board or someone like that comes down and says, 'Edmonton's going to grow at two per cent' ... it just deflates everyone."

Ferguson told a crowd of 1,100 people at the EEDC's annual luncheon that businesses can't afford to be complacent.

"The new normal will be anything but static," he said. 

"You can never take your foot off the gas, you need to continue to reinvest in that because you've got everyone else wanting to eat your lunch." 
Brad Ferguson is stepping down as president and CEO after five years at the helm of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation. (CBC)

Mayor Don Iveson lauded the EEDC for being a critical player in pushing Edmonton forward.

"Everyone's united around a more confident idea of what Edmonton is," Iveson said.

Going global

Ferguson's last speech included an admonishment that growth will require risk that will "make many existing businesses uncomfortable."

He said 85 per cent of Alberta-based businesses currently get 100 per cent of their revenues from Alberta. He said businesses need to start exporting to Japan, Korea, China and India. 

If you're born with a silver spoon ... this probably isn't your kind of place.- Edmonton Eskimo Mike Reilly

"That's going to make people uncomfortable because you actually have to get on a plane and go there again and again and again in order to build your business in different places."

Ferguson said the EEDC is encouraging businesses to hire people who speak foreign languages.

"We're still working on the mindset of Edmonton-based business owners to take that risk."

The risk of going global, he said, has paid off for companies like Siwin Foods and Sunterra, which have doubled their volumes into the Asia market over the past three years.

Iveson supports the idea of selling products to overseas markets.

"That export mindset — travelling to other markets, building those relationships — that's critical, that resonates with me."

Beyond oil

Ferguson also wants the region to resist tying its economic future to oil prices, which he believes will rebound this year.

"The first downturn, the first time oil goes below a certain price, you know, we get down on ourselves, and we can't."

He said the city is resilient and needs to become more confident in its investments. 

"We need to start constantly thinking about growth going forward, as opposed to getting nervous about when the next downturn comes."

Iveson said he wants Edmonton to continue diversifying its economy and support leading-edge companies. 
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson supports the idea of encouraging more businesses to sell to overseas markets. (CBC)

"This more soft economic period has actually been very conducive to the growth of companies in other sectors who don't depend directly on commodity prices," he said.

Iveson is worried a sharp spike in oil prices will hurt the new industries.

"If that starts to crowd out our health tech sector ... the growth of something like the Google DeepMind lab because we've become cost uncompetitive and too volatile again, that would be problematic."

Final nod

Ferguson took some credit for supporting and encouraging entrepreneurs such as Startup Edmonton and TEC Edmonton during his five years at the helm of the EEDC.

Ferguson's final keynote address included a video voiced by Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly. 

"If you're born with a silver spoon and want to sit on the beach all day, this probably isn't your kind of place," Reilly said.

Ferguson is stepping down March 30 but hasn't said what he plans to do next. The EEDC board will choose a new president and CEO to succeed him.



Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.