Toto, we’re not just in Alberta anymore.

Metropolitan Edmonton’s medium-and-larger-sized companies are moving with breath-taking speed into markets outside continental North America.

Figures tracked by the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation tell the story.  

Excluding national gas/oil producers (but including energy sector service providers), 500 to 600 regionally-based companies are now actively selling products and services in China.

Between 1,500 to 2,000 are selling in China and other countries outside Canada and the USA.

We are right in the middle of “globalizing” the attitude and business practices of our small-to-medium-sized companies.

About 10% of Edmonton’s smaller “export-compatible” companies are shipping containers off-shore by truck, train, boat and plane. Following the lead of Edmonton’s internationally active construction companies like PCL, Stantec and Clark Builders, service companies are sending consultants/project managers out around the world to provide made-in-Alberta expertise.

“Those numbers may be the tip of the iceberg,” suggests former Chamber of Commerce Chair Carman McNary and local managing partner for the international Dentons law firm. “Most Edmonton businesses are privately owned (i.e. not traded on stock markets), so they rarely publicize business activities. International deals today are so common as to be hum-drum.”

Dentons held a big party at the Shaw Conference Centre this week, to announce its upcoming merger with the 41-office strong Dacheng law firm of China, and to bring home the new global reality we all live in.

Dentons-Dacheng will create one mega-law firm with offices in every major city in Europe, North America and Asia.

It’s a move which makes the process of “going international” less strenuous for Edmonton businesses. “The biggest business challenge in China is ‘who can I trust’” says international business advisor Hubert Lau. “The Denton-Dacheng deal means your lawyers here are also over there. It will make getting into China much faster and much safer. A smaller Edmonton company can enter China with far less fear.”

What do Edmonton firms have that the Chinese want?  Not only products, but quality and trust, says Hubert.

Hubert works with Edmonton’s ViewTrak Technologies, which makes an electronic pork grader “probe”. The probe swiftly measures each carcass for fat and lean meat thickness, meat percentage and class. 

The ViewTrak probe has become the de-facto quality standard for Chinese pork, used to grade 50 million pigs butchered in China last year. 

“I asked some of ViewTrak’s top Chinese customers, ‘why don’t you just copy the technology, and make your own grader probes for one tenth the price?’ says Hubert. “They replied ‘Because your probe is trusted. You are not buying or selling pork in China. It’s made in Canada. We trust its quality and objectivity.’”

It’s a two-way street, of course. Edmonton’s China links have been strengthened through trade missions, city-to-city special relationships, above all Chinese students past and present who have built cultural, business and financial investment bridges.

No matter what, a decision to test foreign markets can’t be taken lightly.  There’s trust, market suitability, cultural challenges, regulations, taxation, intellectual property protection, currency fluctuation, and so on. “You have to have cash reserves,” points out EEDC’s Michael Lam. “A shipping container from Edmonton to Shanghai will take 35 days or more. Nobody gets paid until the container arrives.”

Today, every early innovative company in town with serious growth ambition has to be thinking about export readiness.  “To build any kind of significant company, products have to be designed and built with international markets (and regulations) in mind,” says TEC Edmonton business incubator/accelerator CEO Chris Lumb. To that end, TEC Edmonton is launching international business programs for early-stage companies. 

“We’re past the cusp, we’re past the tipping point,” says Denton’s McNary. “Five years ago, of 100 Edmonton business clients, three or four would be looking at non-North American markets.  

“Today, 95 of those 100 are either exporting or preparing to export.”   

Sidebar:

From strictly local to pan-global – the evolution of Edmonton law firm Milner-Steer

1912 – Milner Steer, a local Edmonton law firm, is founded.

1991 – Milner Steer merges with Calgary firm Fenerty Robertson to become all-Alberta Milner Fenerty

2000 -  Milner Fenerty merges with other Canadian city law firms to become cross-Canada Fraser Milner Casgrain.

2010 – Denton Wilde Sapte of Great Britain merges with American Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal to become SNR Denton

2013 – SNR Denton, international law firm Salans and Fraser Milner Casgrain merge to become Dentons.

2015 -  Dentons merges with China-based Dacheng  to become Dacheng Dentons with 6,600 lawyers in 120 offices in 52 countries.