The B.C. Chamber of Commerce head calls on business to stand up for resource development
Think chambers of commerce are stuffy? Meet Val Litwin. The youngest-ever president and CEO of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, who succeeded John Winter last September, brings energy and entrepreneurial chops to his role. In 2007 the Victoria native co-founded Blo Blow Dry Bar, which now has almost 70 locations in three countries. Litwin went on to become VP of North American operations for Nurse Next Door Home Care Services and CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.
What does the B.C. Chamber of Commerce do?
Our purpose is to know what’s on B.C.’s mind. We have an incredible track record of listening to our members, understanding where the choke points are and working collaboratively with government to remove that red tape, to make business easier. But our most core value proposition is we have 36,000 members. Knowing what’s on their mind—that’s consultation, that’s making sure we capture good data to drive better-quality insights to government, our partners and each other. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about driving economic prosperity and ensuring we have more livable, vibrant communities.
How do you plan to change things?
We’ve got a couple of jokes in the chamber network. One is that the network is maybe stale, male and pale. Of course, that’s not entirely the case on the ground because we have real diversity, and women in senior leadership positions. It’s a bit of an old reputation we need to shake.
I think now, given the marketplace and where membership organizations are at, it’s time for us to innovate. What I’ve heard from our members is tapping into a younger entrepreneurial audience is important. Our network is saying we should do more for and be more to our First Nations business communities as well. One of the exciting trends I’m seeing is more and more First Nations people sitting as directors on our regional chambers and boards of trade.
You recently commissioned a member survey. What did you learn?
Ninety-two per cent of our members said their business is in acceptable, good or very good shape—which is a pretty stunning result, and I don’t know that you would get that reaction from even our neighbours or elsewhere in Canada.
Almost four out of five businesses said they expect to grow, which again is incredible. Thinking about where some of that growth is going to come from, we see a real awareness in British Columbia that international trade is now a huge opportunity for everyone. It’s not just for big business. Even that little ski-and-snowboard manufacturer in Whistler is asking, “How do I get my products into Korea?”
How do B.C. business owners see their place in the world?
B.C. is seen as a unique place, which has all sorts of exciting brand implications if you’re thinking of taking your products outside of Canada. We’re associated with quality, the great outdoors, unique products. We’re one of the best places to do business in Canada—that was a theme that came out of the survey as well. Our governments are seen as pro-business, but the provincial government ranked at the top of the heap above the federal and local levels.
You say that red tape is still a big burden for business. Isn’t strong regulation important?
Absolutely. For an economy to be successful, you need rules, and you need terms of reference to make sure there’s a level playing field….The red tape we want to remove is the common-sense stuff that makes business easier and is good for the economy.
How big an issue is the north-south divide in B.C.?
Typically the 604/250 dichotomy has revolved around this notion that our resource wealth is generated in these northern communities or rural communities, but then it’s the centres that benefit but maybe aren’t appreciative of the prosperity. But as a network, one of the values we can bring to the larger business community is this message of “We’re all in it together, and we understand that we’re all connected.” We need to all stand up and support some of these terrific resource development projects that are being considered right now.
What do you say to the many people, including members of the business community, who oppose pipelines and other resource projects?
We have to appreciate where our wealth and prosperity currently come from, and how that wealth generation is going to play a big part in our future prosperity. But I would also say to those that are against these projects or have concerns...and the facts bear this out: we have one of the most robust, thorough and accountable environmental assessment processes on the planet.
How would a change of government in May affect the business environment?
Businesses want certainty, but they also want you to remove obstacles, and the party that does that is, I think, the party that will be best for B.C.
What’s your outlook for the provincial economy?
We’re leading in economic growth, very low average unemployment, balanced budgets for the last five years. So we’re poised, but there is a medium-term window where we need to stay focused. We need to make sure some of these key energy projects get approved. And Donald Trump appears to be pouring gas on the economic fire in the U.S. But that could also accelerate the approach of the next U.S. recession.
So if we’ve perhaps got a couple of years to capitalize on this outstanding moment we’re having, and of course the American economy is a huge influence on ours, my message would be it’s time to seize the moment.