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Kapil Lakhotia: Helping Canadian SMEs Grow

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An Economist by training, Kapil was appointed President and CEO of the London Economic Development Corporation after several internal progressions. Under his leadership, the LEDC implemented a bold new strategic plan with a strong focus on workforce development, entrepreneurship as well as forming local national and international partnerships that drive London forward. Under Kapil’s leadership, LEDC has attracted significant new investments and job creation through the attraction of well-known businesses, including Maple Leaf Foods, Dr. Oetker, Arvin Sango, the Original Cakerie, and Natra. With an Honours degree in Economics from Western University and a Masters of Economics from the University of Waterloo, Kapil has over two decades of educational, professional, and voluntary experience, and also taught economics at King’s University College. He is also deeply involved in the London community as a member on the Fanshawe College Board of Governors, the King’s University College Board of Directors and the Canadian Centre for Product Validation.

As head of the London Economic Development Corporation, what are some of the plans and projects you have planned to help Canadian small businesses grow?

In London there are two big focus areas in the short to medium term:

Entrepreneurship development and workforce development. We mean that every business, regardless of its size, struggles with workforce capacity, especially SMEs that may not have HR capacities. We launch a series of workshops called the Momentum Series. This is targeting business owners that are trying to wear the HR hat as well but may not have the background in hiring or retaining talent.  We have experts running these workshops.

The other main focus is entrepreneurship where we’re developing several resources to target niche audiences such as newcomers and women.

The LEDC is the lead economic development agency in London, Ontario. What are some of the programs that the organization has that can benefit SMEs in the region?

In addition to the Momentum Series, there are two unique academic partnerships we have: with the Ivey Business School and with Fanshawe College.

With Ivey – we’re trying to link up SMEs with Ivey. A lot of these SMEs may not have the leadership skills on strategic topics and planning. So there’s a one day workshop run by Ivey to help entrepreneurs gain some knowledge and skills.

With Fanshawe College – they have a corporate training service program which assists SMEs with health and safety, employee training, and supplies them with various other tools as well. We’re trying to broker these relationships to companies in London, where they can have this type of training here at home.

We are running a food scale-up program – we’ve partnered with the London Small Business Centre. We work with SMEs who are in the food space. Often times it’s with entrepreneurs that have had a restaurant business in the family for many years and now they are trying to get their products into grocery stores. So we work on providing them with the tools on how to get into grocery stores, automation, distribution, health Canada requirements regarding labeling, etc.

We are also very proud of London and Area Works – this is a program where we’ve partnered with CTV London to host job fairs, to do regular features on growing employers so they’re visible to talent.

To help towards the growth and success of the business industry, the LEDC works in partnership with the government, the community and other businesses. How does these partnership works?

We have a unique model where we’re not with the City of London, however, we report to the city on our performance and future goals. This model has served us well – we’ve been doing it for 20 years. It’s kept us nimble and we’re constantly trying to improve.

What would you say are some of the challenges that small business owners are currently facing and how can LEDC help them overcome them?

I’d like to mention a personal story – my wife owns a small business and I have learned a lot from her experiences.

In my view, SMEs often struggle juggling so many different things at once. They might have technical expertise in their field but they may not be HR experts, or marketing or finance experts. They are constantly trying to manage a bunch of different roles. So how do they manage all of these different functions while applying their expertise in a specific way? LEDC understands that SMEs want to go to ramp up their businesses as quickly as possible. We realize we’re not going to make them accountants overnight but we can supply them the tools to improve the next day. All of our programs and workshops are there to help them achieve exactly that.

The second major challenge is that there’s a talent gap. SMEs are often not able to recruit properly when trying to grow. LEDC programs are designed to help SMEs overcome those gaps. We’re trying to put ourselves in the shoes of SMEs and how can we help offset those challenges.

One of the purposes of the LEDC is to attract new investors so they can contribute towards the growth of businesses in the region. What are some of the ways that LEDC is working towards creating new investment opportunities?

One of the big ways we deploy that is investing in industrial lands. The city of London owns industrial parks, and we use them to market London and we host site selection tours and familiarization tours with influencers and key decision makers. We have the right infrastructure set up here to attract new investment opportunities. Maple Leaf Foods was the largest food investment in Canada, and we are very proud of their investment and new facility in London.

Your current role requires you to be aware of any improvements in the region that can benefit the business industry. In your opinion, what is the number one improvement that can significantly improve the business community in London?

It’s something we think of a lot. This is not a one size fits all approach. Every business of different size and sector has different requirements. One thing that ties everyone together is the workforce because everyone has constraints regarding the workforce. And I believe this is not unique to London, Ontario, but globally. All of the programs and partnerships we have are designed to partner institutions with the workforce.

What is the best advice you can give to business owners who are looking to launch their business?

Entrepreneurship is a bit of a bug. People want to get started and take on the world. That’s fabulous but first; take some time to evaluate the landscape. People often don’t take the time to seek out the resources that are available through public institutions. The government spends the time to ensure such resources are available, so make sure to take advantage of it. This is my own experience in my family – my wife was ready to start her business and didn’t realize all the amazing resources that were available in the city.

The province of Ontario is one of Canada’s top provinces when it comes to starting a business. Why do you believe that is? What sets Ontario apart from other Canadian provinces?

One is immigration and newcomers. Ontario is one of the lead provinces to attract newcomers, especially in the southwestern Ontario area in the GTA. Newcomers bring unique experiences and perspectives on growing their businesses. These individuals make bold decisions and are willing to take risks to be entrepreneurs.

Our location relative to the US border is the second reason. The geographical location helps various industries because it’s easier to distribute products south of the border.

What are some of the business trends that you’re seeing in the region at the moment?

We’re currently enjoying an economic boom in the London region, when looking at GDP growth, unemployment numbers, and other traditional metrics. We’ve just passed 1 Billion dollars in construction permit values. It’s a milestone number. London has historically not been close to 1 billion dollars. This comes from every sector which adds up towards that construction value.

On a final note, what’s the biggest accomplishment that LEDC has had so far?

Last year was our 20th anniversary. We’ve been very proud of all the businesses we’ve been associated with. We’re extremely proud to have had a role in landing unique investments in North America. The single biggest accomplishment is the single business investment which was Maple Leaf Foods – 1500 jobs, 640,000 square feet facility. Given the scale of the deal, we are very proud of it.

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