Sheri Somerville is Chief Executive Officer of Atlantic Chamber of Commerce (ACC), the largest accredited business association in Atlantic Canada representing more than 16,000 businesses through its network of 93 chambers and 25 corporate partners. Sheri is globally certified communication professional with more than 21-years of multi-sector business experience, and partners with her members to influence an environment in Atlantic Canada where business succeeds. A proud Atlantic Canadian, she is passionate about influencing growth and prosperity for business and people in the region.
A successful entrepreneur, leader and award-winning PR consultant to some of the nation’s leading companies, Sheri took the helm as CEO in 2017. Since then, she has created a chamber vision to serve the next generation of Atlantic Canadian businesses, cultivated new sources of revenue, spearheaded new programming, enhanced governance and operational productivity, levered strategic partnerships and collaborations, and elevated the Chamber’s corporate reputation and membership as she works to shape and support a strong and resilient chamber network for the future.
Prior ACC, Sheri founded Pure Symmetry PR Inc. serving clients from across Eastern Canada; held leadership roles at the Association of Consulting Engineers (NB), the New Brunswick Petroleum Alliance/CAPP, MT&L Public Relations, Michelin North America (Canada), and the Ontario Centres of Excellence; as well as gaining her professional foundations working for leading PR firms in Toronto and the private sector in Montreal.
What are some of the programs the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce offers to SMEs to help them grow?
Historically, many people perceived that large companies employing hundreds of people dominated the business landscape in Atlantic Canada. But the reality and our future promise depend on entrepreneurs and small business owners who truly are the driving force in the Atlantic economy. Of the 78,000 businesses in Atlantic Canada, nearly 98 per cent are small (with less than 100 employees) and at the same time provide 75 per cent of our region’s employment. The same holds true for the Atlantic Chamber and our network of 93 Chambers where 90 per cent of our growing 16,000+ membership are entrepreneurs and small businesses—a number only expected to increase as new technologies emerge and our ability to access global market opportunities expands.
As local community builders, the primary goal of Chambers of Commerce is to support the business. And as the business landscape and composition changes, so too does our network. Our Chambers deliver core programs (e.g., advocacy, networking, benefits, and information) and they are continuing to evolve as they develop and offer responsive programs and services to support our Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurs and small businesses.
A significant benefit of belonging to a Chamber is their local presence and ability to tailor solutions specifically to meet the needs of entrepreneurs and small business in their community and the region. For example:
- The St. John’s Board of Trade has launched programs like the #InvestStJohns, ConnectorNL (with satellite offices in Gander and Corner Brook), and Climate Smart programs for entrepreneurs and SMEs
- The Eastern PEI Chamber offers a 50 per cent discount to new business start-ups who participate in the Skills PEI program
- The Annapolis Valley Chamber has a Young Business Leaders Committee to actively change the local narrative on opportunities and spark connections between young professionals and entrepreneurs to facilitate the growth of small local businesses
- The Greater Charlottetown Chamber operates the PEI Connectors program to serve immigrant entrepreneurs by connecting them to the PEI business community
- In Bathurst, the Chaleur Chamber of Commerce operates a Hive Incubator space to provide connections and free workspace to budding entrepreneurs
- In Fredericton, the chamber supports Start-up Fredericton by coordinating and promoting networking and other initiatives of entrepreneurs and students with aspirations of starting, acquiring and growing a local business
- The Pictou Chamber opened the ChamberHub community workspace for local entrepreneurs and members
- In Truro, the Chamber partnered to create the Truro–Colchester Partnership for Economic Prosperity (TCPEP) which is helping increase business startups, support business growth and innovation, and workforce development, attraction and retention.
Within our network of 93 Chambers, there are as many examples of entrepreneurial and small business support mechanisms as there are Chambers. But what’s unique is our network connectivity is we share ideas and best practices with one another to help everyone evolve and strengthen the entire Atlantic Canada business network. If you want to do business or develop partnerships in Atlantic Canada, simply connect with your local Chamber. They will facilitate connections for you through the Chamber network. It’s the common thread that gives strength to our economic fabric. Chambers are dedicated to supporting business success in their community and Atlantic Canada—it’s the power of our network.
What are some of the initiatives that you’re hoping to put in place that can be beneficial to Canadian SMEs?
We are very excited to be launching our newest Affinity Program to Chamber members in September that is designed specifically to help entrepreneurs and small businesses in Atlantic Canada succeed. We’ve partnered with Canada’s leading online entrepreneurship training provider, GoForth Institute, led by Dr. Leslie McGeough, to offer their online training to our entire Chamber network of 93 Chambers and we are calling it. GoForth with The Chamber. This training will see participating members receive vital business skills education in marketing, finance, accounting, operations, people development, government compliance, growth strategies, funding sources and more.
This is very exciting for the Atlantic Chamber and our network because this online training program has delivered real results to its participants with more than 90 per cent of entrepreneurs using this training remaining in business two years later—that’s 20 per cent more than the national average.
Watch for our launch of GoForth with The Chamber because this training, along with the many other benefits we offer—like a group health insurance and savings on everyday business needs—delivers significant value for membership to small business owners and their employees.
ACC is also working with our national network and local funding agencies to help Atlantic businesses gain access to CyberEssentials by reducing the cost of assessing on-line vulnerabilities and developing protection mechanisms. This program will protect and certify businesses while increasing SMEs attractiveness to new global clients.
The Atlantic Chamber of Commerce recently released a 2018-2020 Strategic Plan. Can you give us more information about how this will help businesses in the Atlantic Provinces?
The Atlantic Chamber is quite unique in Canada in that we’re the only regional Chamber and represent four provinces. And while each province has some distinct characteristics, as a region we have a common goal of bringing growth and prosperity to the area.
We are an organization born of the need to represent and support our Chambers and Boards of Trade and the more than 16,000 businesses and 25 corporate partners within the network. Our concerted, collective efforts centre upon the goal of contributing to the creation of and sustaining a strong, vibrant and growing Atlantic Canada.
To this end our strategic plan focuses on the three priorities to ensure continued business support and achievement of our goal: (1) impactful policy development and advocacy to help create or improve conditions for business success; (2) engaged members and partners to ensure a strong network of support for local businesses in Atlantic Canada; and ensuring (3) a strong, sustainable organization that continues to provide support and influences a positive environment where businesses succeed.
From advocacy to events to professional development and beyond, these priorities drive and guide all of the activities and programming we provide in order to continue to contribute to an improved foundation for business success in Atlantic Canada.
For example, in an effort to educate and increase understanding for our members, last year we partnered with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council (APEC) to provide a practical guide to help businesses understand and navigate U.S. trade uncertainty with respect to potential NAFTA scenarios—of great concern to business given our region’s proximity to and greater reliance on trade with U.S. markets and customers.
How is the ACC helping startups in the Atlantic Provinces?
ACC and our members continue to work with Atlantic Governments to identify and address regulatory and trade impediments that limit the growth of new businesses. We continue to push for efficient compliance processes and support for easy access to information on government funding and regulatory requirements. A critical piece of our advocacy includes a call for a comprehensive public review of the federal and provincial taxation systems to decrease complexity and increase fairness.
If you were to compare the businesses of the Atlantic Provinces to the rest of Canada, what would be the differences as far as their business needs are?
The needs of businesses in Atlantic Canada are on par with the rest of Canada in terms of the need to increase business investment and support, competitiveness, workforce strategies and regulatory effectiveness—these are common themes nationally. But each year we survey our members to assess their priorities for the region and then develop our policy priorities based on their feedback.
What we’re hearing over the last few years while Atlantic Canada is considered one of the most desirable places to live and economic growth is on a positive trajectory, the region continues to lag well below national averages. Our businesses are looking to work with governments to reduce the public debt; to reduce red tape and implement predictable and reliable government services; create positive investment and job creation climate, and to help improve access to workers through immigration and other retention strategies.
Atlantic Canada is somewhat unique in that a market of about two million people is governed by four provincial governments, adding to the regulatory complexity of doing business in our region. We are further challenged by a much higher proportion of our population residing in rural communities, adding to the cost of transporting goods, servicing clients and providing private and public sector services.
Because of our highly rural population component and historical development of our natural resources, Atlantic Canada has a proportionately higher percentage of seasonal businesses and employment opportunities in the tourism, fishing, and forestry sectors. This reality creates a challenge for many employers in accessing seasonal workers for low wage and low skilled positions that are critical in the development of these sectors.
Given the uniquely high proportion of small business and entrepreneurs driving the Atlantic economy, it is critical we work together to establish conditions that create an optimal playing field for their success—these conditions are set in motion by communities, government, and the Chamber as well. We all have a role to play to ensure growth and prosperity in the region.
Do you believe that the businesses in the Atlantic Provinces contribute greatly to the Canadian economy?
Every province, every business and every person have a role to play in sustaining and maintaining the Canadian economy. The four Atlantic Provinces accounted for about six per cent (roughly $113.4 billion) of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016. We have several dynamic sectors (tourism, forestry, energy, natural resources) as well as new and developing sectors (bio-technology, cyber security, agri-foods and aquaculture) in the region and we serve as an important gateway to the international market. Atlantic Canadian businesses play a critical role in contributing to success to the country’s socio-economic conditions.
Atlantic Canada is:
- A primary supplier of seafood products and supplier of over half the global demand and providing export revenues of $2 billion
- A national transportation hub with easy air and sea access to global markets, proximity to the US seaboard, and several of the largest trucking firms in Canada
- Recognized as a centre of excellence in the development of ocean technology
- Due to the small population and geographic size, the region is an excellent policy pilot location where new programs can be tested, as for example, the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program.
What would you say are some of the challenges that the businesses in the Atlantic Provinces face and how is the ACC helping them?
Two of the biggest challenges facing business in Atlantic Canada center on certainty and talent acquisition and retention.
An essential component of running any business is the ability to predict costs and timelines with some degree of certainty. Any sudden change or spike can be extremely detrimental to business sustainability. Of course, businesses recognize that governments must provide regulations, but finding the balance that cultivates an attractive investment environment is critical in Atlantic Canada.
The other primary challenge right now is attracting and retaining new people and talent to the region. It’s hard to understand why Atlantic businesses can’t fill job vacancies when our region has some of the highest unemployment rates in Canada, but the reality is we need skills that are not always available in our existing workforce and improved housing and transportation in our rural communities.
ACC is front and center advocating for the reduction of red tape and improving the predictability and efficacy of government services for business. We maintain close relationships with our elected officials and provincial governments so that we liaise with them on key issues affecting business. ACC and its member Chambers also participate in working groups and often issue statements, letters and positions on any number of red tape issues. Key to this is capitalizing on the insight provided by our four Provincial Advisory Committees (PACs)—comprised of Chamber staff and business members from across each province—who keep abreast of current issues and changes in their Province.
ACC is also working closely with governments and post-secondary institutions to help attract and retain talent and improve immigration rates through schools and by promoting the Atlantic Immigration Pilot (AIP) to employers. Most recently, we partnered in an experiential learning pilot with the Government of New Brunswick, the NB Business Council and Mt. Alison University that helped students connect with businesses in the region. We have continued our involvement through to the new FutureReady NB program that is now in place. Similarly, ACC engaged with the community colleges in the region to provide insight surrounding the recruitment and retention of international students within the college system.
Of course, there are many programs and activities that exist throughout Atlantic Canada to address these key challenges, as they say, ‘many hands make light work’, and our team at ACC welcomes any opportunity to be collaborating, provide insight, or to facilitate connections where they’re needed.
What is the best resource that ACC provides to SMEs to help them grow their business?
Quite simply, the Chambers and Boards of Trade themselves.
When I was in university doing my business degree, the Chamber was the automatic ‘go-to’ place for information or connections when it came to business. So of course, I was a member of many Chambers throughout my corporate life and as an entrepreneur. But the Internet changed that and provided new access at people’s fingertips. For some, the Chamber has become less of a primary resource in the face of instantaneous availability of business information. But many chambers are adapting their communications strategies to become more accessible and relevant to today’s connected population.
When I first took the helm at ACC a few years ago, I was surprised that many of the young people or young professionals I spoke with had either never heard of a Chamber, or if they did, didn’t know what one does (I suspect they Googled it after speaking with me though). But despite how we connect electronically today, business, by and large, succeeds through relationships. Building those requires face-to-face connections to build trust and become known to people is just one of the Chamber’s strengths.
The Chamber is a very relevant and vital resource—whether it’s for students looking for their first job, entrepreneurs or SMEs seeking to expand their client base or network of peers, large companies building their reputation within a local community, or for newcomers trying to do all of the above—simply because of the depth and breadth of programs and services we offer.
The beauty of a Chamber is that it is driven by its people in the local community and therefore, the unique needs of their businesses play a large role in determining what the Chamber offers. But the Chamber can also draw upon resources and expertise of the larger network provincially and nationally where needed. The large percentage of Chamber members in Atlantic Canada are small businesses who offer a variety of products and services. The Chambers typically offer support in the form of advocacy, networking, information and savings, but they will add programs and services in response to the specific needs of their members and community.
I highly recommend connecting with your local Chamber to see all that it has to offer.
What advice can you give to Atlantic SMEs to help them succeed?
You know there are probably a number of perspectives on this, but based on my own experience in the private sector, as an entrepreneur and now with the Chamber network, I would say don’t wait until it’s too late or be afraid to ask for help.
No matter how capable we are or how many years of experience we have going into it, it’s tough to do it alone. Being able to recognize that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ is a strength, not a weakness.
And that’s the wonderful thing about Atlantic Canada and the Chamber network, the tremendous community of support and advice that is available—all you have to do is reach out, connect, and ask. Chances are somebody knows someone who can help you or has been where you are before.
Of course, this is my shameless plug, but reach out to us or your local Chamber team. Whether you’re just getting started and need a network of like-minded entrepreneurs; or trying to scale up and access new clients or other small business owners who’ve been where you’re at; or even looking to transition a business because you may retire, your Chamber team can help.
While small individually, the collective impact of our small businesses is essential to our prosperity. Our aging, slow growth population presents additional challenges when compared to central and western Canada, but Chambers of Commerce (and governments) are vitally interested in assisting startups and scaleup companies achieve success. Resources and supports exist, so entrepreneurs should connect with the government to ensure they maximize the funding and skills development programs that are available. The creation of the Business Navigator Service in Nova Scotia is an excellent example of government recognizing the need for and devoting resources to facilitate new business creation.
You only have to #maketheconnection.
What would you say are the three success factors that all SMEs should have to grow their business successfully?
A strong network, proven sales and the ability to adapt when things change.
Building a network of likeminded entrepreneurs and small-business peers, mentors and coaches can give you the sounding board you need as you get started or when you are scaling up. Many will tell you that as your network grows so do your resources, so it’s critical to build a strong network. If you don’t have one, reach out to your local Chamber to help to with making new connections.
Sales are critical and they really are the validation that’s necessary to prove your product or service and to provide the revenue to keep you going and growing. A chamber can help connect with customers as you build your network and can be another key tool in your lead generation toolbox.
Adaptability continues to be a key quality among successful entrepreneurs and small business owners. Markets change and do so rapidly. It’s important to understand your market, be aware of any changes and be ready to act because those who are open to and ready to pivot tend to remain competitive and relevant.