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The Drift: Region's mining suppliers exporting to the world

After a decade of work, more than 150 clients have completed the Northern Ontario Exports Program

Scott Rennie estimates that, back in the early 2000s, no more than a dozen or so Sudbury mining suppliers were regularly exporting their products and services outside of Ontario.

Twenty years on, that figure has rocketed to between 70 and 80 companies, and that’s thanks, in large part, to the success of the Northern Ontario Exports Program.

“We have companies in town that don’t even do work in Sudbury,” said Rennie, the program’s  advisor, who’s been involved since its inception.

“They’re almost 100 per cent reliant on their revenue from elsewhere.”

Now in its fourth iteration, the program – which began life in 2011 as the Mining Supply and Services Export Assistance Program – has been adjusted and tweaked over the years to meet the evolving needs of its clients.

But its core mandate remains to ready small and medium-sized Northern Ontario businesses to export their products and services to clients around the globe.

Funded by FedNor and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp., the program is an initiative of Ontario’s North Economic Development Corporation (ONEDC), which itself is a collaboration of the economic development corporations in Northern Ontario’s five large cities: North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Timmins.

Invest Sudbury, Sudbury’s economic development arm, operates the program on behalf of ONEDC.

The idea for the program emerged following the 2010 release of the Northern Ontario Mining Supply and Services Study, which was commissioned by ONEDC and conducted by the Ottawa-based consulting firm Doyletech Corp.

It found that the Northern Ontario mining supply and service sector annually generated a whopping $5.6 billion.

But half of the businesses in the sector were generating revenue from only two clients, a worrying lack of diversification that left them vulnerable to fluctuating metals prices.

The Northern Ontario Exports Program was introduced to help them expand their reach.

“For a lot of companies, the first step is not selling into Peru or Mexico or even the United States,” Rennie said.

“It might be Quebec; it might be Manitoba; it might be B.C. And once they’ve mastered that, then maybe they can sell internationally.”

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There are two streams to the program.

Under the Export Marketing Assistance stream, companies can apply for funding toward the cost of a booth rental at a trade show, translation services designed to promote their products in targeted markets, marketing and promotional materials, market research, among other activities.

Funding through the Customized Export Development Training stream can help eligible companies pay for sales skills development and coaching, cultural training for foreign market entry, marketing or sales gap analyses, and more.

New this year, the program is open to eligible not-for-profit organizations that serve the private sector.

One of its first clients is MineConnect, an advocacy group supporting the Northern Ontario mining service and supply sector, which is receiving money to establish an office in Elko, NV, where 10 businesses can set up shop and explore the market there.

Over the last 10 years, more than 150 companies have been through the program, some of them multiple times, Rennie said.

“What’s interesting is we still work with a lot of the companies in the program that we first worked with in 2011,” he said. “So we’ve kind of evolved with them.”

In early 2020, ONEDC earned provincial accolades for its efforts, receiving an Award of Excellence from the Economic Developers Council of Ontario in recognition of the program’s impact.

Later that same year, the organization received federal renewal funding of $1.6 million so the program could continue for another three years.

Since its early days, the program has expanded to serve a wider range of industries – software companies serving the health-care sector, craft beer brewing, paint manufacturing among them – but its “bread and butter” remains the mining supply and service industry, Rennie said.

To handle the growing volume of work, two more staff members have joined Rennie in this effort: Elena Zabudskaya and Kristen McKee have come on board as project manager and program coordinator, respectively.

Zabudskaya said she’s seen a particularly high enrolment rate during the pandemic and, as a result, all of this year’s program funding has already been allocated to eligible companies.

“They found that they’ve had time to strategize and see what they want to do when they come out of COVID-19,” she said. “So it’s been more popular than ever.”

There’s been a sharp uptake in companies seeking assistance in creating professional images and video for use in their marketing strategies, which often includes social media.

Though the request had been trending for the last several years, it became even more of a necessity during the pandemic, which limited travel and forced more companies to conduct business online, via virtual trade shows and sales meetings.

Zabudskaya predicts that digital business events, or a hybrid of virtual and in-person activities, will be the way of the future.

“To participate in a virtual trade show, you need those (photo and video) elements, and those aspects are here to stay,” Zabudskaya said. “So we’ve amended the programming to allow those elements to be eligible for funding.”

As the program moves beyond its 10th year, Rennie is especially interested in working with first-timers, and those that have made a few “lucky” sales outside the province.

These are the companies that have fielded a phone call or two from clients beyond Ontario and are now actively thinking about how to turn that into a more consistent, long-term revenue stream.

“You really do need a strategy,” Rennie said. “You really do need a plan to sell into export markets, and this program is a potential vehicle to assist companies in doing that.”