Lee Meister is back in Buffalo business.
The economic development consultant had been the state’s representative in the Toronto market for 22 years, until New York officials closed the Ontario office last April in a cost-cutting move.
Local development officials criticized the shutdown at the time, and the weakening of the region’s link to the Canadian market continued in the summer with the closing of the Canadian Consulate in Buffalo.
To help fill the void, the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise business development and marketing group hired Meister as its Toronto-area representative to give the region an in-person presence in the key Canadian market.
Meister, who is president of Austra Management in Markham, Ont., is working on a one-year, $70,000 contract, with half of the cost paid through a grant from National Grid.
Q: What does it mean to have somebody on the ground in Toronto?
A: You visit manufacturers, exporters, distributors. You’re a salesman right on the spot and what results is a comfort level where I, as a Canadian, can introduce the BNE and New York State and Buffalo. This is very important in building relationships and maintaining relationships.
Q: How do you work? Are you out knocking on doors and soliciting companies, or are you mainly waiting for them to seek you out?
A: It’s everything from direct mail to email campaigns to organizing seminars, going to trade shows, speaking to freight forwarders, accountants, customs brokers and lawyers who are in contact with manufacturers. It’s working with the Canadian government and the provincial government, which has a U.S. section. It’s working with communities, such as the City of Mississauga, the City of Markham. It’s working with trade associations, industry associations, trade magazines and people who are in contact with manufacturers.
Manufacturers are really our target audience, so I place top emphasis on being in contact with those manufacturers that are in export businesses. These companies are the ones that eventually want to establish a physical presence here in the Buffalo area. Buffalo is a great gateway into the vast U.S. market.
Q: Why do Canadian companies look to the United States?
A: Ontario alone has about 12 million people, all of Canada about 30 million. You take a manufacturer that employs 30 to 50 people, and they very quickly saturate the Canadian market. Their natural expansion becomes the U.S. From there, it then becomes Europe and the Far East. But the U.S. is the best market. Canadians are familiar with the market.
There comes a day when their customers come knocking and they say we need you nearby and then there’s a need for expansion.
Q: How has the interest in Buffalo and the United States changed since the recession?
A: There has always been interest in expanding into the U.S. market, whether the dollar is low or high or whether there is a recession or a boom. It gives you an opportunity, when the market is slower, to get organized on the other side of the border to get ready for the boom.
We have more than 100,000 companies stretching from London, Ont., to Toronto all the way over to Montreal. There are always companies that are at a point where they would be interested in expanding into the U.S.
Q: You worked with Welded Tube, which plans to spend $50 million build a new plant in Lackawanna that will supply pipe to the energy industry when it opens in August 2013. Tell me about your involvement.
A: Through our state marketing campaign, they received a letter and email. Welded Tube Vice President Robert Pike called me and inquired about how we can help. We started to discuss everything from immigration issues to incorporation procedures to site selection and banking requirements. I introduced the BNE to them. It took about a year. Foreign investment usually takes longer than domestic investment.
It’s a team effort. One person can not do it all. I identified the opportunity, but the BNE was the closer.
Q: Has the strong Canadian dollar made your job any easier?
A: If the Canadian dollar is stronger, it makes it cheaper for them to purchase a building or to lease a building. The manpower is cheaper because their assets are in Canadian funds. That’s one side of the coin.
On the other side, if the Canadian dollar is low, like it was when the Canadian dollar was around 65 cents, then the Canadian product is less expensive to U.S. buyers. That creates an opportunity for Canadian exporters. The more customers you have in the United States, the more reason you have to establish a presence there.
There’s always interest. Eighty percent of all Canadian exports go to the U.S. There are always firms that want to expand into the U.S.
Q: What’s the perception of the Buffalo Niagara region among the companies you deal with?
A: Canadians are familiar with the Buffalo area, and I think that’s a great advantage. The business culture, everything from the Buffalo Sabres to the Buffalo Bills. If you look at the parking lots at local shopping centers, you see nothing but Canadian license plates. It’s just next door, so proximity is very important.
From the business point of view, it’s a huge market here. Ninety-five percent of Canadian companies are small to medium sized, with 20 to 50 employees. But even ones with up to 100 employees like to manage their U.S. locations from Canada. They can get up in the morning and be here in Buffalo by 9 or 10 o’clock, spend their day working and still be back home in time for a family dinner.
Buffalo is really the gateway to the U.S. market and it’s a huge advantage.
Q: What are the hurdles you face?
A: Immigration issues, I would rank as No. 1. If you are a Canadian citizen and you want to operate a business in the United States, you have to have a visa. That’s the No. 1 thing you have to get out of the way, and it’s a lengthy process. The banking is a bit different. We have five or six big banks in Canada, here in the United States, you have more than 800 major banks, and banks are regional in nature.
My advice is that Canadian companies should always identify a professional who can help them. They have an accountant and a lawyer in Canada. They must have one in the U.S.
Canadians want to appear to be U.S. corporate citizens in the eyes of U.S. customers. Canadian companies can invoice their customers from their U.S. locations. That way, you don’t have to present your U.S. customers with Canadian documentation. In Canada we have bilingual French and English regulations, in packaging we have the metric system. When they deal with American companies, they want to present American paperwork.
Q: Any particular segment of the Canadian market that you’re targeting?
A: Ontario and Quebec mirror New York state as far as industry is concerned. We have the same type of manufacturing base that you do. They all are interested in the market here.