On the cusp of a seismic change in world economies, British Columbia must update and improve its infrastructure to solidify its position as the principle portal to the Pacific Rim, according to the chief executive of Canada's oldest retailer.
"We have to fix the entry and exit points to and from this region," says Hudson Bay Company (HBC) CEO George Heller.
"We have an infrastructure problem that desperately needs a decent (federal) and private- sector taskforce to review it in depth. And for God's sake, let's do something instead of just talking about it."
Heller spoke recently to the Vancouver Board of Trade (BOT) regarding changes in the manufacturing community since the removal of World Trade Organization quotas this year. He noted that the axis of the world's manufacturing capabilities has moved from Europe to North America and now to the Far East, which he sees as a huge opportunity for B.C. - if the province can only keep up with the demand.
"The centre of the world's manufacturing community is decidedly in the Asia Pacific region and it's growing," he said, emphasizing that Vancouver needs to strengthen its port and transportation infrastructure. "The volume will only grow and we are at capacity now.
"Currently, China is concentrating on exploring its productivity to feed its people and increase the standard of living. As it does so, it is creating the world's largest pool of potential consumers, who currently have little more than bare essentials," Heller said.
"The average industrial wage in China is currently $100 US per month, but (China could) put another 150 million workers into the mix and double the monthly income, all probable in the next five to 15 years."
Increasingly, local consumption will grow faster than exports as standards of living rise, he added. "The population of China is growing slower and aging faster than any other emerging nation due to their 'one-child' policy. B.C. can benefit from both (trends)."
And it's not just the ports that need to look to increasing their capabilities, according to Heller. He said the rail system and other surface-transportation networks will require upgrading to cope with the growing markets, as will distribution, storage and security.
He also called for an industrial strategy to add value to the raw materials Canada ships to these emerging markets. Even the tourism and hospitality industry did not escape his notice.
"One-hundred-million Chinese will travel overseas annually in the next 15 years," he said. "What are we doing to entice them?
"I love tourists," he added. "They fly in, leave their money and fly home."
Heller cited the 2010 Olympic Games as an opportunity for Vancouver's tourism industry to showcase this area to the world, and in particular to potential travellers from the Pacific Rim.
Heller's views on economics took on a golden glow as they were showcased alongside the announcement of his firm's successful bid to outfit Canada's Olympic athletes for the next eight years, ousting long-standing supplier Roots.
Immediately after the BOT speech, Olympic Committee (VANOC) CEO John Furlong joined Heller at a news conference to announce the new partnership with the Hudson Bay Company. Also on hand were Ryan Johnson, two-time Olympian and head coach of the Vancouver Freestyle Ski Club and Georgina Wheatcroft, curling bronze medallist from the Salt Lake City Games.
"The First Hudson Bay store opened in Vancouver in 1887," Furlong said in his opening remarks. "The HBC did a booming business outfitting prospectors for the Klondike Gold Rush. And now they will be outfitting Canadian athletes for the next eight years for a different kind of gold rush, a Canadian Olympic gold rush."
HBC will be official clothing and luggage supplier to the Canadian teams for the 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012 Games. HBC has also been designated as the official department store and merchandise retail partner until 2012.
As head of Canada's largest retail operation, Heller said he plans to bring Olympic merchandise to homes across the country from St. John's, Nfld. to Victoria. "And, frankly, who else can do that?" he said.
HBC's 500 stores include The Bay, Zellers, Home Outfitters, Designer Depot and Fields. He said he was already looking for Canadian designers and manufacturers to help supply the team. "I'm hoping to go back to work tomorrow and open up 1,000 e-mails from potential Canadian suppliers ready to support the games."
Heller is no stranger to the complexities of planning an international event. Before rejoining HBC as CEO in 1999, he was president and CEO of the Victoria Common-wealth Games from 1991-1994.
Furlong values the partnership with HBC at "well over $100 million," and said that HBC won the bid against its 12 competitors "resoundingly and unanimously."
He added that the relationship between The Bay and VANOC has been building over the course of the past year.
"It is more than making uniforms available to Canadians. HBC will touch absolutely everything to do with the Olympic Games. Yes, there will be athlete uniforms and volunteer uniforms, of which we need 25,000 or more," he said.
"Every sheet on the beds in the village, people, marketing, communications, souvenirs; if they have it, we now have it. The culture of the games will live inside the culture of the company as we work side by side for these games."
Furlong also made reference to the BC Hydro announcement of HBC's designation as B.C.'s first certified Power Smart retailer.
Power Smart certification is a designation reserved for energy-efficiency leaders in the province. Furlong cited HBC for its achievements in energy efficiency and commitment to the environment.
(Karen Dyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)