Advice is cheap; good advice is precious. Go stand in the business section of a bookstore sometime and stare at the endless shelves of productivity gurus and management experts. Yes, there are a few smart ones. But there are far more promising easy solutions, The One Thing, or The Art of Possibility or The Doodle Revolution. (The blurb for that one asks: “What did Einstein, J.F.K., Edison, Marie Curie and Henry Ford have in common?” Apparently it was not genius or discipline.) I’d be more inclined to join this doodle uprising if the author’s credentials didn’t lean so heavily on her giving a TED Talk that has one million views. Read enough business author bios and you’ll see that TED gets name-dropped a lot. It seems giving an entertaining public performance is often all that’s required to pass muster as a management expert.
My recent job shift—I went from deputy editor of Canadian Business to editor-in-chief—prompted a little reflection on this topic. How can we offer strategic insight without indulging in platitudes? I found an answer as we pulled together this issue.
All of us at Canadian Business spent months reviewing applications for the PROFIT 500, our annual ranking of the country’s fastest-growing companies (indeed, our indefatigable senior editor Deborah Aarts has been living these rankings since last November). We ultimately sort the companies based on their five-year revenue growth, but the research extends far beyond balance sheets. Each applicant completes a questionnaire about not only their financial outlook but also their human resources, marketing and growth strategies. For most, we follow up with interviews. And all of this information lives in a single file, used to decide which companies deserve a spotlight.
Given the depth of information, these dossiers can be dense reads. But, combing through the pile, I found plenty of smart strategy. Toronto’s EB Box Co.—which makes packaging for frozen dinners, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and bakeries—saw its competitors as too concerned with boxes and not worried enough about the needs of their customers, so it developed a more personalized ordering process. Concord’s Dependable Mechanical Systems, which works on massive infrastructure projects like the new aircraft hangar at CFB Trenton, found a way to use cloud computing to make their workflow run more efficiently. Alongside these practical strategies were glimpses into the motivations and mindsets of the entrepreneurs themselves.
My favourite bit of wisdom came 18 pages into our file on Cypress Solutions, a wireless hardware maker in Burnaby, B.C. It builds communications equipment for police forces and gas companies—important stuff, if short on sex appeal. I paused when Casey O’Neill, the company’s president, described his firm as a “16-year-old startup” to our interviewer. “To succeed in business, you need to find an opportunity, fill it well, and then everything else falls into place,” he said. “It might take 16 years.”
You need to be tenacious, said the man who succeeded through tenacity. O’Neill won’t ever deliver a TED Talk, but his story is a case study in success. And this special issue contains 499 other stories like his: companies with great ideas, brilliant strategies and elegant solutions to complex problems. That’s how we can talk about business without indulging clichÃ© and vague theory. We can talk to the people and companies who have pulled it off. They have plenty of good advice.
James Cowan is the editor-in-chief of Canadian Business and PROFIT.