Business report shows optimism

If there's one consistent trend running through the City of Prince George's 2018 Business Insights Report released Thursday, it's a relentless can-do attitude, centred around a strong belief that the economy is generally good (could be better but could be much worse) and that future prospects for growth are also positive.

That's both the blessing and the curse of a report that conducts an in-person detailed survey with the managers and/or owners of 47 local businesses. By their very nature, business people are cheerfully optimistic, even when facing significant downturns in revenue and customers that threaten the long-term viability of the business. Their faith in their hard work, drive, knowledge and ability to adapt to changing market conditions makes them resilient to pessimism. Like elite athletes, business operators are too busy competing today and planning for tomorrow to have much time to dwell about yesterday's wins or losses.

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Take the report's questions regarding ownership change.

While 70 per cent have had the same owners/managers over the past five years, 30 per cent have seen a change. Of those 14 survey respondents who went through an ownership change, not a single one saw that change as negative, while 10 saw it as positive, two were neutral and two didn't respond.

In other words, if local business leaders have bad news to report about their own businesses, they say nothing, especially to someone conducting a survey.

Still, the business insights report offers some intriguing perspective on local trends.

Nearly two-thirds of the businesses surveyed (64 per cent) only have one location, "making them dependent on the local business environment," the report states. Unfortunately, the report's authors didn't seem to ask follow up questions to see if their conclusion is really the case. In a global economy where goods, services and expertise is less and less dependent on location and more on unique specialization, it would be interesting to find out how many local businesses have little to no reliance on the regional market because the majority of their clients in Southern B.C., Alberta or even further afield.

On the flip side, the fact that more than one-third (36 per cent) of local businesses have other locations clearly shows diversification and broader market connections. Those businesses have the luxury of developing internal best practices and being able to collaborate on bigger projects with their affiliates than the stand-alone operations.

Also on the positive side of the ledger, 90 per cent of respondents don't foresee an ownership change in the near future. While the report's author were pleased with the "stability" this offers, that result speaks even louder about overall confidence in their business, as well as the prospect of these individuals remaining in Prince George and contributing to the community's social, economic and cultural well-being.

The best news in the report regards employment.

More than half of the businesses surveyed (53 per cent) added staff over the past three years, a significant improvement over the 2016 response (31 per cent) and the 2014 response (29 per cent).

This result also lines up fairly well with the 69 per cent of respondents in 2016 who said they expected to increase the number of employees in their business over the next three years while also demonstrating the overconfidence and boundless optimism business leaders commonly possess and project.

One somewhat alarming but not that surprising finding was the difficulty local business leaders are having recruiting and retaining good, qualified employees.

Prince George's unemployment rate has been low for years, which forces employers to offer as good or better pay and working conditions than their competitors or risk losing them. So it shouldn't be too startling to discover that 59 per cent of respondents said they had unfilled positions at their businesses. It's better to leave positions unfilled until the right candidate comes along than to fill the post with someone whose lack of skills and training will be disruptive to the workforce and potentially turn away business.

Followup questioning was needed here, as well, for more context.

Are unfilled positions solely due to the inability to find the right workers or are there other reasons, such as internal restructuring, hiring a contractor to take on those duties, reducing the hours of that previously full-time position to part-time or a reluctance to fill the position due to market uncertainty?

Yes, the report has its obvious shortcomings, from a small sample size to the exclusion of the public sector and resource development industries, which together employ 34 per cent of the city's labour force.

Nevertheless, the report's findings reveal most local business owners and operators are devoted to Prince George and region as a place to live and pursue their goals. It's these individuals that form the bedrock of any community and carry it through thick and thin.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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