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Workopolis President Gabriel Bouchard Shares the Upside of a Down Economy

I met Gabriel Bouchard when he was speaking a breakfast session. I had one of those “eureka moments”. Here’s someone that gets how to engage our workforce and knows building your employer brand enhances the customer experience leading to an increase in revenue and profit. Gabriel’s passion comes shining through and for 13 years he has maintained his vision and actively promoted the need for employer branding to drive engagement – both employee and customer. I am thrilled to see that Gabriel is now President of Workopolis and is bringing his vision to life helping thousands of businesses across Canada attract and retain talent.

I talked with Gabriel late this summer. Below are his thoughts on business growth.

1. What is the number one thing you are doing right now to foster hope in your organization?

An expression we are using internally is “destination to our journey”. We are reinforcing the vision – what do we want to be 2 years from now. Focusing on what is happening in the business, although it is good, exploring what we could do right now to get us closer to that vision is critical; even though we are in an economic downturn. I had a conversation with a CEO from a big organization about how to manage human resources and financial resources in a tough economy. For the first time in my career, I truly realize how important it really is to spend time and effort managing our people’s mindset – with experience you know it won’t last forever and you will eventually get out of the bad economy. The one thing you want to save is the good people in your organization. You can afford losing C or B players but you don’t want to lose the heart and soul of your organization because the industry is going through a tough time. Our key people should know how important they are to the organization and will deliver on the long term vision despite the challenges brought by the current economic turmoil. For instance, we reduced costs like everyone else did but we did not cut employee recognition,training or social programs because we want to keep the spirit of the organization. That is the last thing we are going to touch – we believe it is important – we took a different route – we will keep these to keep our people happy and motivated.

2. Where are you still investing?

We are investing in improving the level of expertise of our sales organization. First we made sure we knew who our best sales people are. We know they are not as busy as they were a year ago signing contracts so we decided to invest that time on increasing some of their skills so when we turn the corner we will be in position to offer even more guidance to our customers. We are also investing in our back end systems, streamlining them to be more efficient. These are the things you don’t have time to look at in growth. We are making sure our organization is scalable and better able to manage growth. We have invested with our service people too. We need to retain our customers. They may not be buying right now because they are not recruiting but we are going to be top of mind when they are. Increasing skills, streamlining back end processes means there is more time available and we are experiencing a productivity gain and the goal is not to reduce expenses but to free up resources so we can deliver a better experience to our customers.

We are also looking at our value proposition; how could we provide more value and what do we have to change in our offering to provide more value for our customers. We are lucky to have a board that is not too hungry for profit, because right now it is tough from a profit perspective. Our board has decided to be more patient, to keep dollars in the organization so we will be in a better place when the economy turns. I feel privileged. Not all CEO’s are in that position, our board has a long term vision and it shows; they are walking the talk.

3. Where are you cutting back?

That is a good question. We sat down and looked at all of the activities in the organization that were not driving customer value. When we first started that process everyone believed that we are very busy and everything we do is important. We’ve had huge growth as an organization over the last few years and a lot of things we did that made sense 2 years ago no longer make sense. I asked people, if you had to cut half of your staff what would you stop doing; what is nice to do but not mission critical. We took these non critical activities in the organization and stopped doing these. It has had a major impact and allowed us to free up resources and redirect them toward what will be critical to our success moving forward. Managing is about making decisions, when your business is growing very fast, you don’t have the time to look at productivity and efficiency. You’re not tuning up the engine because you are busy selling and servicing clients. For instance, we used to attend tons of tradeshows – when we looked at which ones were driving value the list became really short. We asked, why are we attending? Time, focus, and dollars are very important. Are there things we said we want to do and we are not doing? We are refocusing the energy in the organization to make sure the energy is going towards the right things.

4. What three things do you think are most important during tough economic times?

  • Your key people

  • Your vision and brand, I would probably say your brand

  • Your intimacy with your customers – just because they don’t have a need for your services, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call them. We are having discussions with our customers about replacing their C players with better candidates and are getting a lot of positive feedback. Recruiting has been tough for several years for some of those positions and now is an ideal time to fill those positions with A players. We are turning dormant customers into active customers. If you’re not communicating with customers you are missing out; even if only to stay in touch to have an impact on your retention rate.

5. What would be your number one advice to business leaders?

Oh boy my number one advice would be to take really good care of the key people in your organization because research shows over 60% of them are actually thinking of switching jobs over the next 18 months; they are very hard to replace; and it is likely the people you hire will not be as good. There is no way you can be successful if you are losing key people. Who are your A players and who is adding value. Engage them so they don’t leave. Moving forward they will be more difficult to replace. We’ve invested a lot on that front over the last couple of months and despite all the changes happening in business right now, I’m seeing key people more engaged than ever, more empowered and probably proud to be part of something that will be more in tune with our customers’ needs moving forward.

6. According to the conference board of Canada less than 25% of companies have a strategy and plan in this slow economy. First of all do you have a strategy and plan?

Yes, we have a strategy a very clear one; we have a three year plan in place. Our strategy is to stick with the plan regardless of what happens with the economy moving forward. A lot of companies have a very vague idea where they want to be in 3 years, how their brand and their people will bring them there. Why do you think so few companies do? A lot of CEOs are focusing on trying to reduce expenses or acquire competitors, few are focusing on improving value to their customers as a growth strategy. It takes too much time and transforming an organization is rather complex. In a good economy many don’t have an understanding of how to keep improving value to their customers. You always need to be ready to improve, to evolve because your competitors and your customers are evolving. If you have no clear direction of resources and how they provide value it hits you when the company and the economy slows down. Some will get out of the recession much better than others, people are very reactive. In 2010 the first boomers will retire, we will lose half of a person in the workforce even if they reduce to half time. A lot of people will be leaving the workforce, Deloitte has done research on this, and few companies have a plan to deal with that even though it is their everyday. As human beings we tend to wait for the train to hit before we act. A small minority put contingency plans in place to be prepared when things are not going as well. Running a business in good economy we tend to think it will last forever; when the economy slows down then we think “What are we going to do?”; generally speaking we are very reactive.

7. How do you feel government could help improve the current economic state?

That’s a very good question and I don’t know that there’s a clear answer. I see two types of strategies. This economic crisis is very interesting, unemployment is under 9% and this is considered the biggest recession since the 20’s. When I graduated in the 80’s unemployment was at 15%. Some geographic regions and industries have been hit really hard like manufacturing in Southern Ontario and mining. But some industries are still struggling to find the right people. I see two areas where the government could focus. First, by helping industries that have been hard hit stay afloat until the economy turns around. With oil and gas it’s a question of time until the demand comes back and there’s a shortage of qualified workers for those industries and when the economy turns we are still going to be having those shortages. It could be even worse since many qualified people will have retired by then. We need to be careful of that. In the last budget the government put dollars aside to help people get retrained into new industry. I see we need a lot more investment on that front.

Education is another area, there are a couple of areas that are very promising and we don’t have enough graduates coming out of school for those roles. We need better alignment between the education system and the needs of business. We also need to think of ways to keep the people that are turning 65 in the labour market. We need policies and incentives to maintain those individuals in those roles. We need to understand their needs – flexibility, work life balance.

The other way to provide qualified workers is immigration; this is one way not a silver bullet. We’re competing with the US, Western Europe and need to do everything in our power to be attractive to those individuals. Our governments could attract those skilled workers by raising our immigration targets and maintaining those objectives, there are things that can be done. Looking at it from my own lens the labour shortage will have a major impact on our ability to keep growing and the quality of our life if we can’t keep growing at 2-3-4 % as a society.

8. Where do you feel the economy will be a year from now?

I think things are improving. Hiring is an indicator of growth and we’ve been seeing an improvement for 2 months. It’s slowly getting better. I don’t think 2010 will be a spectacular year, but in the positive range, certainly not a V shape recovery or rapid recovery. What is the engine behind a fast recovery? China is the only engine that could speed recovery and they have their own challenges, in the US it is taking time. I see positive signs now for a slow recovery. 9. What do you think Canadian businesses need to do to thrive in a commoditized global market?

That’s a good question – very good question – and I really don’t know. It’s hard to see what our competitive edge is as a nation at this point. We used to be really good with our educational system but we are having a hard time keeping our kids in school right now, especially young men. Our science faculty is not as good anymore; we are losing a bit of our competitiveness on that front. The manufacturing sector is being challenged by countries with lower labour costs. We have natural resources as an edge but if we don’t add value transforming them will not last.

We need to figure out the areas we want to hone in on to be among the best in the world, high value industries like bio tech and aerospace. We used to be a telecommunications leader but we’ve lost that edge.

It’s interesting looking at other countries. Singapore is run like a business and they are doing all kinds of things to attract the best talent. They want to be the destination and have the best brains for biotechnology. They’re offering houses, no income tax. The government there is very focused they’re making the calls and setting the goals. I’m not saying I want Canada to be like this, making business decisions and sticking with it is a challenge for our government. If they give a break to one individual they know there will be a line up at their door. We’ve had strong leaders in the past, whether you agree with their vision, they make tough decisions and worked towards that vision. Who knows maybe a fantastic political leader is waiting to emerge.

Great insights Gabriel, we look forward to seeing your ideas on employee engagement become mainstream concepts and provide a competitive edge for Ontario businesses.

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