When Australian-based BHP Billiton announced it was moving its Canadian headquarters from Vancouver to Saskatoon in 2011, stakeholders and Saskatoon locals were taken by surprise.
What did the world’s largest mining company want with a little prairie city, then barely 200,000 citizens strong? One reason for BHP’s relocation was to be closer to the company’s proposed Jansen potash project. But according to Alex Fallon, president and CEO of Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority (SREDA), the move signalled a longer-term trend for business in Saskatoon.
“Ever since then, there’s been a major culture change here,” says Fallon, noting that BHP was among the first in a string of multinational companies to set up shop in Saskatoon in recent years, a group that includes Yancoal, a Chinese mining company, K+S Potash out of Germany and Edmonton-based Orbis Engineering.
“Those traditional sectors—mining, agriculture, construction, manufacturing—are big attractions to these companies,” says Fallon. “There’s been billions of dollars of investment in those sectors in recent years, and that’s created a lot of opportunity within the supply chain for companies to win some of that business.” While those primary industries account for about 45% of the city’s GDP, grassroots enterprise is thriving too.
“Saskatoon has tremendous support for locally-owned businesses,” confirms Moneca McLean, owner of Red Lotus Centre, a yoga, meditation and retail space that specializes in apparel and services for women who have had mastectomies. “As much as Saskatoon has grown, it still has that small-town feel to a degree,” McLean adds, noting that the economic slowdown of the past two years has given residents an extra nudge to buy local. “We know that if we continue to support [each other], we continue to grow.”
It’s a concept instilled by local organizations such as Ideas Inc., a startup incubator that offers coaching, mentorship and work space, as well as Square One, a division of SREDA that provides entrepreneurs with resources and advice on everything from business plans to branding, goal setting and filing taxes. McLean leaned on Square One in the year leading up to opening her shop last September. The organization paired her with a business officer who identified her market demographics and suggested where to set up Red Lotus. “I could contact them with any little question I had along the way,” says McLean. “That was key for me setting up shop, and as I grow, I will definitely access that resource again.”
Services like Square One, along with droves of talent coming out of the University of Saskatchewan, are helping foster a new generation of companies concentrated in technology, research and development. Among them is the Global Institute for Food Security, an agriculture R&D outfit focused on using the latest scientific discoveries to alleviate food scarcity around the world.
Meanwhile, Saskatoon’s R&D flagship, the Canadian Light Source synchrotron radiation facility, functions as a football field–sized laboratory for scientists to study how to design new drugs, build smaller and more powerful computer chips, develop devices to make medicine safer and refine ways to clean up mining waste.
“We have a lot of smaller tech companies spinning out of some of that research,” says Fallon, noting that Saskatoon’s affordability—the average home price is $411,270, and businesses enjoy one of the lowest tax burdens in the country—is a big draw for emerging companies and those looking to relocate or expand.
“Ultimately, that quality of life factors in when you’re considering moving your businesses and families here,” Fallon adds. “Combine that with demand across the world for natural resources and for what Saskatoon has going on in the science and R&D clusters, and it’s a great place to invest.”