Zen and the Art of Business Retention and Expansion

It seems simple, right? Interview a bunch of businesses, and then do what they told you to do. There! A Business Retention + Expansion (BR+E) project!

If only.

BR+E projects are complex, multi-stakeholder efforts with many moving parts. They need a strong foundation, good partnerships and a healthy dose of flexibility.


At the Ontario East Municipal Conference, three economic developers shared their hard-won wisdom about managing a successful Business Retention + Expansion project. All three had recently completed county-wide BR+E projects with various levels of involvement from lower tier partners.

Here is a snapshot of what they’ve all accomplished:

Stacie Lloyd, Regional Economic Development Officer, Valley Heartland CFDC, Lanark County – a county-wide cross-sectoral BR+E, interviewing 115 businesses. The final report will be released in late September.

Ann Weir, Economic Development Manager, United Counties of Leeds and Grenville – a county-wide cross-sectoral BR+E with an opt-in option for lower tiers. Three of the ten lower tiers in the county contributed financially to the project and got a full sample size of their businesses. In total, 300 businesses were interviewed. The three lower tier reports have been published, and the counties’ report will be released this fall.

Olivier Berthiaume, Project Officer, Economic Development and Tourism, United Counties of Prescott and Russell – a county-wide cross-sectoral BR+E with a full sampling of each of the eight lower tiers. Over 500 interviews were completed in total and the project was wrapped up in November 2018.

I asked them to reflect on several questions.

How do you prepare for a BR+E project?

  • BRE LogoReadiness is a huge part of the success of a BR+E. Before you reach for that RED application, ask yourself, “What have we been doing this past year to prepare for this project?”.
  • OMAFRA provides a readiness checklist self-assessment for going into a BR+E. Take your time going through this and carefully fact check your answers.
  • In Lanark County, the BR+E project was preceded by a full county-wide economic development strategic planning process. This process brought key groups together, engaged them in conversation with each other, and focused them on next steps. When it came time to do the BR+E, everyone was already at the table, ready to get going.
  • Leeds Grenville GraphIn Leeds and Grenville, communications with lower tiers was happening over a year before the project began.
  • A BR+E project should be launched on the foundation of collaborative partnerships that are already strong.
  • Partners are more likely to be engaged when they see that you’ve committed to providing leadership to the project.

What skills does a BR+E Coordinator need?

  • If you are hiring a project coordinator, you need the right fit. The person should be:
    • Organized
    • Detail oriented
    • A good communicator
    • Skilled at building and maintaining relationships
    • Committed to results and achieving project milestones
  • Sometimes you need to change your staffing strategy to suit your project needs. Having that flexibility can be important to ensure your project stays on track.
  • You can outsource some or all of the project duties. In Prescott-Russell, much of the interviewing was done by hired consultants. The more you outsource, the less you will retain the benefit of the relationship building aspect of the BR+E project.

How do you engage businesses to participate in the study?

  • Pie graph comparing Russell and UCPR business climateA strong outreach program is essential. In Prescott and Russell, the year prior to the project was spent reaching out to businesses personally, updating their information for the directory, and letting them know that the BR+E would be happening. When it came time to do the interviews, contact information was up to date, and businesses were already aware of the project. A great response rate resulted.
  • Partnerships with local networks and business support organizations is also key. They need to be aware of the project, act as ambassadors for it, and communicate the opportunity to be interviewed to local businesses. Using local media for communications can help with community ownership and buy-in. In Leeds and Grenville, local media launched the project in each of the three lower tiers who participated in the full study.

What are the benefits of a BR+E Project?

  • Valley Heartland BR+E participant testimonyAn excellent primary data set that can be used for many different purposes for years to come.
  • A track record of short term results over the course of the project: follow up to red-flag issues, referrals, and incremental job creation.
  • A stronger relationship with the business community. In Lanark County, the BR+E project was a vehicle to engage businesses who previously had no interest in participating in economic development initiatives.
  • A stronger relationship with partner organizations.
  • An evidence-based action plan, that can feed into ongoing economic development strategic planning.

The OMAFRA BR+E program provides a template with recommendations on how to proceed through a full project. However, a community always needs to customize this template for their own purposes. BR+E projects can be built to suit communities of all shapes and sizes. To learn more about OMAFRA’s BR+E Program, please visit: https://www.ontario.ca/page/business-retention-and-expansion-program


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