Don Ludlow, Vice President, Small Business, Strategy & Partnerships at RBC
As the Vice President of Small Business, Strategy & Partnerships at RBC, Don provides strategic oversight and leads a team that is responsible for delivering marketing-leading solutions, partnerships, and client experiences that go beyond traditional banking to help Canadian entrepreneurs successfully start, manage and grow their business. Don also manages the development of RBC’s strategy for the broader Business Financial Services portfolio, including the group’s client experience, CRM (client relationship management), and data analytics strategies.
Don joined RBC in 2001 and has 20 years of experience within the financial services and banking sector. He was most recently the Regional Vice President of the South Western Ontario Region, leading a team of RBC Advisors to support the growth of small and commercial business clients in the community. Prior to joining RBC, Don served as an Infantry Officer in the Canadian Army where he led soldiers on a number of domestic and international operations and worked in both staff and training roles.
Beyond his small business clients, Don is passionate about contributing to the growth of communities and supporting military veterans. He helped co-found the Treble Victor Group (3V) – a network of ex-military leaders who work to support one another in their post-service careers. He is also on the Board of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and Goodwill Industries (Ontario Great Lakes).
The pandemic has created a lot of new trends and changes for Canadian small businesses over the last 18 months. From your perspective, which changes are here to stay in the post-COVID-19 economy?
The pandemic has been a catalyst for a lot of new business practices and priorities, and in many ways, it also accelerated the need for many small business owners to adapt to other trends that were steadily on the rise over the last several years. A recent RBC poll revealed three important trends or changes that are likely here to stay over the next year – or possibly even longer.
First, there’s a growing demand for e-commerce and digital payments. These were already on the rise pre-pandemic but they became business staples with social distancing and health and safety measures. Today, four in five Canadians polled say that they would like to continue to shop online at small businesses, even after the economy is fully reopened, and 64% of Canadians surveyed said that partnering with digital platforms to make products and services more accessible will be important post-pandemic, especially among millennials (72%).
Secondly, a focus on employee wellness and overall health and safety remains a top priority for Canadians. Eighty-seven per cent of Canadian respondents said providing more wellness and mental health benefits and resources to employees will be important going forward. Nine in ten (88%) Canadian respondents also said they expect heightened hygiene standards to continue post-pandemic and 78% would like to continue using curbside pickup and delivery services as part of their shopping experience. Implementing employee benefits, resources and safety protocols to meet these new consumer expectations will be critical differentiators for small businesses that are looking to attract and retain talent and customers.
Finally, supporting small, local, and diversely-owned and operated businesses is here to stay post-pandemic. The majority of Canadians (77%) polled said they plan to spend more at small, local retail stores, restaurants and businesses to support their recovery, more than they did before the pandemic. Many Canadians are also actively seeking out and supporting 2SLGBTQ+ (52%) and BIPOC (61%)-owned businesses, products and services. This shift is significantly higher for millennials (65%, 69% respectively), indicating that today’s consumers are becoming more conscious about purchasing through a diversity- and community-focused lens.
Has the disruption in the small business landscape deterred entrepreneurs from turning their vision into reality?
But we’ve also seen many aspiring and existing entrepreneurs look for ways to turn lemons into lemonade, so to speak. The changes we’ve seen around new customer expectations and behaviours, increased digital adoption and a growing focus on supporting local businesses has created some new opportunities for entrepreneurs.
In our April 2021 poll, we found entrepreneurial aspirations to be at an all-time high with 55% of Canadians polled saying they have thought about owning a business, while nearly a quarter of existing business owners surveyed said they started their business during the pandemic.
Are there any other factors contributing to the growing desire to start a business right now?
The pandemic has also created an opportunity to for Canadians to reflect on their priorities. While many started their business as a result of new market opportunities, more than three-quarters of those who started their business, or knows someone who did, started based on shifting personal priorities or because they felt it gave them a new sense of purpose. Seven in 10 also felt entrepreneurship would provide a way to replace lost income due to the pandemic.
Canadians supported small businesses by leveraging new channels like e-Commerce, curbside pick-up, etc. during the pandemic. Do Canadians still prefer that or are they eager to get back into in-person shopping and dining?
Many Canadians and small business owners have certainly appreciated the easing restrictions and in-person interactions after months of closures. However, we don’t expect the pandemic-driven shopping practices to go away anytime soon and small business owners will need to provide hybrid options to engage with customers, especially as the pandemic situation continues to evolve.
Do you have any practical tips or considerations for small businesses given the trends that are here to stay?
We have 3 tips for business owners looking to strengthen their business and stay resilient in the face of uncertainty.
First, continue to explore ways to digitally-enable your business operations and create an online presence for customers to engage with you. Providing your services and solutions online doesn’t mean it has to replace your brick-and-mortar operation, but depending on your customer base and growth goals, an online channel could be a great complement to expand your reach and make it more efficient and accessible for customers to engage with your brand. Digitizing your payment and other operational functions like invoicing, payroll, cash management and virtual employee health services can help streamline administrative tasks and save you money in the long run. RBC offers many of these solutions and more through its collaboration with Ownr, Moneris, Bookmark, ADP, Wello, and others to make it easier for business clients to start digitizing their operations.
Second, continue to cultivate strong relationships with your local community members. They say that finding new customers is always more expensive and harder than keeping your existing ones happy. Build on the trust and relationship equity you’ve built with your most loyal customers pre- and during the pandemic as your business continues to recover and grow. Be diligent about providing tailored, local offers and sharing news that is relevant to your community members. Nextdoor is one app that RBC offers to help business owners do that.
Finally, proactively plan for contingency financial scenarios, whether times are good or bad. This will allow you to be more objective and agile in making decisions, should those scenarios play out. Share those plans with your financial advisor, accountant, lawyer and other trusted professionals so that they’re aware of your plans and can spring into action more quickly when you need their support.This should be a living plan that is re-visited and updated throughout the year as macro-economic conditions, market competitiveness and business goals evolve.
For more information on small business tips, resources, and solutions that go beyond banking, visit www.rbc.com/smallbusinessnavigator.