Rocco Rossi, President, and CEO of Ontario Chamber of Commerce shares his knowledge about some of the public policies that he believes will help SMEs succeed, the challenges that SMEs are facing in Ontario compared to other provinces, and where he sees the future of commerce in Ontario.
“A successful entrepreneur and business executive, champion fundraiser, and dedicated public servant, Rocco Rossi joined the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) in 2018 as President and CEO.
Prior to joining the OCC, Rossi most recently served as President and CEO of Prostate Cancer Canada where he helped to advance the research, advocacy, education, and awareness of the most common cancer in men.
Mr. Rossi also served as CEO of Heart and Stroke Foundation – one of Canada’s largest non-profit organizations – overseeing consecutive years of record fundraising combining for over $500 million in total and launching many new, life-saving initiatives.
His passion for public policy has led him to stand for election both for the position of Mayor of Toronto and for MPP.
Mr. Rossi has held senior positions at the Boston Consulting Group, TORSTAR, Labatt/Interbrew, and MGI Software. He is a graduate of McGill and Princeton.
Rossi currently serves as a member of the Board and Audit Committee of TerraVest Capital. A past board member of United Way of Greater Toronto and other charities, Mr. Rossi has been an active community builder. In fact, in 2012 he was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for his Philanthropic and Community service.
A dedicated adventurer, Rocco has walked the legendary Camino de Santiago several times, cycled the 1900 km length of Yonge Street from Rainy River to Toronto, kayaked the 500 km from Toronto to Ottawa, and climbed to Everest Base Camp.
Mr. Rossi has a BA (Hons) in political science from McGill University and a Masters of Arts in politics from Princeton University. He is married to his wife of 30-years, Rhonnie, and they have a 28-year-old son, Domenic John, who is a teacher.”
You recently joined the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) as President and CEO. What are some of the things you wish to accomplish?
Well, the first thing is to not mess it up, because the OCC has been around for over 100 years. I have an amazing staff. They’ve built incredible brand equity and credibility with the government and the larger society. It’s really about trying to build on that tradition of excellence and impact. I ask myself questions with a view to the future. How do we modernize further? How do we continue to keep the OCC relevant and add value to our members? This isn’t 50 years ago, where if you were starting a business, the very first place you went to was the chamber of commerce or your local board of trade. That was where you were going to find your customers, your suppliers, the local banker, the local accountants, and lawyers, and it was really critical to starting a business. Today, people have so many choices. How do you keep ensuring that you’re providing enough value that people say, “Hey, I really need to be a member of my local chamber and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce?”
How do you believe your 30 years of experience in business leadership will help you achieve your goals?
Well, I hope that because I have run family businesses and small businesses, been a leader of not for profits and involved in publicly traded companies both as an executive and as a CEO, that I bring a very wide perspective that helps me to understand the needs and issues facing the broad spectrum of our membership. My hope is that that varied experience actually makes me a great mirror and spokesperson for the needs of our membership.
Can you talk about some of the accomplishments that the Ontario Chamber of Commerce has had on small and medium-sized businesses?
Sure. The OCC has really been the leader on a number of files, including, most recently, Bill 148; which we hear from our members has added incredible complexity and cost to doing business. We led the coalition to make revisions, and now, with a new government committed to making Ontario open for business, we’re leading the efforts to revisit a bunch of the measures included in Bill 148 – because it’s not just about minimum wage, it is about sheds ruling. It is about calculating stat holidays, and how the bill has made it very difficult to use part-time labor in the province.
When we see the kind of numbers that we just saw in August – over 80,000 jobs lost in Ontario, the vast majority of which were part-time – that is evidence of what our members have been talking about for some time in predicting that, while unintended, these are the predictable results of bad policy.
What are your plans when it comes to helping small and medium-sized businesses grow in Ontario?
Well, we try to do a number of things. First of all, we have an incredible network of local chambers, which really serves as an opportunity for businesses to network with other businesses, and to learn from them, because most everyone is facing similar problems. So if you can learn from others and not repeat the same mistakes, that’s an instant great value. There is also a whole host of affinity programs including what I think is one of the best group benefits plans for small and medium-sized businesses under 100 employees. The chamber’s plan works across Canada alongside our provider, the Johnson Group, and with our other provincial chambers to provide really great benefits to help you attract and retain employees and to keep your employee base healthy and happy.
That’s certainly important when people are only employing a few people. People want to have benefits, so they may choose to go to a bigger company.
Our plan really helps small and medium-sized businesses get to things that would be very difficult to obtain on their own. By spreading the risk across tens of thousands of businesses, we actually keep more consistent rates. Let’s say you’re a small company, you have a benefits plan, and you have one injury causing one major claim; it can blow up your rates. But if you share and pool that risk across the broad membership of the network you can help control your costs, which is a great thing.
We also provide programs like the export enhancement and global growth fund where, for small and medium-sized Ontario companies interested in exporting to new markets around the world, we have a program you can apply to where we match dollar for dollar up to $50,000 if you’re going to a trade show, you’re starting a marketing study, or initiating IP protection for your products in a new market. In the last seven to 10 years, the companies that participated in that program have generated over $400,000,000 in export sales. It’s an incredible return on capital.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has connected businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions of the country to support public policies that will foster a strong and competitive economic environment. Can you talk about some of those public policies and how you believe they will help small and medium-sized businesses succeed?
Well, first of all, we’re the largest member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce (CCC). With our other provincial chamber partners, we work with our President and CEO Perrin Beatty, who heads up the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. The CCC took an incredible leading role on the proposed income tax changes to small and medium-sized businesses and so-called passive income, which was really a very unfortunate attack on small and medium-sized businesses. With that kind of leadership, we’re able to get revisions, and we’re continuing to make the case to the federal government that, given the tax changes that were recently instituted in the US, which removed an advantage that we had, that changes are required here to keep us competitive; particularly in light of the anxiety we’re seeing around free trade. That is another area where we work very closely with the Canadian Chamber, and with chambers in the US.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce has signed nine joint agreements with US states from California to Florida to Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, supporting the notion of a renewed NAFTA and pointing out the importance of trade, because we understand that President Trump may not listen to everyone, but he certainly is more likely to be listening to American businesses, particularly in states that are of importance to him in the upcoming midterm elections.
We’d been working very hard to make those joint statements because the US business community understands how important NAFTA has been to them. We have an increasingly integrated North American economy, where millions of jobs on all sides of the borders between Mexico to Canada are affected and would be affected if we’re not able to renew NAFTA. That’s an important area of cooperation as well.
Since being appointed President and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, you have probably come across a fair number of challenges. What are some of those challenges, and how do you work on suppressing them?
Again, I think that the number one challenge faced by all associations today, whether it’s a chamber of commerce, a church, the local rotary, or your Masonic Lodge, is membership and relevance in a very busy age. People have lots of choices and limited time. Our local chambers, together with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, are working very hard to ensure that we’re providing real value to you. This is a must-do for small and medium-sized businesses. If you’re going to invest both time and your money, you want to be doing so in something that’s going to give you a return and that’s going to make a difference in your business, and that’s what we try to do each and every day.
What are some of the initiatives that you’re planning and putting in place that you believe will help towards the success and growth of businesses in Ontario?
Well, our signature event each year is the Ontario Economic Summit (OES). It’s coming up October 24th to 26th, at Niagara-on-the-Lake. This year’s topic has really been generated by the annual survey that we give Ontario businesses, asking them what they think the number one issue facing them is in terms of their own prosperity and the prosperity of the province. For two years running, that survey has listed the skills gap as the number one issue facing businesses. The summit is all about how, in a modern disruptive economy, we are going to refocus the efforts of our education system, our training programs, government programs, and private sector programs to skill and reskill, whether it’s assisting our young people in the transition from school to work, or reskilling workers whose jobs have suddenly been redefined mid-career. We face incredible challenges and a shortage of skilled labor to deal with all the incredible projects happening in this province.
We have massive reconstruction and expansion happening to our nuclear reactor fleet, which requires tens of thousands of skilled labor hours and even years. For too long we’ve told our kids…I’m a child of immigrants, so I’m a perfect example of it. My parents from a very young age said,
“Look, I don’t want to see you pouring concrete at a construction site. I don’t want to see you framing a house. I don’t want to see you picking tomatoes and apples. We did that because we didn’t have school and we did whatever work was available to put food on the table. You’re going to university, you’re going to have an office job, you’re going to have a white-collar.”
What is the result of that? My plumber can buy and sell me four times over. He’s got a place in Georgia Bay, he’s got a home in Scottsdale and he’s running a great business where he gets to decide who we work for because he has more demand than he can fill.
The three days of the summit are all about bringing together political leaders, business leaders, academics, not for profits, and consultants. How are we going to attack this problem? We know it’s a problem. We don’t need another conference to tell us we have a problem. We know we have a problem. We want solutions. This is all about finding the best practices from anywhere in the world and applying them to Ontario. That’s a critical project for us that we’ll stay focused on. We’re going to stay focused on Bill 148. We want to see repeal and rethinking on a number of measures in that bill. We’re working on transportation, we’re working on housing affordability – a number of themes, but as our members tell us the skills gap is the number one challenge, you’re going to see us spending a lot of time and effort on that. We encourage people to go to the website and find out about registering at OES.
Businesses are having trouble getting people in the skilled trades?
It’s not just skilled trades, it’s also programmers and software engineers for members like Shopify, but also, if you’re a greenhouse operator in southwestern Ontario, you’re also very concerned about what our immigration laws are and what our foreign worker regulations are to be able to bring in people who are willing to pick tomatoes. It’s everything from immigration policy to ensuring that in our schools, kids know what their real options are. Virtually 100% of all guidance counselors in Ontario are university graduates. Their knowledge of college and the trades is purely theoretical. Whereas there’s a whole bunch of career options that this economy needs today and will need for a very long time, that should be put in front of kids and shouldn’t be demeaning. This is really important, dignified work and it’s not Dickensian England; manufacturing is not dark and dirty and dangerous. There are computers, there’s laser-guided work and there are opportunities for kids and for people mid-career to build great lives for themselves with jobs that pay a really significant living wage.
If you had to compare small and medium-sized businesses in Ontario to other provinces in Canada, what would you say is the main challenge that business owners are facing?
I mentioned that we do an annual survey of business confidence, and in the last seven or eight years, business confidence in Ontario has declined significantly. In 2012, almost half of all Ontario businesses were very optimistic about the future; for themselves and for the province.
Our job is to try to turn that around because optimism and confidence are critical to future investment. People don’t look in the rearview, they look forward, and if they’re confident then they’re going to buy that machine; they’re going to expand into a new market because they’re optimistic – that’s going to create the jobs that lead to the prosperity that we all want. Ontario, for as long as I’ve been alive, has been the engine of the Canadian economy, and over the last several years, that engine has sputtered a bit. We want to get it fine-tuned again and humming so it produces the opportunities that have been presented to so many of us.
Ontario’s booming with new businesses and is often recognized as being the best place for entrepreneurs to have successful businesses. Why do you think that is?
Well, we have lots of incredible advantages. We are the largest province. We have the largest provincial economy. Number two, we’re next door to one of the most important markets in the world. We’ve got a great transportation connection to a couple hundred million people in the Great Lakes district. That’s an enormous advantage over being in, say, Nunavut. Third, we have some of the best educational institutions in Canada and in the world, which helps us to deliver incredible, talented workers to the opportunities that are presented. Fourth, we have, and this is been Canada’s great competitive advantage, a welcoming immigration system that has allowed us to bring the best of the best from around the world. People who are hungry to work and who want to make a difference and build better lives for themselves and their children. It’s all about “how do we tap all of that energy?” The only thing that’s been standing in the way – some bad decisions on the public policy side. We get that sorted out, and this is the place that you want to build your future in.
How do you predict the future of commerce in Ontario? Do you believe it will continue towards the road to success?
I’m an optimist by nature, and entrepreneurs are optimistic in nature. You don’t go into a business that has a lot of risks if you’re not optimistic. There’s no question there are challenges. I think the key message we want to give the government is that we cannot take for granted that the growth and the opportunities we have had for so many years in this tremendous province will continue without effort. That effort’s going to include important policy changes to focus on competitiveness, another look at our education and training system that ensures that as change accelerates, we’re in the best position to be able to take advantage of it. Ensuring that we continue to have a robust and intelligent immigration policy, and work very hard on leveraging trade relationships – not just with the United States, but with the rest of the world; because for as long as I’ve been politically aware, from my early teens, I’ve heard Canadian and Ontario politicians say, “We must diversify our trade away from the United States.”
In 40 years of listening to them, I think we moved from 86% concentration in the US to 77%. I came to believe that “we must diversify our trade” actually means we must never change anything about our trade patterns. We’ve signed CETA, the Canada-EU free trade agreement. We’ve signed the CPTPP (The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) with several East Asian countries. We’re looking at markets in South America. We’ve signed a deal with South Korea.
Those countries and businesses in those countries are leveraging those deals each and every day. They understand there’s an opportunity. The default way to go, because it’s been easy, sharing language and similar cultural events, has always been, “Well I’m going to expand my business with the US.” The world is much bigger. There are lots of opportunities and, if nothing else, Mr. Trump has taught us that we can’t take one customer for granted. If we work hard and we have all of the ingredients to make that happen, then I’m very confident, but we cannot take it for granted. This is a far more competitive world than we’ve ever seen.
Do you believe that Ontario plays a huge part in the Canadian economy?
I not only believe it, I know it. We are 40% of the country’s GDP. We have the most diverse economy of any of the Canadian provinces. We have more corporate headquarters than any other province. If we get it wrong in Ontario, it’s not only bad for Ontario, it’s bad for all of Canada. This is the engine that absolutely has to be tuned to work at its maximum efficiency for the rest of the country to prosper.
The entrepreneurial sector is the most Canadian sector of Canada’s economy. Therefore, it should obviously be a priority for the government as it generates more benefits for all Canadians. How is the Ontario Chamber of Commerce planning on working with the Government of Canada in making successful businesses and working towards their growth priority?
We remind governments to have that at the provincial and at the federal level each and every day. We are open to working with parties of all stripes and we certainly are political when we need to be, but we’re nonpartisan.
We’ll work with Liberals, with Conservatives, with New Democrats, with Greens, so long as they want to build a prosperous economy that’s going to help those entrepreneurs be successful; in part by not taking away all the money that they make. By not making the regulatory environment too burdensome.
Now, why is it that we need twice as many regulations as British Columbia, which last time I checked, is a pretty nice place to live? We’re thrilled that the Ford government has designated a special deputy minister, cabinet-level, to focus on the reduction of red tape because that’s a killer of jobs. The more time that a small and medium-sized business person has to spend filling in forms and trying to navigate through a complex bureaucracy, the less time they can spend on doing business and taking advantage of opportunities, and creating new jobs. The Premier has said he wants to make Ontario open for business. We take him at his word and we’re going to work with them each and every day to make that happen.
That’s great. Is the Ontario Chamber of Commerce working on providing more opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses? If so, can you talk about some of those opportunities and how they will benefit them?
Great. We’ve mentioned a number of them, from the affinity programs to try to reduce their costs, provide bulk buying opportunities, etc, so that the small, together, can become big; to expand on programs like our Global Growth Fund, that we put in on behalf of the Ontario Government, to look at expanding our relationships with foreign chambers to facilitate trade missions at our local chamber level to provide the best networking and knowledge-exchange programs so that businesses can learn from one another. Yes, we compete each and every day, but we can also learn and share with each other to be more competitive. Local chambers are having events from one corner of this province to the other to share that knowledge, to share that experience, and to help every businessman and businesswoman be better.
Canada’s future economy depends on a highly-skilled workforce. Focusing on education, innovation, and entrepreneurial generation should be a top priority. Do you believe that this is an area that the government should invest in if it will help with the increase in successful businesses in Canada, which will surely have a positive impact on its economy?
We’ve been talking to our members and, as mentioned, the skills gap is top of mind, but this isn’t just the government’s problem. This is our problem. The business has to play a role. Schools have to play a role. Parents have to play a role. We can’t, as parents, tell our kids, “You can only go to University. That’s the only smart thing to do.” We have to remove the stigma around skilled trades, and that’s not something the government can do on its own. The one trap that people sometimes fall into is they think, “well, the modern economy is all about robots and artificial intelligence and programming.” No, I want carpenters, plumbers. I want electricians. These are great jobs and we need them. A bunch of it is pretty hard to get robots to do. The robots need people, in terms of doing special tasks within that.
It is absolutely something government has to invest in, but it’s something every sector needs to invest in. I’ll give you one example that we actually have seen and that will be presented at the Ontario Economic Summit. That example is UPS in the United States. I was in Louisville, Kentucky, which happens to have the largest airport hub in the world. They process, at Christmas time, five million packages a day. They get sent out on 130 planes around the world. Their night shift requires 6,500 people each and every night. That’s hard to fill, because the night shift is not exactly the ideal working environment for anybody. They were having difficulties. What they did i work together with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the State Government, and the University of Louisville and the local community colleges in Louisville. They came up with the following program.
They said to students looking to go to university and college, “we will pay your tuition, semester to semester. You don’t have to do this long-term, but you will work with us for an entire semester and we’ll pay you for it. We’ll pay you the full wages of it, but we’ll also pay your tuition at the University of Louisville or our community college. You complete your BA, we’ll give you a bonus. You don’t have to commit to working in the US afterward but many of them do. They have put 17,000 students through school for free. They currently have those 6,500 workings tonight at the UPS world port. 2,500 of them are students getting an education and working at the same time. Half of the cost is picked up by the state and half is picked up by the company because this is an investment that no one source is going to end up paying for because it benefits everybody. It’s the kind of program that you’re going to start to see in a modern economy. The economies that figured this out fastest are the ones that are going to win.
You’re recently met or are planning on meeting 135 of the local chambers of commerce as well as over 300 corporate members to hear firsthand about some of the issues that the business owners are facing. Can you talk about some of those issues and what you believe the possible policy solutions are for them?
Yes, and we’ve been talking about the skills gap. I’m hearing that in our surveys and every business that I visit; large, small, northern, southwestern, urban, rural so that’s one thing. We’ve also been hearing from so many of our members on Bill 148. We’ve been hearing about our hydro costs for major manufacturers. That is a significant cost for them and they’re looking for the government to sort that out. Transportation issues and people being caught in gridlock, that affect commute times for workers. That also affects just in time delivery of components and parts and services. All of these are areas that our local chambers, from the Toronto Region Board of Trade to the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, are working on how it applies to their markets. We’ve heard in northern, rural, and remote communities, that internet connectivity is an issue. In cities we take for granted access to broadband, right?
You go to a lot of rural and remote areas and you have dial-up or very poor connectivity. You cannot participate, compete, and win in the modern economy on dial-up. If we want to attract and retain young people in smaller communities, people who want a great lifestyle and confront affordability issues, you need the infrastructure to deliver on that or you’re not going to keep them. One of the things that people often forget, because we focus so much on autos and manufacturing or artificial intelligence and programming and the tech sector, is that these sectors in Ontario still employ the largest number of people. One in nine Ontarians worked for the agri-food business, whether in farming or in processing. This is not just the guy behind a plow anymore, this is a very sophisticated set of businesses and quite frankly more people are needed. There are both challenges and opportunities that we’re hearing about.
What advice would you give to small and medium-sized business owners in Ontario that could help them have a successful business?
Well, I think they need to be members of their local chambers. I really do, because you’re going to be networking with other people facing your issues and you don’t need to reinvent the wheel each and every time. If you can learn from one another and share your experiences, that’s going to make you more competitive. That’s going to make you a better entrepreneur, a better businessperson. Also, the more members we have, the more clout we have with the government to get the policies that we need; whether it’s on taxation, skills, or regulation. It’s one thing for me to call up the Premier or a cabinet minister. It’s a totally different thing when each and every MPP goes home on the weekend and hears the same things in church or temple or at the local diner or in the hockey rink. When they’re hearing from a chamber member the exact same message -that’s political power. That’s what gets things done. Being a member helps you directly through that networking, through that information exchange, and through the affinity programs, but also indirectly in that it adds to the political power of the business message so that we can get done what needs to get done at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill.
What is your definition of a successful business owner?
As someone who has both been in business and in the charitable sector and in politics, for me, success has a very personal definition. For me, success is not simply more money in the bank, although that’s important. You need to put food on the table, you have to pay your bills, you have to be able to invest in your company. What I see in most of our members are community builders. People who want to make a difference and who have each and every day because they are offering opportunities to their neighbors. They are the ones in the local rotary, they are helping build the shelters. They’re contributing to their communities and they’re growing as people. They’re learning new things, they’re giving themselves new challenges. More money in the bank, real impact in their community, and personal growth each and every day – you get those three elements going, life’s pretty good.
Okay. Last question. On a personal note, what do you do when you’re not busy being President and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce?
I’ve got an amazing family. My parents, God bless, are still around. I have four sisters. I have 14 nieces and nephews. I have a fabulous wife and an incredibly talented son. They fill a lot of my time and when I’m not with them, I have a personal passion for long pilgrimage walks. There’s a whole network of pilgrimage trails in Europe that goes through Spain and I’ve just gotten back from 16 days and 400 kilometers of walking in northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela and it’s an incredible reboot for both your body and soul.
That sounds interesting. You go on your own, do you? On these walks?
Yes, that’s amazing because my wife would come as long as I only walked five kilometers a day and that would drive me crazy. We agree to disagree. She goes to the cottage and I go walking.
Is there anything you want to share with us that I haven’t covered?
The only other thing I would add is that part of building business success in Ontario and building a successful culture for businesses is celebrating great business. Each year we also have an Ontario Business Achievement Awards Gala. This year it’s November 21st at the Liberty Grand here in Toronto, and we’re going to be celebrating businesses in eight categories from “young entrepreneur of the year” to “export a success” to “community service.” For the first time, we’re adding a lifetime achievement award and we’re going to be celebrating and honoring the achievement of Donald Ziraldo and his late partner Karl Kaiser, who basically invented the modern Ontario wine industry. I remember as a kid, baby doc and concord grapes, it was awful. We now have been better grapes and some incredible ice wines.
A big part of that is thanks to Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser. We’re going to celebrate them that night. Our nominations for the other eight awards close on the 14th of September, probably too late by the time this interview comes out, but if this comes out before November 21st people should try to buy a ticket. They may be gone by then, but it’s going to be a great night. I think part of building a great business community is making sure that we’re celebrating people who are doing it right.