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Walkability and Recovery in Canada’s Rust Belt

This story from last month caught my eye today. The title, ‘Walkable Neighbourhoods Key to Creative Industries’, is innocuous enough. However, as the story states, the source is more surprising. The report, Walkability and Economic Development: How Pedestrian and Transit-Oriented Environments Attract Creative Jobs in Hamilton was released by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. Walkable neighborhoods are well-established as coveted residential and commercial space; the Chamber report goes further in clearly stating the case for walkability as an economic consideration, writing on page 18:

More specifically, walkable environments should be viewed as necessary economic infrastructure that attract employment and should be invested in accordingly. That means that just as investments are made in suburban business parks have the required infrastructure to make them the centres of private investment, walkable environments need to be created, enhanced, and maintained in order to attract jobs for other sectors.


The maps show, respectively, the links between creative industry locations in Hamilton and walkability and transit.

This is promising on two fronts. First, that creative industries (especially the performing arts) are growing in areas like Hamilton, long dependent on industries that are declining in employment numbers (such as manufacturing). Second, that they are looking to locate in the urban core, and bring with them the additional economic and social activity.

It’s encouraging to see groups like the Chamber of Commerce embrace the quality of life factors like walkability and sound transit that an increasing number of people are finding desirable. I believe that quality of life considerations and economic activity are becoming increasingly intertwined, and will soon be inseparable. Cheap and/or plentiful land will have its appeal for some, but more and more people and groups will make economic tradeoffs if need be to locate themselves and their organizations in urban environments.

Panorama of Downtown Hamilton, Early Morning
Flickr/Wayne MacPhail

For older cities like Hamilton, this provides an opportunity, as they developed around a time when density was greater in new developments than it has been in recent decades, thus providing in most cases a greater stock of already (or easily convertable) walkable areas. It’s proximity to Toronto (it’s connected by GO Train) and other major centers can serve as an additional competitive asset. The business community in Hamilton has been progressive on many fronts, notably by embracing poverty reduction initiatives. By embracing walkability and sound public transit – for both social and economic benefits – Hamilton is taking steps towards the factors that will go into making a vibrant urban centre in the coming years.

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Management Lessons from a Stanley Cup Champion

The Los Angeles Kings haven’t won the Stanley Cup yet, but they almost assuredly will. They’re up 3-0 in the best of seven final, and can clinch on home ice tonight.

The Kings are finishing up an incredible run. While they underachieved earlier in the season, they still entered the playoffs as the 8th seed in the west (their goal differential was 6th, so not far off what they probably merited). They are, so far, 15-2 in the playoffs. As this article notes, only the ’88 Oilers went 16-2; the only other team to lose 2 games in the playoffs was the vaunted ’77 Montreal Canadiens, though the then-shorter playoffs meant they only needed to win 12 games to secure the Cup. If the Kings lose tonight and win in Game 5? They’d equal the ’81 Islanders and ’85 Oilers, who both went 15-3 (when the first round was best-of-5). Their playoff run puts them in the company of the best teams from hockey’s most memorable dynasties of the past 35 years.

While the Kings’ run is certainly in part the benefit of a hot streak at the perfect time, their success is well-earned. There are a few lessons all of us can take from the Kings and apply to our respective organizations.

New York Rangers vs. Los Angeles Kings 2.17.11
Flickr/Matthew D. Britt

Mine for Talent in Unconventional Places
The process of assembling this team has taken years – in particular, many successful drafts, but the 2005 draft would be the single most pivotal event. There, the Kings acquired both leading scorer Anze Kopitar and star netminer Jonathan Quick. Neither fits the profile of a conventional star. Kopitar, the top-ranked European skater, fell to the 11th pick. While he played in Sweden, he is from Slovenia, and was the first player from that country to play in the NHL. Quick came from the American prep school system (and, at 6’1, is slightly undersized for a goalie today), before playing at UMass-Amherst. While that has produced many successful pros, it does not enjoy the reputation of the Canadian leagues, or the higher profile American colleges. Kopitar was chosen 11th and Quick 72nd; both probably fell to where they did in part because of their pedigree, but have outperformed many chosen ahead of them with more conventional backgrounds.

Be Aggressive in Going for Your Goal
The Kings spent years acquiring (primarily young) talent, building one of the best groups of young players , both at the NHL level, and at the minor league and amateur levels. In the past 18 months, they began using some of this talent to build a team that could contend immediately. Key personnel like Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter were all acquired in exchange for future draft picks, or recent high draft picks (and highly-regarded young players/prospects) like Wayne Simmonds, Braydon Schenn, Colton Teubert, and Jack Johnson. The Kings’ success in acquiring talent put them in a position to add the right pieces to flesh out a Stanley Cup contender. While in other industries you won’t have the benefit of trading talent (imagine if you could draft the best grads out of school!), but you can take to heart the lesson of timing – going above scope, or paying extra, to attract the right talent for the right initiative at the right time.

When Underperforming, Identify a Problem and Act Decisively
The Kings were struggling early in the season, and General Manager Dean Lombardi quickly replaced Head Coach Terry Murray, known for a laid-back style, with the more aggressive Darryl Sutter. Players credit Sutter with changing the environment.

A change in leadership isn’t an automatic benefit to a struggling organization, and can often make things worse. In this instance, the Kings correctly surmised that they had the right players to win, but needed a change in one specific role.

Show Your Personality, and Have Fun
One of the highlights of the Kings’ run has been following their entertaining Twitter account. Their social media activity has garnered many accolades, and with good reason. They’ve injected personality and fun into what is normally a staid, matter of fact activity – the corporate social media account. This has helped get the club attention, and I’d bet convert some fans, over the course of the past two months. People respond to personality, and fun, and the Kings have done a great job engaging and growing their audience.

Reimagining the Bookstore

I read a story yesterday proposing a new model for bookstores. That bookstores have struggled in recent years is a secret to no one, with high-profile closures like the Borders chain making headlines, to say nothing of the many communities that have lost long-time independent shops.

The author of this post was writing about one of those stores in his community. His new model was summarized as follows:

Once past the bestsellers, you find an Espresso Book Machine, churning out volumes that customers have special-ordered. (In his post at Digital Digest, Sanfilippo indicates that three million titles are available for printing on demand, but in an e-mail note he tells me it’s actually seven million.)

That Book Place also has shelves and shelves carrying a mixture of new and used books, with price stickers giving the customer a variety of options. You can have a brand-new copy shipped to you the next day, or buy it used, or rent it, or get it as an e-book. If you take out a membership in the store, you can borrow a book for free, or get a copy without the Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme that limits it to use on a specific kind of device.

In effect, the bookstore becomes a combination lending library and product showroom. “The books in the store shouldn’t be the focus of the revenue,” writes Sanfilippo. “Instead, the revenue might come from membership fees, book rentals, and referral fees for drop shipped new copies or e-book sales.”

To this, Mary Churchill, who tweeted the link, added the idea of “tables with e-readers embedded and of course, drinks and magazines”

These all struck me as good ideas, and things that . As this article points out, independent bookstores have been resilient, holding most of their business. Yet, it remains to be seen how long this can last in the face of growing e-commerce and e-reading.

Powell's Bookstore
Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, the largest independent book seller.

I enjoy visiting bookstores, and think they have a lot to offer to customers and to the community. While some will always be able to survive as general book stores, I see a handful of strategies that can help independent stores prosper going forward.

Become More of a Third Place
Rather than simply offering items for sale, bookstores can become gathering places, encouraging customers to spend more time there for more different purposes. Mary’s suggestion of drinks for sale is a natural step in this direction; while many booksellers have a coffee bar already, it’s adjoining rather than embedded in the store. A greater integration would encourage customers to spend more time in the store, and draw potential new ones in as well. The provision of communal space that can be used for meetings and events is another possibly avenue.

Embrace Technology
Similarly, the suggestion of e-readers would make a lot of sense. It would be a way for customers to browse before purchasing titles, and access newspaper/magazine subscriptions (perhaps under the membership model suggested below). Having bookstores facilitate downloads of e-books/articles is an opportunity as well.

Specialize
Physical stores will never compete with the selection of online sellers, but they can develop niches in the marketplace, and stock well in those areas. Which leads to the next point…

Add Value Through Knowledge and Expertise
The biggest competitive advantage a store can offer is knowledge and expertise. This comes from employing and cultivating knowledgeable staff who are passionate about books and reading. One of my favorite activities at a bookstore is simply browsing and discovering new titles. Having staff who are familiar with them, and can recommend new work based on my interests, is an invaluable service, far beyond Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” function.

Give Your Customers a Stake in Your Success
I like the idea of selling memberships (a co-operative model, or membership-based non-profit/non-dividend structure may work well). Author talks, access to staff expertise, and access to books/magazines would help sell. For example, if my bookstore had e-readers (or physical copies, I suppose) where I could access a number of magazines on-site, as noted above that would be worthwhile (assuming a cost savings compared to subscribing on my own). Independent stores are unlikely to compete on price, so other benefits to members and customers are essential to succeeding.

These are just a few ideas. As much as the bookstore business facing challenges, I also see a lot of opportunity to evolve and succeed going forward.

Management Lessons from Canada’s 41st Election

The 41st Canadian general election took place one year ago today, heralding significant changes to the political landscape. Looking back, there are lessons in the results of that night that we can all apply to our organization.

Jack Layton in Edmonton I
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Challenge the Conventional Wisdom
For decades, everyone’s believed that the road to a majority government went through Quebec. Prior to his return to federal politics, Stephen Harper (and long-time advisor Tom Flanagan) advocated three sisters theory to conservative success in Canada – western populists, Ontario tories, and soft nationalists in Quebec. After failing to make a breakthrough in Quebec in successive elections, the Conservatives refocused their efforts elsewhere, and finally earned their majority with very little Quebec representation – a previously unheard of concept in Canadian politics.

Identify Your Core Audience/Market, and Focus on them Relentlessly
Building on the previous point, the Conservatives identified the voters needed to produce a minimum winning coalition, and zeroed in on earning their support. In particular, they focused on multicultural communities as a growth market, and their efforts have paid off in recent years.

Change Can Happen Suddenly, but Comes After A Lot of Groundwork
The NDP’s historic result came in large part due to a breakthrough in Quebec, winning 59 of 75 seats – up from the 1 they won in 2008. That breakthrough came in a 2007 by-election, after years of hard work. Since his election as leader in 2003, Jack Layton worked to build the party in Quebec – reasoning that the socially progressive base of voters in Quebec were a natural audience for the party. Results were slow coming, but in 2011, the tipping point was reached, and the party earned a major breakthrough that they’re looking to solidify under Layton’s successor Thomas Mulcair – the MP first elected in that 2007 by-election.

Don’t Take Anything for Granted
In their years as Canada’s natural governing party, Liberals seemed to grow in to the expectation that in the rare instances they’d lose – voters would come back to them in due course. Their grassroots had atrophied, and they lost a clear message to take to the voters. When supplanted by a more charismatic centre-left leader, and party with an appealing message, they lost big – having lost much of the core support they could once fall back on. Voters abandoned them for Jack Layton and the NDP, leaving the once-proud party with a long, difficult road back to success.

Without Diversification, You’re Vulnerable
The Bloc Quebecois had won a plurality (or majority) of the seats in Quebec in every election since 1993. From their roots as a sovereigntist party, they had settled in nicely to the role of looking out solely for Quebec’s interests in parliament – effectively acting as an interest group. When Quebec voters got tired of this message, the Bloc had nothing to fall back on. They were nearly wiped out – surviving with only 4 seats – down from 47 last election – as voters embraced ‘le bon Jack’.