A small-business champion

Deirdre McMurdy November 6 2000

A small-business champion

Deirdre McMurdy November 6 2000

A small-business champion

Deirdre McMurdy

Last week, as Canadas financial markets were rocked by investor response to Nortel Networks Corp.’s third-quarter results and traders bemoaned the loss of billions of dollars in paper capital, it was business as usual for Shirley Ryan. Dressed in a jaunty red suit, the diminutive executive director of the North Saskatoon Business Association clattered briskly around the Prairieland Exhibition Centre Hall in high heels, putting together the final touches on a roast-beef luncheon celebrating Small Business Week in the city.

Organizing lunches, banquet receptions and other social events is just a small part of Ryan’s constant whirl of activity. As den mother to 650 member companies, she’s part lobbyist, part activist and a perennial booster of local entrepreneurs. From her headquarters in an industrial strip mall in the city’s bleak north end, she dispenses advice, opinions and wisecracks—-all the while puffing on Players Lights cigarettes and swilling black coffee. “I have close rapport with our members—they call me up and ask, ‘What are you on about today, you old bag?’ ” she laughs. “It’s my job to keep them in touch with the issues and to help out with their problems.”

Typically, those issues and problems can involve zoning conflicts with the City of Saskatoon, reform of the provincial sales-tax structure or tackling the public school board on its construction-cost overruns. “A big chunk of tax dollars comes from small-business owners, as residents and businesspeople,” she barks. “You bet we’re gonna watch how they’re spent.”

But increasingly, Ryan says she’s concerned about the bigger picture: the exodus of trained and talented young people from the province, the challenge of getting local ventures to embrace basic technology, and, consequently, Saskatchewan’s relative weakness in attracting new enterprises in a competitive provincial market.

According to Ryan, part of the problem is being next door to the aggressively pro-business environment created by the Klein government in Alberta. There, a combination of reduced business and personal taxes has stoked independent enterprise, enabling the province to cultivate a strong high-tech sector. And that has helped to counterbalance the historical boom-and-bust cycle of the Alberta oilpatch.

But while Saskatchewan’s roots in agribusiness have helped to spur some biotechnology developments, that past has also been a hindrance. Until fairly recently, the provincial economy was dominated by the production of just two commodities: wheat and potash. Marketing and dis-

tribution of those products was handled by either the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool or Canpotex Ltd., the potash marketing agency. “We’re behind in the game because for so long we didn’t focus much on adding value,” Ryan observes. “Neither did we develop the export expertise that comes from a strong marketing function. But that’s exactly what you’ve got to have in this global economy: the right mindset as well as the experience.”

In her relentless campaign to improve the fortunes and opportunities of her members, Ryan works closely with the local chamber of commerce. She has also struggled to broaden her membership base to include local bankers and professionals who can help them. On a biweekly basis, the association facilitates “Club Connect,” allowing members to network and to pitch business to one another. And at the many public events she attends, as at last week’s small-business luncheon, she openly buttonholes senior cabinet ministers, like Janice MacKinnon, who holds the provincial economic development portfolio, for a session of political gossip.

Although Ryan has no shortage of blunt, personal views, which she expresses in occasionally salty outbursts, she demurely insists that she remains apolitical and tries to work with whichever party is in power. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that a looming race to replace provincial New Democratic Party leader Roy Romanow, who is stepping down as premier, and the existence of a coalition government, do not contribute to a strong direction for business policy.

Still, politics has nothing to do with the clearly affectionate response Ryan elicits among her constituents.

“You look more beautiful every time I see you, Shirl,” says one member.

“Had your eyes checked lately?” she snaps back. Everyone roars.

With a gruff word for everyone, Ryan has steadily worked her turf for the past 10 years. She began her career in the late 1960s in the Toronto public relations department of investment dealer Wood Gundy. There, she met her husband, Bill, a stockbroker, and together they moved to Saskatoon in 1971. After raising two sons and nursing her elderly mother, she sold real estate briefly. Then came the job at the NSBA, and Ryan came into full bloom. “I just love the job,” she says. “Every day you can accomplish something, make some progress.”

That’s a lot more than you can say about the overwrought trading in high-tech shares, not to mention last week’s paper losses from Nortel alone. But then, the folks on Bay Street lost Shirley Ryan to the NSBA years ago. And they’re not getting her back.