BDC Small Business Week is October 15-19.
“Small business is often referred to as the engine of our Canadian economy, and Edmonton is no exception,” observes Todd Tougas, vice president, financing and consulting, BDC. “While we know that Edmonton is the provincial capital and host to world class educational institutions, it is much more than a government or university town. Edmonton is a young, diverse, and entrepreneurial city, and with that comes a vast array of emerging business.”
Janet Riopel, president & CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, agrees, “Small business drives the economy and provides over 70 per cent of the private sector jobs in Canada. Close to 85 per cent of our members are small enterprises. They are innovators, job creators, and key contributors to our community and regional economy.
“Entrepreneurs in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region have the attitude, determination, and resilience to build businesses that grow and thrive. It’s a challenging mission in the current economic climate, so the Chamber will do everything it can to support, sustain, and nurture business success.”
That desire to support, sustain, and nurture the small businesses that make up the heart of Edmonton is what drives the Edmonton Chamber and BDC to celebrate BDC Small Business Week each year. Of course, the desire didn’t come from nowhere; it has been driven into the light by the inspiring stories behind every one of Edmonton’s small business owners.
One such entrepreneur is Robyn Lockhart, owner and chef of Rockin’ Robyn’s Diner.
Lockhart started her business in 2012 as a commercial space for her catering services. “Well, now the restaurant is doing so well that I have to limit how much catering I take!” she laughs. “The restaurant has far surpassed any expectations I allowed myself to dream of. I am truly blessed with all of my amazing staff and wonderful customers, so many of whom are regulars, which is so intrinsic to supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs.”
Lockhart attributes Rockin’ Robyn’s success to loyal customers, welcoming staff, a dedication to authenticity, and pie. “Who doesn’t love pie?” she laughs. “It’s a combination of a lot of little things, from the wonderfully welcoming staff I employ in the front, who make sure your experience is warm, comfortable, and super enjoyable, to our dedication to making food like mom used to make. Knowing the soup is made from scratch every day, like ‘in the old days,’ is important to our business and our customers. It keeps us authentic.”
Lockhart observes, “Communities are not built around faceless organizations; they are built around people. For the past six years, we have been a part of the most inclusive community. I always told my family that I really wanted the kind of place that was essentially a ‘Cheers without the beers.’ It’s amazing to see that a community like that can still exist, and that we can have such a strong sense of support from such amazing customers.”
Delphine Romaire, co-founder and co-owner of Elite Dance Studio, feels the same about the support Edmonton’s community has to offer. “We love Edmonton,” Romaire smiles. “It’s culturally diverse. People believe in the arts and want to invest in that journey. It’s vibrant and exciting to be in Edmonton.”
Dominic Lacroix and Delphine Romaire created Elite Dance Studio after they moved to Edmonton in 2002. Both had been living in London, England, with eight Canadian titles under their belt, when they received a call from the University of Alberta. Ready for the next challenge, they relocated to become the university’s dance directors. In 2006, they had a ballroom kids club with six students; now they’ve taught hundreds of children the art of ballroom and Latin dancing.
Elite Dance Studio has grown to three locations across the city, where they provide a non-competitive environment for all ages to learn ballet, hip hop, ballroom dancing, country, two step, burlesque, salsa, bachata, and meringue.
Romaire says, “Small businesses are the people who serve and want to be with the people. They are the heart of the city because they have the pulse of its people.”
Kallie and Alex Williams, owners of Kalex Custom Carvings Ltd., also know the importance of being welcomed into Edmonton’s community and the opportunistic business environment it offers. The custom woodcarvers specialize in making signs and games out of solid maple, but “we can carve almost anything you can imagine into wood,” Kallie Williams smiles—and they are 100% Canadian, with a dedication to sourcing as many local supplies as possible.
Kalex Custom Carvings Ltd. was formed in July of 2014—”when I was about eight months pregnant with our first child,” Williams adds. And if that already sounds like a recipe for a tumultuous start, it barely scratches the surface. Kalex was originally launched in Saprae Creek—just two years before the Fort McMurray wildfire.
“May 3rd, 2016, was a day that changed our lives forever,” Williams remembers. “I was seven months pregnant with our second child. We had just finished working the Fort McMurray Tourism Spring Trade Show, and we were almost ready to send out all the orders that had been made. Our community in Saprae Creek was on a voluntary evacuation after Prairie Creek had been given a mandatory evacuation the night of the 1st. On May 3rd, the smoke had lifted and we woke up to blue skies. We were told to continue our regular routines. By the afternoon, the winds had shifted, and the devastation had consumed the city of Fort McMurray. I was driving home while watching the neighborhood of Beacon Hill and Centennial RV Park burn. Black smoke filled the skies, and the emergency alerts on the radio were sounding. By the time I arrived home, the entire city was under a mandatory evacuation notice.”
Williams threw some clothes in a suitcase, grabbed their emergency files, their four pets, and their daughter. She and Alex each took a vehicle. “I stopped at the end of my driveway and broke down into tears. As I looked in the rear view mirror, I had a sinking understanding that this was the last time I would ever see my home.
“On May 5th, we received confirmation that our house and business, and my parents’ house and business, were gone. We moved into a trailer in Strathcona County, where four adults, a toddler, three cats, and a dog all lived together for just over two months. Alex had lost his job as a chef when the business he worked for burnt down, and I hadn’t worked enough hours as a nurse between pregnancies to qualify for maternity or employment benefits. Alex and I knew that we had to make a decision as soon as possible, especially with a second baby on the way.
“Using most of the insurance money we received for the contents of our home, we put a down payment on a place with a built-on garage in Parkland County. The remaining insurance money was used to purchase equipment and lumber. On July 15th, 2016, we moved into our home, and we were able to restart Kalex Custom Carvings Ltd. On September 28th, 2016, we confirmed our first order from our new shop.”
“The struggles had not ended at that point,” she notes. “We had a great customer base and reputation in Fort McMurray, and with moving to a new area so suddenly, we had to start building our business again from scratch, with very little funding.” Now Kalex also has the US tariffs to contend with; however, through it all, the local business community helped them pull through.
“The business support in Edmonton has been great,” Williams stresses. “There is no way we would be able to continue creating and doing what we love if it wasn’t for the incredible community support and the drive to buy locally.”
“In my opinion,” she concludes, “a small business is formed when an individual or group has a desire to create something different than what is currently seen in the marketplace. They take a huge risk with the unknown but are able to rely 100 per cent on their skill set, determination, and drive to succeed.”