Both Opportunities NB (ONB) and the province of New Brunswick have faced a year of transition. On top of COVID-19 and its impact, a new strategic plan reset our course for the future with an eye towards doing our part to close the prosperity gap between New Brunswick and the rest of Canada. ONB and its board of directors have embraced this new direction. We firmly believe in the potential that exists within this province.
Derek Pannell joined ONB as Interim Board Chair in May. Mr. Pannell is a former Board Chair of Brookfield Infrastructure Partners Limited and Agrium/Nutrien, a Saskatoon-based fertilizer company. He is also the former CEO of both Noranda Inc. and Falconbridge Limited, and former Vice President, Operations of Compania Minera Antamina. A graduate of Imperial College and the Royal School of Mines in London, Mr. Pannell’s career has brought him across Canada and to places like Peru and Sub-Saharan Africa.
We sat down with Derek to get his thoughts on joining ONB, New Brunswick’s future, and more.
ONB: First, tell us how you came to be Interim Chair of the ONB board.
Pannell: I received a call almost six months ago asking if I could take on this role for a six-month period. After a lot of thought I agreed to do it, and for a couple of reasons. First, I have a lot of empathy for the province of New Brunswick and its people. I would really love to see it move forward in a positive way and thought joining ONB would be the right contribution I could make towards that cause. Also, I feel you can’t criticize if you don’t step up to the plate if you’re asked to do so.
You joined us at a unique time. Just weeks after accepting the role, COVID-19 began hitting North America. What has this experience been like these past few months?
To say it’s been unusual would be an understatement. I had no previous government experience and getting up to speed while not really being able to meet with people face to face was a challenge. On top of that, we had not only the long-term vision of the province and ONB to work on, but the sudden short-term issue of how to respond to the coronavirus and its impact. It was so important that the province and ONB react quickly to the pandemic and move to support New Brunswick businesses in any way that we could. I think we did just that, with the Business Navigators team expanded and the working capital loans in place. That was a lot to focus on but I’m impressed with the team at ONB and how hard they worked to get it done.
COVID-19 has made 2020 a challenge for everyone. Do you see reasons to be optimistic, however?
Certainly, we should all be thankful for the remarkable job the province has done at handling the pandemic. Our case totals are still very low, and as a result, we’ve been able to open businesses quicker than most jurisdictions. I don’t think we should shy away from trumpeting those accomplishments. Every business we’d like to see join us in New Brunswick should know about it.
We already know New Brunswick is a desirable place to live, and I think post-pandemic that case is only stronger. I think many professionals may be more than ready to make the move here and work remotely. Remote work was already becoming more common pre-COVID, so if we play this right, more well-paid professionals may be willing to make their move here. The level of safety and security we’ve been able to achieve for New Brunswickers is very attractive. The province has plenty of beautiful space to enjoy, affordable living costs and a great quality of life. Add to that some incredible universities and community colleges and I see no reason we can’t continue to attract more talent to the province. People’s memories can be short, however, so now is the time to keep reminding them how well New Brunswick dealt with the pandemic.
Are there any specific sectors where you feel New Brunswick is well-positioned to attract more private investment?
Beyond the priority sectors like cybersecurity and ICT, energy, and digital health, we still have other industries that are worth growing. Look at wild blueberries, for example. New Brunswick is one of the world’s leaders in supplying them. I’d like to see us capitalize on sectors like that more, ones where we have natural advantages. There’s plenty of opportunities there in terms of value-added products like jams, beverages, and more. Invest in the right technologies and we can make it happen.
And of course, traditional industries like forestry and value-added wood products remain an area where we can bring more growth. We just have to be aggressive and go after successful companies with confidence.
You mentioned technology. Can you speak to the opportunities for New Brunswick businesses in terms of investing in new technologies and productivity?
Productivity is so important because our competitors will not stay still. Countries like China will eat our breakfast if we don’t remain competitive, it’s that simple. We need to ensure our companies are using what’s available to them in terms of automation or robotics and support their efforts to modernize every aspect of their production. This creates more well-paying jobs as well. Automation means people are needed to design and maintain these machines, fix them, program them, etc. Those are high skill jobs. This makes our companies more competitive and ultimately more sustainable. Once we have groundswell and our companies start innovating more, we begin attracting more innovative companies and talent. People want to be where interesting things are happening. That’s how Silicon Valley became what it is.
What gets you most excited about New Brunswick’s future?
I think it’s being able to attract more professionals to the province because of the standard of living we’ve created here. It’s the chance to build on our pandemic recovery and showcase what a forward-thinking, safe place this is to live. We’ve got many great industries to build on here, both traditional and emerging. Let’s go after world-class businesses that are ready to take some risks and let them know we can reduce those risks through ONB and its support. We will help them grow, hire, improve their productivity, and expand their export markets.
Over the past five months, the competence I’ve seen at ONB and the willingness and ability to step up and try to think outside the box and help companies here, it’s been tremendous. Too many people in private industry I think still see government as inherently inefficient. I’d go to bat for ONB any day. The amount of hard work and enthusiasm that people have for helping New Brunswick industry thrive is heartening. From Sadie Perron on down, the people at ONB are so positive and so proud of the province. Great people with great tools and skills at their disposable, and great companies to work with every day. That’s worth being excited about.
We have already shared the experiences of several New Brunswick businesses succeeding in the post-pandemic ‘new normal’. In the coming weeks, ONB will continue to tell the stories of companies already at work building the new New Brunswick we envision.
Keep an eye on this space as well as our social media channels as we begin rolling out these success stories.