International sensations

From a cartoon-maker to a crime-fighter: these four Canadian firms are excelling in the global market

Angelina Chapin, Barbara Righton and Paul Gallant
International sensations

Kerun Ip; John McKinnon

International sensations
Kerun Ip; John McKinnon

The HSBC International Business Awards, created in conjunction with Business Without Borders, Maclean’s and Canadian Business magazine, celebrate the very best of Canadian companies, large and small, which are doing business globally. Selected from over 60 entries by an independent panel of business experts, this year’s four winning firms were chosen for their global growth, the merits of their international business strategies and their ability to overcome challenges as they sell their Canadian goods and services outside our borders.

Toon Boom

HSBC International Business of the Year, Small and Medium Enterprise

In Steven Mussey’s field, people say funny things all the time. At least the curly-haired doctor thinks so. That’s because Mussey, who has a Virginia-based internal medicine practice, thinks the U.S. health care system can be laughable. After a long day’s work, he likes nothing more than to make animated videos illustrating his frustrations. His most recent shows a doctor explaining to a woman that her grandfather’s heart operation was complicated by a Nerf gunfight between himself and the nurse. It took him 2½ weeks, and annoyed the physicians who saw it online.

Yet his animations will always keep some people smiling: the staff of Montreal-based software company Toon Boom. Since he started using the company’s product about eight years ago, Mussey’s become an ambassador of the brand—his work is used as a case study on its website, and his blog shows people how to use the software. “They made software reachable for all of us part-time animators,” he says.

Toon Boom has 12 software products, ranging from its most comprehensive, called Toon Boom Harmony, which handles all the steps in producing a professional show, to FlipBoom Cartoon, a simple platform for kids and beginners. After starting out in 1994 to provide a way for big animation companies like Disney (its first client) to become more efficient, Toon Boom realized growth in the professional market was limited. So, two years later, it focused on emerging markets and pioneered the animation business in India by setting up schools to train students to be employed by North American studios. The company has now exported its business model to every continent, and international business makes up 95 per cent of its profits.

Toon Boom has only one main competitor, Adobe Flash. So it gives away its technology for a period of time to studios that are considering switching from Adobe, and holds free training sessions in Los Angeles to get animators used to the software. Atomic Cartoon, a large Vancouver studio, just converted their software in April, and it will become the second-largest Harmony Toon Boom user in Canada. The company, which has won a handful of awards, including an Emmy for engineering in 2005, hopes to convert between five and 10 North American Flash-based studios in the next few years.

Forensic Technology

HSBC International Business of the Year, Large Enterprise

When Montreal engineer Robert Walsh founded Forensic Technology in the early 1990s, he had no knowledge of guns and no inkling that his company’s invention—the Integrated Ballistic Identification System (IBIS)—would become so famous that it would be featured on CSI TV shows and Jeopardy. Now installed in some 60 countries, including more than 200 locations in the U.S., IBIS is a sophisticated crime-fighting tool that allows lab technicians to digitalize and integrate microscopic information from spent bullets and casings and, with the click of a mouse, “talk” to other IBIS hubs. Put simply, it is a system for the fingerprinting of guns.

Once its technology was in place, going global was an obvious step, especially since gun crime was exploding elsewhere. “The U.S. was a natural,” Walsh says. Following its first federal contract in Washington in 1994, Forensic Technology has continued to work on upgrades of its IBIS product (soon to be available in 3-D) while hiring a sales force that currently numbers 16 at home in Canada and 40 in such places as Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Latin America.

Such expansion was not without its challenges. “You aren’t going to do business in Canada and the U.S. in the same way as you are going to do it in the Philippines,” says vice-president and general manager René Bélanger. If he has any advice for companies seeking to go abroad, Bélanger frames it this way. “You need to know where you are going, and you need to strive for that particular segment of the market that ties with your product and keep going at it.” With an IBIS hub to boast about at Interpol in Lyon, France, Bélanger adds, “the world is still our target.”

B+H Architects

Leadership in International Trade, Asia-Pacific

Founded in Toronto in 1953, architecture firm B+H put up its shingle in Shanghai in 1992, becoming one of the first foreign architectural firms in mainland China. It later won an international competition to design the Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport.

Although Canada is not known for being on the forefront of international design, B+H, which has eight offices around the world, including Vancouver, Delhi, and Dubai, has become a go-to architect in China. It has worked on thousands of designs and studies, and been involved in “hundreds and hundreds” of buildings. Of the fast-moving Chinese market, Karen Cvornyek, B+H president of China operations, says: “The first rule you have to learn is that things move much faster. They show up, they want us to assemble a team and start tomorrow, or they’ll go to another office.”

B+H’s projects in China have mirrored the central government’s priorities. In the 1990s, it was infrastructure. In the early 2000s, it was residential housing. Now the government is trying to create a domestic market by nurturing a more consumer-oriented society. So B+H is designing entertainment and shopping centres. Cvornyek says having a presence on the ground in China is crucial. And patience is as important as speed. “You can’t expect to make all your profit in the first year,” she says. “You have to find the right partners and really get to know them.”

Bassett & Walker International Inc.

Leadership in International Trade, Latin America

Every day, Toronto’s Bassett & Walker International buys agricultural commodities from producers in Latin America. Then it sells them to processors in some 40 countries. The beef, fish, chicken, pork and soya feed the world; the enzymes and proteins from the dairy side make its drugs. It’s a specialized area—BWI is among only about 100 companies that do half a trillion dollars in trade every year.

Founded in 1992, BWI boasts team members who have backgrounds in economics and farm production; people who understand the food chain and can talk turkey in many languages. “In BWI’s world, markets are interrelated, and without borders,” says CEO Nicholas Walker. “The key to success is the development of deep, long-lasting relationships with confidence, mutual respect, understanding of needs and trust.”

And he likes the challenge of changing the face of his business. To squeeze out the waste in the process—ensuring that farmers get more money for their goods and consumers get better pricing—he developed the Online Trading System (OTS), a Web platform that cuts out intermediaries. “One pound of beef had something like 77 hands touching it from producer to consumer,” Walker says. “We have reduced that process by 60 per cent.”

His advice to others? “The only way for companies that are seeking to expand their businesses outside Canada is to get out, meet partners, invest the time and the money, get a very deep understanding of clients’ needs.” And, he adds, make your work your fun.