Memories, memories . . . How a business starts and continues for 27 years (and what is next)

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MSL
The Merkley Supply show in Ottawa helps connect vendors and end-users through a dealership initiative. However, what can you do to bridge the original supplier/end user relationship gap on your own initiative?
rogers motel
The Smiths Falls, ON motel where I conceived Ottawa Construction News in 1989. The place looks the same in this much more recent picture, though the satellite dishes wouldn’t have been there when I stayed at the place to view page proofs for my original real estate publication

Memories, memories.

I recall the moment in the winter of 1989, in a motel room near our printers in Smiths Falls, when I conceived the idea of publishing our first regional construction publication.

A year earlier, I had started a monthly newspaper for local Ottawa Realtors and, as part of a trade-out, had handed out the papers at a then-new (and now long-gone) local construction show. I discovered at that event that the construction industry’s scale dwarfed the real estate brokerage community, yet there were no local industry-specific publications, other than a twice-annual magazine published by the local construction association.

Yet, would the idea work? Some publishers spend much time on market research; I took a much simpler approach by looking up some businesses which I thought might be suitable advertisers and called them. Would they be interested in supporting the new publication? Thankfully, the answer was “yes” as, within a few weeks, I had sold enough advertising to fund the publication’s launch.

Now, some 27 years later, the original Ottawa Construction News continues, supplemented by GTA Construction Report, Ontario Construction Report (started quickly when I realized some advertisers wanted right away to be in both publications) and the Canadian Design and Construction Report, and titles and websites in Florida, Chicago and North Carolina.

Much has changed. Back in 1989, it was a big deal (and a big expense) to produce colour images. We needed to send our film (yes, old-fashioned film) to a service bureau to have colour separations produced, at a cost of $150 or more each. There was no (at least to the general public) Internet, and Google hadn’t even been conceived.

However some things have stayed consistent through the decades. Beyond some brief experiments with other industries, we’ve stuck to our knitting and focused on the architectural, engineering and construction community. And many of our readers and advertisers have remained loyal clients from the earliest years.

An image from the 2016 MSL show
An image from the 2016 MSL show

As for the old Ottawa Construction Show, one of our earliest Ottawa advertisers, Robert Merkley of Merkley Supply Ltd. decided in 1991 to start his own event – and it is still going strong after 25 years, long after the commercial competing shows disappeared. And thankfully his business continues to be one of our clients.

As my hair grays, we are beginning succession/transition planning initiatives for this business as it moves to the digital age. I envisage that in about two years I will begin a hand-over to an employee ownership structure. There is much work to do in the meantime to make this changeover possible.

I’ve learned over the years some business basics: Focus on your competencies, respect and reflect your market and clients, keep ahead of technology and new initiatives, and remember that we are part of a community, with clients, employees and an obligation to provide service and share our strengths. These are simple, and fortunately, enduring values.

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