Q&A With Stephen MacKenzie, CEO WEEDC
On September 8, 2016 I sat down for an interview with Stephen MacKenzie, the newly hired CEO of the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC). We met in his second floor office located in the Ed Lumley Centre for Engineering Innovation (CEI) at the University of Windsor.
MacKenzie is 53 years old and a dual Canadian-American citizen. He emerged as the successful candidate from a pool of more than 100 applicants for the position of CEO with WEEDC, a selection process which commenced in May 2016. Photo by Joe McParland.
Here is our interview . . .
Cup of Joe: First of all, welcome to Windsor Essex. It must feel great coming back to Canada. In one sense, coming to Windsor as CEO of the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC) must have had a certain inevitability to it for you. I think you know where I’m going with this. (laughter)
Stephen MacKenzie (SM): Yes, coming from Groton, Connecticut, just two hours away from Windsor, Connecticut down I-84, and then, of course, having been born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, I was only half an hour away from Windsor, Nova Scotia — I always seem to have had an affinity to “Windsor”. So my arrival here in Windsor, Ontario seems to make perfect sense. (laughter)
Cup of Joe: First let me air out with you something that has been a bit of a personal irritant for me for quite a while with regard to WEEDC. The acronym WEEDC needs to be changed. Any organization promoting growth and development should not have as part of its acronym, the word “weed”. (laughter)
SM: That’s a fair point. Point taken and under advisement. (laughter)
Cup of Joe: Stephen, you realize that you are the 10th CEO in the past 12 years in this organization. Without getting into all the sordid details of these 12 years, let me ask you does it give you pause for concern when you realize there has been this kind of turnover?
SM: Well, when I was approached by the search firm, even at the very first contact, they were very open about the fact there had been some turnover and they were looking for stability and for someone with economic development background and credentials. And in doing my own research the fact of turnovers surfaced, but it certainly didn’t bother me. I had a very frank discussion with the search team, and from my own research I came to understand some of the root issues that in part accounted for the turnovers.
Cup of Joe: What gave you the confidence to assume this position from your discussions with the search committee?
SM: There are two things that are very important to me: first, “is there a commitment to regionalism?” Is there a true commitment to regionalism, not just something that’s just in the contract. Regionalism is a culture that needs to be developed. And secondly, “did the search committee and the board feel that the issues accounting for the high turnover had been sufficiently identified and addressed?” The committee was wonderfully open with me and honest and I was completely satisfied. Our product is a region, not something that is tangible or a service. I’m really impressed with the strengths and opportunities of this area.
Cup of Joe: I want to propose to you a metaphor for WEEDC’s last decade. WEEDC is metaphorically the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey organization. The Maple Leafs play in a hockey market mecca, have a fan base envied by most of the league, have an amazing facility to play in — the Air Canada Centre — and are an organization with deep financial pockets. Yet, they’ve missed the playoffs 10 of the last 11 years and during that time have had seven different head coaches. They’ve got so much going for them as a sports organization, but have been unable to kick it up to the next level. I see quite a few similarities with them to WEEDC.
SM: (laughter) Well I think the 2016 draft this year was tremendous for WEEDC (laughter). In evaluating where we are now, I’m very impressed with board members and their commitment to the organization and the region. The staff is very passionate in the economic development business, for all the right reasons. In spite of the competitive challenges that we will have to face with other areas, there’s so many assets in this region that we need to build on. Our geographic location favours us, being within an eight hour drive of 50% of the North American population and having the busiest border crossing, opens up opportunities in logistics. Our office is located across from the EPICentre (The Entrepreneurship, Practice and Innovation Centre) of the University of Windsor in the Engineering building. You always want to diversify industries like you diversify your stock portfolio, but the traditional industries — automotive and tool and die — they’re both still very strong, and this new culture of innovation, along with the integration of the college and university with industry, allow the companies and the unions to work together in new ways. It doesn’t matter that the automotive industry could be classified as “mature,” it’s every bit an emerging industry as something new because of the fact of innovations like lightweighting, alternative power sources, etc.
Cup of Joe: In your short time here Stephen, what have you identified to be the most significant challenge facing our region in terms of economic development?
SM: One of our big advantages is our location in terms of our proximity to the Detroit and the Midwest markets, but that can also become for us a competitive issue and a significant challenge. From my experience in economic development, there seem to be more economic incentives south of the border as well as lower power and energy costs. These issues need to be addressed. So this requires us to invest considerable effort into our business expansion and business retention efforts through getting out and talking with regional companies and businesses, and then relating information we get from them to the various levels of government — municipal, provincial and federal. But, I really believe the challenges we face are outweighed by our current regional assets and potential.
Cup of Joe: In your research have you encountered the stereotype of this region as being a militant labour area, which may cause new businesses to be hesitant about looking to Windsor? Many would suggest that while this may have been a label Windsor Essex deserved decades ago, our current labour force certainly doesn’t reflect this reality today.
SM: On a higher level one of the things that has become apparent to me is that the strengths and assets of this region are not well known, sometimes even within the region itself, let alone by outsiders. We need to step back and be able to see the forest for the trees and acknowledge the good things that are going on. And unless this Corporation works to update the region’s brand image and reputation, driven by data informing of the facts, then, by default, the position is maybe a 40 year-old perception continues to linger. In my short time here I can confidently say that reputation you speak of is not deserved. Too often labour disputes make great headlines and the rhetoric of two sides give rise to unfair and inaccurate conversations. Outsiders look not so much for whether there is a union or not, but if there is harmony and a partnership relationship between the two sides, providing a consistency that can be counted on for immediate and for longer periods of time. So I look forward to doing what I can in this regard and dispelling outdated perceptions.
Cup of Joe: How important is it to foster good relations with partners such as Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island (TWEPI) and our schools of higher education? Specifically, I point to the success of the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry and how, through their presence in our region in the past few years, we have been able to improve this region’s doctor shortage through the retention of out-of-town students who studied here and subsequently chose to remain here after graduation.
SM: Again, I’ve only been here eight days but it is already clear to me that the wonderful assets and news of this region, including the quality of life, is not getting out there. I can say with confidence that as an outsider becoming an insider, this is a message we will work hard to get out. And the message will be fact driven. It’s not going to be a flowery lipstick on a pig approach, because that is not required. There are great things happening here and we are going to work hard to promote those and work hard to change old and unfair images. I’ve always considered tourism as an industry cluster; it’s a little bit different and special, but it’s just as important as the automotive industry, advanced manufacturing, and other emerging industries. I’ve always looked for the synergies with tourism whose mandate is to promote the assets of the region. Because while businesses looking to expand here will look at business cases to be made, they also look at the quality of life their employees will require. They want to know what kind of amenities, schools, affordable housing, safety, low crime statistics, entertainment and recreation the region has to offer. And so you can count on the fact that we will work very closely with the tourism people.