Brain Chatter: The Digitty on the Schwiggity

September 8, 2016 Ron Tite, with files from Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai

Pant. Pant. Pant. Pant.

We’re all sprinting on this treadmill of change where we’re simultaneously trying to grow revenue, establish new processes, explore new channels, energize our brand, and brilliantly reinvent ourselves without tripping on the side and being hurled into the wall behind us. It’s not easy and there are a lot of people who will notice if you do. 

Still. You think it’s hard to turn a business around?

Try a city.

Heck, try Oshawa.

Some of you may know that I grew up in Oshawa. The Shwa. The Schwiggity. It was an industrial, blue-collar, one-industry kind of town about 60 km east of Toronto that served as the backdrop of my youth. I love the people I grew up with, I had wonderful and inspiring teachers and coaches, and I have a ton of great memories that include “The O.C.”, “The Gens”, and Lake Vista pre-teen dances.

That being said, I’m not going to lie: It wasn’t exactly an idyllic experience. The South End was a rough hood. The Beer Store was next door (and was always rammed), our apartment building had police cruisers as part of the landscaping, and let’s just say that we didn’t shop at Bargain Harold’s out of choice.

When I was growing up, working on the line was the only gig in town. Everything revolved around GM. If you were over 25 and didn’t work at GM, you certainly wanted to. Great pay, union benefits, and no office politics. General Motors (and all the companies that supported it) created a gritty way of life that was low on pretension and high on hard work. It was an existence that was inspired by the Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds that funded it.

It also created a stereotype that has been pretty tough to break. As far as brands go, Oshawa knows what it means to be burdened by preconceived notions.

As the auto industry has been increasingly outsourced to cheaper labour markets, Oshawa had to redefine itself. And it has. The rest of us (me included) just haven’t caught up with it.

We should. I should.

You want a turn around? Look East.

Before entrepreneurs were defined as, “those people who create an idea to get Series-A funding so a pivot can lead to inflated market cap,” Oshawa helped create one. Robert McLaughlin came to Oshawa in 1876 and brought with him the McLaughlin Carriage Company. The first McLaughlin cars were available in 1908. Then McLaughlin got the rights to build Chevrolets seven years later. By 1918, Chevrolet melded with the McLaughlin Motor Car Company to form General Motors of Canada Limited. Around it, GM helped create an entire industry with companies that made the bumpers, assembled the parts, and even hauled the finished cars away.

You may have heard about its rich automotive history.

Oshawa just wants to talk about more.

Enter Kyle Benham, the city’s Director of Economic Development Services. While he acknowledges the GM story, he says it’s just not the whole story.

According to him GM is down to about 3000 employees. They simply aren’t the largest employer anymore. Benham told us, “it’s a good size, but they aren’t the only game in town.”

While most leaders try to turn organizations around by mandating a new logo, Oshawa took a more organic and honest approach:

  1. It recognized what its assets were.
  2. It didn’t try to be something it wasn’t.

Organizations can’t flip the switch. They can’t disregard their past, forget their history, and head unfettered in a completely new direction. Their DNA is what makes them unique. Ignoring it creates a city without a soul. Embracing it creates something entirely different.

And that’s what Oshawa is doing.

Oshawa’s culture was created by diverse automotive companies who cooperated with one another. They all served GM and the result was a “we’re all in this together” attitude that was supportive and collaborative. Extend that approach across all industries and you land on something pretty special.

The city has been actively putting peer groups together and is constantly connecting businesses with one another.

“They may be in similar industries, but they aren’t competing – they’re complementary,” says Benham. “Competition is an additional fear, but it almost always proves to not be true.”

To foster these mutually beneficial connections, Benham explains that the city tries very hard to make sure businesses can operate effectively in Oshawa.

“The rallying point for them is to let them know they are valued,” Benham said. “It’s making sure you can meet their needs with some responsiveness in the service offering.”

Clearly, it’s working.

The city has been a hot spot for filming (Stephen King’s It was just shot there), it’s building a respected health offering with the Lakeridge Health network, and it’s innovating education with its ever expanding and integrated campuses for Durham College and UOIT.

Oshawa isn’t just talking about change. It’s doing it.

Changing perception doesn’t happen without a change in reality. But consciously changing perception should certainly be a focus now. To do more, they have to talk more.

Oshawa has some great stories. It just has to start telling them.

With relatively affordable housing, Oshawa is attracting more and more people.

Benham expects another 20,000-40,000 residents over the next decade with new skills, new energy and all baggage free.

With a hat tip to its past and its vision for the future, Oshawa can teach the rest of us a lot about change.

Know where you come from.

Know what you’re good at.

Don’t sell your soul. Embrace it.

Collaborate. Support. Cooperate.

Find who you’re in it together with… and stay together.

Know that your past has made you who you are.

You can take the boy out of Oshawa but you can’t take Oshawa out of the boy.

I never forgot my past. I just think I understand it a little better.

 


Want to reinvent yourself? Check out Chapter 2 of Everyone’s an Artist (or at least they should be) written by Ron Tite, Scott Kavanagh, and Christopher Novais. Published by HarperCollins, it will be available on September 20th. Pre-order your copy today.

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