In thinking about a review of the year in business in Manitoba while we’re all hunkered down in the fourth wave, you have to remind yourself that there was actual business being transacted in 2021.
The food delivery business — invented in Canada right here in Winnipeg — became a mature industry "overnight" during the pandemic, complete with a narrative about how its earnings were gouging the meagre profits of our favourite restaurants.
The pandemic contributed to further our collective irresponsibility about dealing with climate change even while a historic drought this summer wreaked havoc on the province’s agricultural sector which, it becomes increasingly obvious, is the most important sector of Manitoba’s economy.
The year also introduced the general public to the concept of supply chains, an otherwise anodyne business term that took on sinister characteristics as its disruptions affected everything from the supply of Christmas trees and flowers on Mother’s Day to crucial industrial inputs that caused major employers like New Flyer to go into conniptions while trying to keep the assembly lines moving.
As grim as most everything about 2021 was, here’s the top 10 Manitoba business stories of the year:
Reinventing as we go: It was another year where the free market impulse to satisfy demand was focused on personal protective equipment and the pandemic. The demand for PPE continued to cause many companies to pivot — probably a business buzz word that we’d all just as soon not hear again — but there was still plenty of unfilled need in that regard in 2021. During this past year, local businesses started supplying COVID testing kits and more durable face masks. Other companies — most notably Price Industries — see a long-term unmet market in better indoor air purification technologies.
Wither the local hangout: Restaurants and bars forestalled foreclosure in 2020 with the help of government funding, but as 2021 wore on they started to drop like flies. All businesses that rely on gatherings of people obviously have suffered during the pandemic, but as social beings, it’s most heartbreaking when we see our favourite neighbourhood joints shuttering and that’s starting to happen. Industry experts worry that it’ll be even worse next year.
Happy anniversary: While the year gone by was full of doom and gloom, 2021 was a major milestone for some of the city’s well-known names in business. Wawanesa Insurance, one of the city’s quiet giants, turned 125; Western Glove Works, now more well-known as Silver Jeans, turned 100; and Boeing’s Winnipeg manufacturing operation celebrated (maybe not the right word considering the 737-Max woes and its recent elimination from consideration for the new Canadian fighter jets) 50 years of operation.
The digital era is upon us: Adoption of digital technologies — from Zoom and e-commerce to the rapid development of vaccines and every manner of virtual banking — has been growing exponentially during the pandemic. So far, the claims from digital industry proponents that its growth will not eliminate jobs are holding true with a number of local companies like Bold Commerce, Conquest Planning, Callia Flowers and Neo Financial securing significant capital injections allowing them all to increase their Winnipeg workforces in 2021.
Do I hear $1 million? Winnipeg house-hunters were introduced to the concept of bidding wars this year. The housing market broke records month after month with annual price increases in the double-digits — almost unheard of in this part of the world. But while housing bubbles are on the verge of bursting in cities across the country and around the world, one thing we can all count on is that the Winnipeg housing market will soon (if it hasn’t already) become "balanced", securing the city’s reputation as one of the most affordable and livable cities in North America.
The dark science gets downright scary: Ever since the 1970s and early ’80s when mortgage rates were in the double digits, economists have been focused on ways to keep inflation down, a hallmark of all successful market economies. It shows how bad a year this was that inflation is at an 18-year high … and that does not include the increase in the price of gas. If it weren’t for the fact that everyone was so distracted by so many other day-to-day grievances, the increases in the cost of everything from food, building equipment and used cars would easily have been the business news story of the year.
Protiens‘R’Us: The agri-food industry had its challenges in 2021 with beef producers culling herds and cereals crops decimated by drought, but it was also the year that both Roquette and Merit Functional Foods opened their respective pea and pea and canola protein plants. Roquette’s is the largest pea protein plant in the world and Merit’s is the only place on earth that is producing protein from canola. Both are now key suppliers to some of the largest packaged food companies in the world and have laid the foundation for what could become the region’s most important sustainable industry for the future.
The rich get richer: Perhaps the most humble billionaires on the planet, the Richardson family started off 2021 acquiring Bison Transport, one of the largest trucking businesses in the country and in the summer closed on its acquisition of Italgrani USA Inc., the largest durum and semolina processor in the U.S. The Winnipeg-based company continues to define so many of the characteristics of this local economy from the agri-food sector to downtown development (it is a partner in True North Square). While so many other business all-stars have wandered off or been acquired by ownership from elsewhere, James Richardson & Sons Ltd. remained in the thick of things in Winnipeg in 2021.
Manitoba’s broadband desert: After several mis-starts and downright screw-ups, a new deal between Manitoba Hydro, the province and Xplornet may finally produce some real progress in establishing high-speed internet infrastructure in Northern and remote communities in Manitoba, which have some of the poorest access to broadband in the country. While it will take more than fast download speeds to alleviate poverty in the North, it will at least mean a workable platform for tele-medicine, online education and the possibility to develop digital enterprises in the province’s under-serviced North.
Changing of the guard: Labour market experts say the unprecedented changes in the economy and workplaces have created a scenario where unheard of numbers of workers are quitting their jobs with the expectation of finding better ones. That’s not why Edward Kennedy, Paul Jordan and Barry Rempel decided to retire in 2021, but it meant North West Company, The Forks and Winnipeg Airports Authority respectively — and the Winnipeg business community in general — lost successful, visionary, civic-minded leaders.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.