By Brian Dunn

The world’s population is getting older and growing at a much slower pace than in recent years which is good for the environment, but bad for business, according to Canadian demographer and author David Foot, best known for his “Boom, Bust and Echo” books. Some countries will be in worse shape than others, he predicted at the 2013 annual conference and 110th anniversary of the Shipping Federation of Canada in Montreal on April 10 during a presentation entitled “How changing demographics are redefining the corporate world.”

In terms of NAFTA, “Mexico is younger than the U.S., and Canada’s population is older than the U.S. and getting worse. Eastern Canada is older than Western Canada, with Quebec being the oldest province and Alberta the youngest.”

Mr. Foot said college and university enrolment in Canada peaked in 2011. He expects it to drop over the next five years unless more foreign students can be attracted to continue their post-secondary education here. Canada’s fertility rate of 1.7 births per household is below the 1.8 – 2.4 rate needed to sustain growth which is why we have the highest immigration rate in the world, Mr. Foot noted.

Looking at other countries, the demographer said Mexico, Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia are poised to take off economically with the right mix of young and old people, an educated female population and a sustainable fertility rate. At the other end of the scale, countries such as Egypt, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with high fertility rates and high unemployment “are destined for permanent instability.”

Mr. Foot also predicted more Arab Springs in several countries that can’t provide employment for their growing and restless populations and expects the problem of piracy off the east and west coasts of Africa to continue for the same reason. “The threat off Somalia is bigger now than before, while in west Africa, a threat is emerging because of similar demographic conditions in Nigeria and Ivory Coast,” Mr. Foot said following the conference. In many instances, pirates can net millions of dollars by siphoning off a vessel’s fuel. He suggested the problem may be difficult to resolve, because a shipping federation or similar industry organization must act in concert to solve an industry-wide problem. But industry members are fierce competitors under normal circumstances. “So, quite often, they’ll turn to governments to help them resolve their problem, but most governments simply don’t have the resources to send in war ships to help out.”

The conference also heard from Paul Tellier, Chairman, Global Container Terminals and Thomas Quinn, Chairman and CEO, QSM Group and Chairman, Canada Games Council, who shared their views on “Corporate leadership and success in a changing environment.”

Mr. Tellier, former President and CEO of CN Rail, explained some of the challenges he faced to transform the government-owned, bloated and bureaucratic organization into a public company. “There was no preoccupation with the bottom line, no customer focus whatsoever and no sense of urgency. It needed a shakeup.” He compared CN’s lethargy to the rise of Bombardier (where he was also CEO between 2003 and 2004) from a snowmobile maker to become the world’s largest manufacturer of subway and railway cars, and third-largest aircraft maker.

“The first ingredient for success is to have a clear goal. At CN, we wanted to turn it into a profitable organization in order to sell shares to the public. In terms of our cost structure, 44 per cent was labour related. So we had to sit down with the unions.” The first order of business was to reduce the payroll by 5,000 people to make the company more attractive for an initial public offering, because “the company was going to be owned by investors, not the government.”

Tellier’s advice for anyone who has to go through a similar company shakeup is to make their intentions clear and to surround themselves with competent people. It’s also important to communicate the company’s “vision” at every level on a daily basis and to ensure everyone is “well connected” with their customers. “In terms of execution, people have a lot of strategies, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” The former CN boss said trade unions have an important role to play and his approach was to treat union leaders with respect. “Don’t take them by surprise and be transparent.”

In order for companies to grow and prosper, they must embrace change or they will disappear, said Mr. Quinn, a former president and Chief Operating Officer of sporting goods company Forzani Group. He cited Woolco and Woolworth’s as examples.

Forzani was acquired by Canadian Tire in 2011 and one of the biggest challenges facing the organization was to boost the performance of its corporate stores to the level of its franchise operations which did significantly better. In addition, corporate stores had an 80 per cent turnover rate of its part-time staff and 40 per cent of its managers. “The authoritative culture in those stores had to change. A high per cent of a company’s failure, some 90 per cent of the time, is due to management’s unwillingness to change,” said Mr. Quinn.

Some of the effective leadership characteristics he outlined included the need to understand where an organization is and where it wants to go, and it should never take its eye off the cash flow. “And don’t use cash flow to grow the company.” “Never risk an organization on one decision, and understand how you communicate with your target audience and that there is more than one target audience and ensure everyone in the organization understands the company’s vision.” It is also important to react swiftly to negativity within the organization which sometimes can be turned around by a simple conversation to air grievances. “If you treat employees well, they will treat customers well.”

The luncheon speakers were Montreal Canadiens legends Yvan Cournoyer, winner of ten Stanley Cups and Réjean Houle with five cups. Both talked about the importance of learning and working as a team and respecting opposing teams. Mr. Cournoyer reminded his audience that he played his entire career with the Habs, a rarity these days which Mr. Houle picked up on. “It’s tougher to win consistently, because players don’t stay with the same team for long. But it’s like a business. You need to keep the team together.”