Smooth Leadership Transition at EBRC

Kevin Jackson and Sarah Foshay, leadership at Elgin Business Resource Centre in St. Thomas Ontario

When Kevin Jackson retires as the general manager of the Community Futures Development Corporation (aka Elgin Business Resource Centre) on April 1, his hand-picked successor, Assistant General Manager Sarah Foshay, will take the reins of the agency.

She was, notably, the winner of the first-ever “The Pitch” organized by EBRC in partnership with other agencies, a contest where entrepreneurs vie for cash and inkind prizes to help start or expand a business.

The EBRC is a federally-funded, not-forprofit agency, one of 267 across Canada. The St. Thomas office opened in 1986, with an eye to encouraging and promoting economic development in rural areas.

The agency had access to satellite offices across Elgin, Mr. Jackson said, but had found since the start of COVID that clients wanted to either meet at their place of business, or virtually.

He first joined the local office in 2011 and has been general manager for the last 10 years.

I am the longest-standing general manager we’ve ever had,” he said. And, after April 1, he’ll stay on in a mentorship role four days a week until the end of September 2024.

Mr. Jackson said he believed the business environment in St. Thomas and Elgin was doing quite well, and he was “cautiously optimistic” about future growth, citing the great number of local entrepreneurs with small- to medium-sized businesses.

He also looked forward to all the offshoot businesses that would inevitably open in the area to serve the new Volkswagen electric vehicle battery plant in St. Thomas.

“I am very optimistic about the future of Elgin County.”

Ms. Foshay said Elgin and St. Thomas were going through a period of economic recovery following COVID, as well as seeing new developments and new businesses, which was really exciting.

Mr. Jackson said diversity was also growing in the area, with the arrival of newcomers with new business ideas, especially since the pandemic.

“Things have changed a lot in the nature of the kinds of businesses we help” as the local economy evolved, he continued.

Many of the businesses EBRC helped were types that didn’t exist when he first started at the agency.

He recalled having to encourage businesses just to have a simple website online, whereas now, some did all their business over the Internet as “virtual assistants,” helping companies develop a social media presence.

The initial phases of COVID restrictions spurred local companies to expand into the online market.

The kinds of businesses helped by EBRC in recent years included “just about everything,” such as many restaurants and companies related to the food industry, many in the trades such as plumbers, roofers, contractors and service industries, as well as manufacturing, transportation and the retail sector.

EBRC also offered help with community-based economic development, such as with the historic CASO Station and Elgin County Railway Museum in St. Thomas.

Mr. Jackson said a national survey recently found that fledgling businesses that receive help from Community Futures programs were twice as likely to succeed as those that did not. “That speaks volumes.”

Still, more than half of new start-ups wouldn’t survive the first five years but, on the positive side, many entrepreneurs who failed on initial attempt, came back and, with greater experience, succeeded on the second.

“We do it all” in terms of services offering to businesses, Mr. Jackson continued. If someone came in “with a lightbulb moment,” an idea for a new enterprise but having never previously run a business, EBRC counsellors could help them set a business plan and, if viable, even lend them seed money to start with.

“Lending money is a major component of Community Futures in general,” but while the agency saw hundreds of clients a year, it only had the resources to give out dozens of loans.

“We are so much more than loans,” and many new businesses had benefitted greatly from the counselling and educational programs EBRC offered.

Many of the eight to 12 staff members at the resource centre had experience in starting and operating businesses themselves, as well as years of experience in counselling.

They came from varied backgrounds, and EBRC tried to provide the best possible match to meet the specific needs of a client.

Mr. Jackson said he still absolutely loved the work he did at EBRC and was honoured to have served the people of Elgin County.

“We do a lot of good here at EBRC for the community in general,” and he was proud of that.

The most challenging part of his job, he allowed, was having to work with limited funding. The federal government had been generous in setting up EBRC, but getting more funds for operations was tough.

“We’ve had to stretch that dollar a long way over the years,” he said. “We’re not like a business,” with the ability to expand production to increase revenue.

The agency had always been able to overcome the challenges of working with limited funding, but if EBRC had more, it could do more, he asserted.

EBRC had also partnered with other agencies when funding was available and has taken on provincial contracts from time to time, as well.

The agency had just finished a “Digital Main Street” project funded by the Ontario government and others and had occasionally received money from Elgin County for its work.

Ms. Foshay got her start as an entrepreneur in 2014, after previously working for St. Thomas-Elgin Public Health Unit (now Southwestern Public Health).

She’d been part of the health unit’s “Healthy Smiles Ontario” program providing dental services to children, but parents would ask here, “Where can I go for me?”

Inspired by that need, she wrote a business plan, sought mentors in 2012 and 2013, and then in 2014 opened Smart Dental Hygiene in Aylmer.

At the time, it was the first and only independent dental hygiene clinic in the region, but she decided to sell it in 2019, though for a time she stayed on for one day a week as a mentor.

(The new owner has since gone on to open a second clinic, in St. Thomas.)

She then applied for a job at EBRC in 2021 but ended up as a runner-up.

When Mr. Jackson, who’d agreed to be a reference on her application, heard that, he telephoned and offered her another vacant position there.

Ms. Foshay noted that earlier, when she’d been the first victor in what would become the annual “The Pitch” competition, she’d received $6,500 in cash and in-kind prizes.

Mr. Jackson said that contest now offered over $40,000 in prizes, and he credited that to Ms. Foshay, who, after starting at EBRC, had taken over that program and grown it exponentially.

He added he was excited that, for the first time, someone with roots in Elgin County, and specifically in East Elgin, who was also young and a woman, would be taking charge at EBRC.

Ms. Foshay added she’d resided in Elgin all her life and had been born and raised in Aylmer.

At EBRC, she’d started as a community engagement and business advisor, and then moved on to become interim assistant general manager, a position that was subsequently made permanent.

Now, she’s the future general manager of the organization.

“I love that I have roots in Elgin County. I can use that history, and experience starting a business in Elgin County, helping other businesses get started. It’s full circle.”

She planned to continue the ongoing work that’s being done by EBRC under Mr. Jackson, but also had some ideas he was toying with that she didn’t want to talk about publicly yet.

She saw EBRC as continuing to have a role in the community and whatever it transforms into, with the massive growth expected to accompany the arrival of the new battery plant.

Mr. Jackson told her, “It’s an exciting time for you to be taking over.”

He added that he was very proud of what EBRC had offered and accomplished over the last 10 years.

“I wouldn’t turn my baby over to anyone who didn’t have the same foresight and love of my baby that I have.”

They’d started working on a transition plan for his retirement about 18 months ago, he said. They put their heads together and came up with a plan (as they advised businesses to do when passing ownership on from one generation to the next).

He first approached EBRC’s board executive. “They loved it.”

Then they got the approval of the full board.

Other organizations were envious of how smoothly that transition planning had gone, he noted.

He expected in six months everyone will be saying, “Kevin who? That’s the way it should be.

“I couldn’t have a better replacement.