Photo: Politics Plug-in columnist Faye Roberts solicits sage advice from government relations veteran Bob Crow.

Bob Crow is a government relations powerhouse.

After a 23-year career at Ryerson University and an influential role at the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), Bob was recruited to head up the government relations/university relations team at Research In Motion (now BlackBerry), which at its peak comprised more than 50 employees.

Bob is currently Executive-in-Residence at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo and is a member of the inaugural Board of Directors for the Waterloo Region Economic Development Corporation.

I sat down with Bob to get his take on government relations in Waterloo Region and his advice for entrepreneurs as we near the Oct. 19 federal election.

Q – How do you define government relations?

A – Government relations is a professional activity designed to create business opportunity through public policy and, at the same time, to defend against harmful policy change. GR requires good knowledge of government processes, players and programs and the building of mutually beneficial relationships with officials based on that knowledge. The best GR is built on profound relationships of mutual respect and trust that are fostered over long periods of time. Our politicians and their political staff are always important but may change every few years.  Relationships with government employees can last longer – the entirety of their career or ours.

Q – How do you assess the return on investment when you invest in government relations?

A – We have to think about GR in a businesslike manner – part of the profit and loss mindset. While it is not always possible to be precise, it is important to know that what we are investing in GR is yielding a positive return over a reasonable period of time, say, three to five years on a rolling average basis. I also check to make sure that GR costs are growing at a slower rate than the company’s revenue. Once a solid program is established, GR should be a declining percentage of the company’s top line.

Q – In your experience, what is the need or issue that motivates companies to take an active role in government relations?

A – Many companies are first introduced to the idea of government relations when their accountant suggests pursuing some form of tax credit or government program benefit. That is how RIM started; they wanted to make sure that they were maximizing opportunity while having the lowest cost of compliance on securing R&D tax credits and other benefits. This is incredibly important, especially for younger companies.

Q – What opportunities, if any, do companies miss because they don’t pay attention to what is happening in government?

A – Most companies look south of the border and beyond for customers and opportunities to grow their business. This is a very wise thing to do. But remember: the state of Wyoming is not going to provide tax credits for a product that’s made in Waterloo. Those come from Canada. And it’s not just about financial support. If you operate a business in Canada, I believe that you have a responsibility to understand how to benefit from the business advantages available to your company and to understand and influence the business environment with the tools at hand.

Q – How do small businesses with limited resources access government resources?

A – There are great organizations that small businesses can participate in that are excellent resources of information on government resources. Communitech and the K-W Chamber locally, and their national counterparts like ITAC and the Canadian Chamber, offer memberships and various points of entry for small businesses. These organizations offer events, organized committees and non-partisan information during an election to help you understand the issues that could impact your business.

Q – How does a company know when it is time to engage a GR professional?

Executive teams are usually so focused on serving the customer, financing the company, and perfecting the product and service that GR falls later in the list of priorities. This is completely normal. In my experience, a GR professional in the form of an employee or consultant becomes viable relatively soon after a company has achieved basic stability and is beginning a period of steady growth. Even at this early stage, good GR should pay for itself. Too often, though, GR is engaged at a time of crisis when the relationships with officials who can help have not yet been developed.

Q – What advice would you give to small mid-sized businesses who aren’t paying attention to government?

We’re all citizens of this wonderful country and the companies we work for are extensions of ourselves. As business leaders, we ignore politics and government at our peril. Governments create much of the environment in which we will succeed or fail through their powers of spending, taxation, trade policy, and provision of fundamental services like health and education. So be part of the community setting the agenda for the future. Someone else’s voice will be heard if yours is silent.

Q – What aspects of the federal election should small to medium-sized businesses focus on?

A – Knowing each political party’s statement of policy and the track record of who is running is the baseline.

At this stage, a business association can be very helpful – you can count on a good chamber or tech association to have looked at the policies and the record and give good independent third party advice about the candidates and the parties – and to call out gaps in the platforms and discourse. Read the papers or find the summary from the associations or your trusted advisors.

It’s important to be alert and use the resources that are available. An election only comes around every four of five years but it presents an opportunity for businesses to influence, engage or invest in some “insurance” that will dictate the business environment for years to come.