Where some Canadian business people see challenges internationally, Export Development Canada’s Rajesh Sharma sees vast international opportunity
If Robert Hardt were a politician, his election campaign ads would position him as a candidate focused on the future, ready to invest in innovation and research to find high-tech solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing society today, ranging from traffic gridlock to our insatiable appetite for energy.
But Hardt’s not running for office. After all, he already has a lofty title: President and CEO of Siemens Canada, the local wing of Munich-based engineering, electronics and business consulting giant Siemens AG. And he’s already focused on solving many of the most challenging problems facing this country today.
A great part of Hardt’s average day is spent looking to tomorrow and beyond. Thinking small or short-term simply isn’t in his vocabulary, nor would that approach be sufficient to keep his company on the technological cutting edge. “We have an innovation process where we look decades ahead, and we started the discussion a decade ago about mega trends,” he explains. “One was urbanization, for example, and that was all about demographics, water, energy consumption and natural resources use. Coming from those mega trends, we asked ourselves what was necessary to address those issues in a sustainable way to make sure we have the right answers and the right products to provide solutions.”
If Siemens didn’t have the products and solutions necessary to tackle those challenges, it set out to build them. Such is the culture at a company where adhering to its three core values – responsibility, innovation and excellence – guides everything from product development to hiring decisions. It’s the reason why Siemens, celebrating 100 years in Canada, has established itself not only as an innovation juggernaut, but as one of this country’s leading corporate citizens dedicated to improving the lives of Canadians from coast to coast. The company’s success is exemplified by impressive revenue of $3-billion in 2011, not to mention a nationwide presence of 61 offices and 13 manufacturing or assembly facilities across the country.
But strong business metrics alone don’t tell the whole story. The success of Siemens in Canada is best explained by a can-do culture where innovation budgets are sacrosanct (even at the peak of the Great Recession, Hardt says the company maintained its research and development budgets at pre-downturn levels) and hiring people with entrepreneurial, service-first attitudes is a top priority. “[Our values] are internalized in our company,” Hardt explains. “When you have this value-based culture, and when people share those values personally, they bring in their ideas and inject that in the design of our products. That’s what makes a global company like Siemens very strong.”
So, how exactly does the CEO of a company that builds products and provides services in such diverse sectors as industry and energy – think everything from automation software to light-rail cars, wind turbines to drive systems for the oil and gas industry, health care and consumer goods – pinpoint the next big thing for his widely divergent target clientele? Hardt says it comes down to starting the right conversations with the right stakeholders at the right times.
To help develop new urban infrastructure products, for example, Siemens Canada has introduced a city-management approach to help streamline its sales and research and development efforts. In major Canadian centres such as Toronto and Hamilton, the company has installed teams that liaise directly with the city managers, along with their planners and even contracted construction providers, to understand problems and highlight the solutions to solve them. They also educate those stakeholders about new technology and market realities to help inform the municipal decision-making process at all levels. “We need to be part of the discussion and contribute to the discussion from a technological point of view so we have the right understanding of what the citizens and cities really need,” Hardt says of the approach.
He points to the strategy as a core factor in the company’s long-standing success and ability to constantly provide cost-efficient, real-world solutions. It’s also a fountain of new market information and ideas, one of the reasons why, in Siemens Canada’s current development portfolio, a stunning 50 per cent of the products have been conceived and developed in the past five years.
Closely monitoring development trends in both urban and rural areas, as well as public perceptions, government priorities and market realities provides Hardt and his team with clear perspectives on the most pressing issues facing Canadians today. One of the greatest, of course, is environmental sustainability, particularly with the development of Alberta’s oil sands in full swing. Siemens Canada was an early player in the oil sands developments in the 1970s and has watched the sector’s growth closely. It’s no coincidence that the company continues to pump out new products to support resource extraction, while also investing heavily in renewable energy sources such as wind power. Balance, Hardt stresses, is the key to sustainability and continued innovation en route to minimizing energy consumption and carbon emissions, all while delivering business-friendly financial rewards.
“I think when you look at the energy demand we’ll have in the future, it will only increase and renewable energies won’t be able to cover all of that demand. There will still be a very strong reliance on classic energy like coal, oil and gas. The big question is, how can we make them more environmentally friendly, while making them economically viable so we have a balance between economics and sustainability? To do that we invest in innovation, which is why we now have products like the industry’s most efficient gas and wind turbines and drives.”
Looking to the future once again, Hardt is quick to point out the unparalleled set of circumstances that will continue driving innovation opportunities in Canada for decades to come. Few other countries, he observes, boast the Great White North’s economic, social and cultural diversity. In fact, Hardt sees Canada strengthening its position as an innovation hub for Siemens globally. “We see Canada as a very diverse economy that’s strong on the resource, manufacturing and banking side, has strong access to capital and a growing and diverse population,” he says. “We look at that and say that Canada is a very unique country which combines the strength of a G7 country with the opportunity of a BRIC country. You won’t find that anywhere else in the world, and that’s what makes Canada very attractive for Siemens globally.”