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Networking in the north

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The invisible trading wall is crumbling as 150 participants opened up possibilities of doing business with their counterparts on the other side of the Canada-U.S. border.

That’s what happened at the fourth-annual “Northern Networks” trade conference held in Fort Frances last week. And organizer Geoff Gillon, with the Rainy River Future Development Corp. here, stressed it was just the start of the process.

“The networking has just begun,” echoed Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon, one of seven mayors in attendance.

Though the free trade agreement was signed nine years ago, Gillon said many small and medium-sized businesses don’t look beyond the local market.

Traditionally, Canadians have been told to spend in Canada, he said, but that means travelling great distances to get to the big markets.

“Because the marked in the United States is 20-some-odd times bigger than the market in Canada, I could go from Canada as a whole to New York and get the same size market—only in one state," noted Donna Messer, the conference’s keynote speaker who’s Mississauga-based consulting firm, "Connect Us,” focuses on international networking.

And she stressed conferences like this were key in linking up trading partners.

“It’s bringing together a group of people who are like-minded," she added. "They all want to increase their business and they all want to do it by either a joint venture, a strategic alliance or a partnership, and they’re saying, ‘Here’s what I have to offer. What do you have to offer?’”

One misconception was that things would be easy. Messer stressed entrepreneurs had to find out what the other person needed—not necessarily what they needed themselves.

“The reality is [they] have to establish a relationship and that relationship is built on a feeling that [they] both want to do business,” she said.

But with the energy that radiated from the group, Gillon was optimistic about the future of trading opportunities between Northwestern Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

And he was hopeful next year’s conference in Wausau, Wis. would allow businesses to expand its contacts into the U.S. Midwest.

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