Thriving Toronto tech firm shows wisdom of hiring immigrant talent

“Help wanted. Canadian experience not necessary”.

For many immigrants applying for jobs in Canada –be it as a factory worker or an IT professional — those words are but a dream.

Unless, of course they happen to apply with Samtack Computer Inc. where having “Canadian experience” on your résumé doesn’t mean a thing.

As a job qualification Fouad Jazouli doesn’t believe Canadian experience counts for much. “I respect it, but set greater store on a person’s attitude,” said Jazouli, vice-president of marketing and operations for the firm.

Jazouli is originally from Lebanon.

Based in the Greater Toronto Area, in the city of Markham, Ont., Samtack is one of the largest computer and parts distributing companies in Canada. It counts Wal-Mart, Future Shop and Best Buy among its clients. More than 90 per cent of its workforce — from factory floor to the board room — is comprised of immigrants who’ve been educated and trained outside Canada.

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For nearly 20 years now  the company’s hiring strategy has been to tap into skills of immigrants rather than turn away job applicants because they lack Canadian experience that many hiring managers seek from applicants.

The strategy has worked very well for Samtack, according to Royson Ng, president of the company and himself an immigrant from Malaysia. In the past nine years, the firm’s revenues soared more than six-fold from $20 million to $130 million.

The icing on the cake was when the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) recently awarded Samtack the RBC Immigrant Advantage Award in recognition of the company’s efforts to hire newcomers. The Council’s mandate is to create and champion initiatives that better integrate skilled immigrants in the Greater Toronto labour market

Living the Canadian dream

“I am living the Canadian dream and would like to give other newcomers a chance to achieve it to,” said Ng whose first job upon landing in Canada, 19 years ago, was working as a gas jockey at the age of 32. The going was tough. Ng’s wife was pregnant and his salary barely paid for their needs.

Ng managed to snag a position as a salesperson at Furture Shop. Within three months he was a manager in training, another three months later he was manager of the branch. Within two years, Ng became regional manager for Future Shop. Eight years later he left the electronics store to take up a vice-president’s position with Samtack.

“I know immigrants have it in them to succeed. That’s why we give them the opportunity and training to achieve that,” he said.

Ng said his company has 115 employees and about 90 per cent come from countries such as China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Africa and Malaysia.

Immigrants, typically, are hardworking because they come to Canada with a strong focus on getting a better life and providing for themselves and their families, he said. “They also usually have a great attitude, and you need that to succeed.”

Catch 22

But Samtack’s outlook on immigrants is unfortunately not shared by many hiring managers.

Many firms, especially during hard economic times, appear to place more emphasis on Canadian, experience, according to a Toronto-based head hunter, Jose Mari Maravillas. “This requirement remains a great barrier and source of frustration for many immigrants.”

“It’s a Catch 22 situation for many applicants,” he noted. “You can’t get hired without Canadian experience and you can’t get Canadian experience if you don’t get hired.”

The requirement is not a law but persists as an unwritten rule in many companies, he said. “Given a choice between two equally qualified candidates, some hiring managers are likely to chose the one with a Canadian track record.”

Maravillas said the hiring manager might think it is a safe bet, but the company may be losing out on valuable expertise, knowledge and a different perspective offered by an immigrant.

Classic success story

Jazouli, of Samtack agrees. “What we care about is the quality of the person. The person’s attitude and their openness to change and grow.”

Samtack has recently started an internship program with Seneca College. The three-month program is open to students who would like to work in areas such as accounting, marketing, logistics and warehouse management.

Samtack also works with TRIEC and the Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs, of which Ng is president.

Students and newcomers are always a great source of information and inspiration, said Jazoul. “They can share new technologies or processes that could improve our business.”

A case in point is 25-year old Jessica Chen, who is originally from China, and applied for a factory floor job at Samtack some two years ago.

“She was one of those putting together hard drives in the line and realized we were not doing it efficiently,” Jazouli said. Chen worked in factories in China and experienced how automation is able to more than double the productivity of a single person.

“She did her own research on production line equipment contacted friends and former colleagues in China and then approached us with price quotations and a proposal on how to speed up production,” said Jazouli.

He said the changes included installation of more ergonomically designed work benches that integrated power bars and tool stations.

One design involved a simple pulley mechanism that suspended electric screw drivers so workers would not have to hold them up all day. “Imagine having to hold a one pound screw driver the whole day. Put in on a string and you save your arm a lot of pain,” said Jazouli.

Chen’s recommendations worked wonders for Samtack.

The company’s hard drive production shot up from 4,000 units daily to more than 16,000.

Today Chen is supervisor of production.

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