Creative Capital is IT World Canada’s series that examines the impact digital transformation is having to change the face of communities across Canada. We’re doing deep dives looking at the major tech hubs on the leading edge of the 21st-century knowledge economy. Our first five stories will focus on York Regions, exploring the densest ICT hub in Canada, its verticals, startups, and the factors contributing to its success.
Some of the biggest celebrities on this planet rest their expensively coiffed heads in the tiny town of Westerly, Rhode Island, population 18,000.
Hugh Jackman, Regis Philbin and Taylor Swift have all been spotted inside the local Ocean House Hotel, ranked the fifth best resort in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2014.
Swift’s fans have also been spotted outside the hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pop star at her mansion next door. In 2013, she reportedly paid $17.5 million for the sprawling 11,000-sq.-ft. home beside the five-star hotel.
Aside from attracting swanky neighbours like Swift, the Ocean House has no trouble luring customers from around the globe to its luxurious guest suites, which start at $1,185 dollars (USD) per night in peak summer travel season.
When well-heeled travelers book a room at Ocean House, they do so using technology from Maestro PMS. Based in Markham, Ont., the company provides property and customer management software to independent hotels, resorts, conference centres and multi-property portfolio groups.
Like Ocean House Hotel, Maestro is an independent operator that wins customers from around the world, despite not being located in a major city.
“We’re an international business. We have clients in 18 countries, mostly the U.S.,” says Maestro PMS president Warren Dehan.
When the 39-year-old firm outgrew its Markham office, it didn’t relocate to the big smoke in Toronto. Insead, Maestro recently moved into a larger facility in Markham, choosing to stay rooted just north of Toronto in York Region.
“From a quality of work/life point of view, this is a very nice area. We like the new building, there’s ample parking and you’re on the highway quite easily from here,” he says, referring to Maestro’s location near Highway 7 and 404.
While Maestro caters specifically to the travel accommodation sector, it’s just one of several York Region tech firms serving international clients in various industry verticals. It’s a deep well to draw from, since York has the second largest cluster of financial services firms in Ontario, plus other sizable ones in the healthcare, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing sectors.
“We work with travel companies, financial companies, you name it,” says Deepak Chopra, co-founder and CEO of Clearbridge Mobile, headquartered in the York Region city of Vaughan, Ont – along the Highway 400 corridor. “We help companies with their mobile journey – and every industry is making that journey. As a result, our skill set is applicable to multiple industries.”
Clearbridge’s client list does, indeed, run the gamut of both industry and location, from Canadian customers Tim Horton’s (food) and Bell Canada (telecom) to global giants PayPal (finance/payments) and The New York Times (media). Clearbridge does full stack mobile app development for devices such as smartphones, tablets, wearables, beacons and connected boxes such as Roku and Apple TV.
Chopra says today’s mobile technology – from videoconferencing to web-based live chat – makes it just as easy to service foreign customers from York Region as it is from Toronto. Maestro’s Dehan says his company reaps similar productivity benefits from technologies like mobile and collaboration solutions.
“We do have (IT) trainers who fly out to train staff at hotel sites. But thanks to technology, so much of our business is done remotely. So it almost doesn’t matter where we are (located),” says Dehan.
What about branding?
Basing a tech business in York Region may have many benefits, from paying less for housing to avoiding a long daily commute into downtown Toronto.
But what about branding? When you want to attract foreign clients and recruit foreign talent, is it best to brand your tech firm as hailing from York Region, or to say it’s based in better known Toronto?
The answer, at least for Real Matters Inc., is right there on its website. The site states that “corporate headquarters are located in Markham, Ont. (with) offices in Buffalo, NY, Cincinnati, OH and Middletown, RI.”
“Our business cards all say Markham, too. This is where we are and we’re proud of that,” says Lyne Fisher, vice-president of investor relations and corporate communications at Real Matters.
The company, which recently went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange, provides network management services to the mortgage lending and insurance sector verticals.
“All of our technology is actually developed in-house, largely here in Markham,” she says. “So we have all that intelligence based here. We’ve hosted tech community meetups here and had really good success with that too, so it’s a very active and vibrant (IT) scene out here.”
On the website for Maestro PMS, it’s also Markham – not Toronto – that gets top billing. Maestro’s Dehan points out, however, that among York Region’s nine towns and cities, Markham specifically “has gained a reputation of being Silicon Valley north, so we often will leverage that positioning.”
On the website for Clearbridge Mobile, upfront pages say the company is based in Toronto, but the ‘contact us’ section spells out its exact location as Vaughan.
“We work with a lot of international clients, especially out of the U.S., so obviously there’s an identification with Toronto from that point of view,” Clearbridge CEO Chopra explains. “But when we recruit, we’re promoting where we are and where our office is situated in Vaughan, because the reality is, we have to find the talent that’s looking to be working in (York) region or willing to commute to this region.”
While these companies do business globally, they make efforts to partner locally – with suppliers, government agencies, and educational institutions – in the York Region area.
“We use (Thornhill-based) TeraGo, a local company, for our Internet connectivity and their microwave towers as a backup,” says Maestro’s Dehan.
Besides the tech sector meetups Real Matters has hosted, Fisher says her firm “routinely works with local organizations like Startup York or Y2 Entrepreneurship Labs on ways for people to network, learn more about the community and … learn and educate others about various topics in technology.”
At Mackenzie Health, the focus is even more acutely local. The regional healthcare organization already runs the existing hospital in Richmond Hill and is now building a new one in Vaughan. Its Mackenzie Innovation Institute (Mi2) brings corporate and academic players together to develop innovative healthcare technologies through research, training and education.
“We work with many different universities, and one of them is York University and its Innovation York (office),” says Richard Tam, Mackenzie’s executive vice-president and chief administrative officer. “They have students coming through and also different projects. (We’re) talking to them about advocating for a second medical school at York University that will help the healthcare community.”
Mackenzie’s local focus is also apparent ih in its private sector partnerships. For example, Richmond Hill’s Compugen Inc. will provide the new Vaughan hospital with IT tools such as unified communications, patient access and community provider portals, electronic patient records and home healthcare solutions.
Back in the Markham headquarters of Maestro PMS, Dehan responds honestly, if not a little wistfully, when asked if he ever gets to stay at the luxury hotels and resorts his company does business with in exotic locations across the globe.
“Sometimes they’ll invite us and our trainers to go out there, but generally not on a vacation basis,” he says. “I haven’t been to Ocean House yet. We have some very interesting properties, though.”
Interesting, and possibly being booked at this very moment by certain celebrities, using technology built in York Region.