How Big Blue grew its Canadian presence

MARKHAM, Ont. — Sure, there was a cake the size of a football field and confetti exploding from the ceiling, but IBM Canada‘s record of R&D and employee relations was the real centrepiece of the company’s 85th birthday.

IBM Canada,

first of all, is notable for being the first company office to adopt the famous initials that spell out International Business Machines. Before that, the company was known as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. (C-T-R), and it would be 1924 — eight years after the Canadian office opened — before the U.S. headquarters would start using the now-ubiquitous IBM name.

IBM Canada opened its doors with a staff of 100 people in 1917. The company now employs about 20,000 in Canada. The total swelled last year thanks to 3,000 additions, largely due to IBM’s acquisition of consulting and services company PricewaterhouseCoopers. It appeared that every last one of them was in attendance last Friday, when IBM Canada celebrated its birthday in the expansive lobby of its Markham, Ont., headquarters.

“”Our success over the years is the result of many people working together,”” said IBM Canada president Ed Kilroy. He noted that the company began an employee training program during the 1920s and spent $68 million in employee education last year.

“”I’m acutely aware that IBM is the largest employer in Markham,”” said federal defence minister and Markham MP John McCallum. He said that IBM’s solid record of employee relations is a useful model he can apply to his ministerial obligations. “”We have to put quality of life at the top of the list of priorities. If we don’t treat our people right, they’ll quit,”” he said, adding, “”When I think of the military, I do think of how IBM treats its people. IBM is nice . . . IBM is not stupid.””

McCallum lauded IBM for its contribution to Canadian R&D. The company opened its first Toronto software lab in 1967, according to Kilroy. “”For Canada, innovation is Job One,”” said McCallum. “”We’re not going to survive just on natural resources.””

Another Markham politician, David Tsubouchi, could have been an IBM employee had things played out differently 15 years ago. He turned down a job from the company in 1977 after he passed the bar. He went on to become a Markham MPP and Ontario Minister of Culture, “”yet I’m still here,”” he said, joking about his invitation to the IBM birthday party. He praised the company for its shrewd acquisition of PwC and its recognition that “”the services industry has a huge upside.””

The IT industry was represented by business partners like NexInnovations Inc., Hartco and Abacus Computers, as well as Gaylen Duncan, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. “”That took a lot of people by surprise,”” said Duncan. “”We spend so much time talking about the future, that it’s difficult to remember we have a past. Your (IBM’s) roots are even deeper than ours.

“”I believe IBM has discovered the secret of youth,”” he added. “”Honour and respect the past, but maintain a vigilant watch on the future.””

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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