If evidence of the business friendliness of Canada's municipalities was ever needed, a glance at the fDi American Cities of the Future ranking published earlier this year should convince even the most hardened cynic. Of the five overall winners categorised by the size of the city, three victors are Canadian, while all 10 of the mid-sized cities ranked by business friendliness hail from the country. Within Canada, the province of Ontario shines particularly brightly, with a presence in almost ever category.

While Toronto, the province’s largest and most famous city, performs particularly well, its smaller neighbours such as Mississauga, Hamilton and Waterloo also excelled in the ranking. That, in turn, is reflected in FDI inflows, as the three cities have attracted projects worth more than $250m in the past five years, according to greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets. But how do these locations manage to stand out from nearby Toronto?

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Mississauga's self-containment

“At one point, like most communities within the Greater Toronto area, Mississauga was a bedroom community,” says Susan Amring, director of economic development at Mississauga’s city hall.  “But this is no longer the case, as we are truly multicultural, truly diversified and we have more people coming to the city to work here than we have leaving Mississauga to work elsewhere.” 

As Mississauga sits just outside Toronto’s south-west border and houses Toronto Pearson International Airport, it could easily settle for amalgamating with its much larger neighbour. But Mississauga did the opposite, using its advantageous location to bring in businesses, and in the process creating a commercial core as well as a strong identity.

Instrumental in this rise has been Hazel McCallion, Mississauga’s mayor since 1978. Currently one of the longest serving and, at the age of 92, the oldest mayor in the world, Ms McCallion not only oversaw Mississauga’s rapid, debt-free growth, but also the construction of many of its landmarks, such as Absolute Towers, a complex located in the city centre that is also known by locals as 'Marilyn Monroe Towers', due to its curvaceous shape.

“Mississauga is a city on its own and has all the amenities one might need. I work and live here and absolutely love it,” says Kim Warburton, a vice-president of communications and public affairs at Mississauga-based Canadian corporate headquarters of US conglomerate General Electric.

Fast-moving Hamilton

Hamilton, located only a 30-minute drive from Mississauga, is another strong performer from fDi’s recent American Cities of the Future ranking. The city took  third place in the overall ranking of mid-sized American cities and won the top award for FDI strategy. This is largely down to the economic development team at Hamilton’s city hall, which is involved in myriad initiatives, which include Invest TV, Hamilton's online news channel, and mobile apps showcasing Hamilton’s prospects for potential investors.

And although in Hamilton investment promotion and facilitation is undertaken by the local government, its economic developers argue that they are far from bureaucratic. 

“Not only are we focused on small to medium-sized enterprises via the one-stop service model, with its business facilitation, licensing and Small Business Enterprise Centre, we also provide an integrated service model consisting of representatives from departments such as planning, economic development, building service, growth management, real estate, legal and public works for major investments,” says Michael Marini, marketing coordinator for Hamilton’s economic development office.  

To prove his point, Mr Marini points to the case of Maple Leaf Foods, a Toronto-based food processing company. In 2011, Hamilton was chosen over 24 other Canadian municipalities as the site for the company’s new investment project, worth an estimated $479m. “Thanks to city hall's integrated service model, we were able to get the approvals process done for Maple Leaf in only three months, which was an instrumental factor in the company’s final investment decision,” he says.

Park life

Apart from the big, established companies, Hamilton is aiming at upping its game when it comes to nurturing its home-grown businesses. Crucial towards these efforts is McMaster Innovation Park, a 15-hectare business campus opened in 2009 on the site of an old white goods manufacturing plant owned by local company Camco.

Today, the site is filled with modern buildings housing research institutions such as the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Ageing and Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation. It is also the home of Innovation Factory, an early-stage start-up incubator. “It is not only about the sexy tech stuff that everyone talks about. Simply, if someone has an idea – for example, an improved sun-glasses case – they can come to us and we will go through steps such as market validation, funding and exit strategy,” says Peter Smith, Innovation Factory’s executive-in-residence. “Hamilton is historically a manufacturing town. Innovative businesses can change that,” he adds.

Waterloo's many talents

In its push for innovation, Hamilton is following the path that Waterloo, another Ontario-based winner in the American Cities of the Future rankings, took some three decades ago. Waterloo is perhaps best known as being as the birthplace of mobile handset maker Blackberry, but even though the company has made headlines for the wrong reasons recently, following the poor sales of its new handsets, Waterloo has plenty of success stories to boast about.

“This is not a one-horse town and there are other companies, for example Opentext [Canada’s largest software company], that have been successfully operating here since 1980s,” says Janet Grondin, marketing and communications manager at Canada’s Technology Triangle, the Waterloo region's economic development organisation.

In addition to the established companies such as Opentext, Christie (the world's leading projection tech company) and Com Dev (Canada’s largest designer and manufacturer of space hardware), the Waterloo region has more than 500 start-ups operating in three incubators and an accelerator programme catering for early-stage firms. “The tech industry in Waterloo is a forest, and by far the tallest tree is Blackberry, but there are plenty of other big trees and hundreds of seedlings here,” says Ian Klugman, president and CEO of local tech hub Communitech. When not coming up with inventive metaphors, Mr Klugman spends his time bringing regional tech entities together. And successfully so, it would seem.

One satisfied customer is Cedric Jeannot, a French entrepreneur who in 2010 launched data security company I Think Security. “I was literally days away from signing the lease to move to Silicon Valley, but I figured that Waterloo is the best place for us to be in. Not only because of the lower living and operating costs, but also because of to the robust tech ecosystem,” he says. In a similar vein another entrepreneur, Stephanie McLarty, the CEO of refurbished equipment online marketplace Refficient, is full of praise for Hamilton. “The business community here is very cohesive and there is a real groundswell of change, as companies and leaders are coming together with a push for new Hamilton,” she says.

Both entrepreneurs agree that if one craves the hustle and bustle of a big city, Toronto is a short distance away, but when it comes to business, cities such as Mississauga, Hamilton and Waterloo stand out on their own. “We have customers from 11 countries and 50% of our sales goes to the US. [Our company's] success, the same as Hamilton’s success, should not be measured by the proximity to Toronto,” says Ms McLarty.