Business without borders

Business without borders

< Back to Articles | Topics: Spotlight | Contributors: Pam Sullivan | Published: September 6, 2023

Yemi Akindoju started from scratch when he made the move from Lagos, Nigeria to Nova Scotia in the early 2000s. A background in economics and banking provided him with a firm place to land upon arriving in the province, where he then spent twelve years in the finance sector, finally retiring in 2018 from Scotiabank — after eleven years as a Senior Client Services Manager (Commercial Group).

Akindoju, along with his wife and three children, came to Canada looking for opportunity.

Upon retiring from Scotiabank, Akindoju decided to see where he could continue to put his interests and experience to work. And after a decade working with small business clients, he knew in which direction he wanted to turn.

Starting over

“Starting my career again, well age wasn’t really on my side. And back when I was in commercial banking, I helped so many small businesses grow, I thought why can’t I do it myself,” he says. “One of the reasons for buying a small business was the ability to work until I feel tired, whenever that may be.”

Late in 2018 he purchased Vanity Fashions, a fashion jewelry business which supplies quality jewelry to retailers such as Lawton's and Pharmasave, not only in Nova Scotia, but across the country. After four and a half challenging years, he says — largely because of COVID — they're doing well, with 40 local employees and 39 sales reps nationally, servicing over 4000 stores.

“We are widespread and that’s key for any business to survive,” he says.

It was with support from key partners such as NSBI (Nova Scotia Business Inc.) and ACOA (Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency) that Akindoju was able to successfully expand nationally, and in the last two years, has turned his eye to the U.S. market.

That, he says, is where TAP Atlantic came in. The Atlantic chapter of the program, which the Chamber, along with Invest Nova Scotia, began offering in 2018, helps Atlantic Canadian companies develop an export plan.

A huge fan of the program, Yemi says it was instrumental in helping him create a roadmap for where he needs to go to crack the often-elusive U.S. market.

Building an export roadmap

“A fantastic program. Just fantastic. And it checked all the boxes for, you know, market analysis, economic analysis, financial details, your capabilities in terms of people, and your business itself,” Akindoju says.

Committed to the program from the get-go, he says, was the key to being successful.

“It was practical. It was theoretical. It made you come up with a result,” he says. “It just meets what the reality of working in a different market is all about; forcing you to understand your strengths and weaknesses. And they brought the best people to give us examples, to help us build our plan.”

And although progress into the U.S. market has been slower than he’d hoped, after attending a Las Vegas trade show earlier this year, Akindoju is hopeful about his export future.

“What we’re able to see is that even in the U.S. we can compete effectively,” he says.

With more interest in building a successful, inclusive company than in talking about himself, Akindoju says he agreed to be interviewed for one small reason.

“I would do anything for TAP. It was a wonderful program.”

Donairs on the move?

Another Nova Scotian company with their eye on expansion is Tony’s Meats, located in Antigonish. Since purchasing the 60-yr-old meat processing operation in 2015, Lenita Hanson, one of three owners, says she has seen the growth possibilities.

“We have definitely grown since taking over the business in 2015,” she says. “We have national distribution now with the donair line. It’s really our niche or signature line and the biggest volume we produce.”

In addition to donair meat — which, says Hanson, very few companies in Canada produce — the full-service meat processing plant turns out everything from breakfast sausage to dried meat snacks, though donair — raw and cooked — she says, is currently king.

And though most Maritimers might find this surprising, Hanson says Western Canada has pushed Atlantic Canada out of the top donair spot, with Alberta and Saskatchewan now representing the lion share of the Canadian market.

“It’s because you have so many expats, so many Atlantic Canadians, living there,” she says. “There are pockets of interest in Ontario and Quebec, but they’re more of a gyros market.”

So, with a solid footing in the Canadian donair game, Tony’s Meats, said Hanson, decided to try their luck on the international stage.

“We’d gotten our U.S. export certification — our facility was certified in 2016 or 2017 — so export has been on our radar for quite some time,” she says.

Enter TAP Atlantic

AS part of the program’s first cohort, Hanson says TAP was a natural fit for where they found themselves and what they were looking to achieve.

“We had the certification, but what we were struggling with, was, well, we have a unique product that we can export, but it’s trying to get people to understand what it’s all about,” she says. “People in the U.S. wouldn’t know what a donair is.”

TAP, says Hanson, gave them the necessary pieces of the export puzzle they’d been missing, which in their case, she says, was, initially, how to market, then “just going through the entire exercise;” the entire exercise being the creation of the all-important export plan.

Shortly after completing the program, and with export plan and ACOA funding in hand, Hanson says the next step was to hire a brokerage team to promote their product — which they did — to little success.

“We had them on retainer for a couple of years, to try and move the product, and they struggled,” she says. “It didn’t go the way we’d hoped it would.”

Much of that, she says, was due to the challenge of getting an unfamiliar, and not shelf-stable product into a large and competitive new market like the U.S.

Not to be put off, the group turned their attention to one of their most recent products: dried meat snacks — shelf-stable, easy to stock and ship, and as such, an immediate hit with U.S. retailers, which co-owner Aaron Tingley discovered while attending a Chicago trade show in 2022.

“The response to the product was overwhelming,” Hanson says. “We had like 200 customers who wanted the product and wanted it now.”

Not doable, in terms of capacity at the company’s Antigonish plant, Hanson says they spent the better part of 2022 looking for a U.S. manufacturing partner, which they now have in place. Their first production run took place at the end of May and an exporting reality is almost close enough to touch, she says.

Give the people what they want

“They’re following up on those 200 leads so we’re right there. We hope to finally springboard into that U.S. market,” she says.

So, did TAP deliver on what Hanson was looking for? She says, absolutely.

“We didn’t really have any expectations going into it, I just knew it was going to be a learning experience," she says. “You know, information that I didn’t know or have, so from that perspective, absolutely, it delivered.”

And as with Yemi Akimdoju, the knowledge level of the instructors impressed; additionally, the ability to network, do group work, and learn about other businesses — including their challenges, all added up to a wonderful experience, says Hanson.

But as in life, though we don’t always get what we set out for, we often end up with something equally as good, if not better. Hanson says that though the popular donair did not have the warm American reception they’d hoped for, the export future still looks rosy for Tony’s Meats.

“It’s maybe not the product in the donair line that we thought would be the breakthrough, but we’re hoping that the dried meat snacks will be that for us,” she says. “And then it could lead to opening doors for all these other products that could maybe find themselves on restaurant menus and eventually into homes.”

And it doesn’t end there. Harmon says other countries are also interested in the dried meat products, including Australia and some European countries, so the possibilities for export and partnership beyond the U.S. is looking likely.

So, for now, it seems, the much-loved donair will remain Canada’s savoury and sweet little secret.

< Back to Articles | Topics: Spotlight

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