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INTERVIEW: Renato Discenza, The Man Who Sells Toronto

INTERVIEW: Renato Discenza, The Man Who Sells Toronto

Posted by José Peralta on April 19, 2014

Renato Discenza is an optimist. As the President & CEO of Invest Toronto (a corporation whose sole shareholder is the City of Toronto with a mandate to attract Foreign Direct Investment to the city) he always sees the bright side of things. “Where some people in Toronto see problems, other people see opportunities: we might complain about the amount of buildings that are being constructed while others see in that a growth of opportunity’’ states Discenza as an example of how this globalized world is prioritizing business between cities over business between countries.

Discenza became President & CEO of Invest Toronto in early 2010. Since that time, his office has already dealt with almost 750 clients, and the number of leads is increasing to such a point that today, Invest Toronto’s staff members can be selective about who they help. A clear example of this is the number of people who work in the office: there are currently 12 employees and they expect to eventually grow to 20.

The CEO talked to PAW about business opportunities for Latin American companies in Toronto, emphasizing the need to change the investment flow in such a way that they not only go from North to South, but  take the "opposite course’’ as well. Discenza stated that Latin companies have a wide range of opportunities to expand their businesses in Toronto and gain access to market of 180 million people in just one hour and a half.

When you were named CEO, you said Toronto was living its “Golden Age”. Do you keep your opinion nowadays?

Yes. Even more than back then. Toronto has always been an important city in North America, but after years of traveling around the world, and understanding some global trends, you get to see, quite often, that cities talk to each other, and it’s not so much about countries anymore.

And if you see everything that’s happening in the world and you compare it to what´s happening in Toronto, you’ll see a very close correlation, so this city is very well positioned to help in that evolution. Since I’ve been in office we’ve serviced more than 750 clients, and these are just the selected ones, so we’ve dealt with even bigger numbers. We have personally assisted with about 70 investment projects and we have influenced even more.

Our best achievement has been placing Toronto in the same line of cities you automatically think of when it comes to investing, just like Chicago or New York.

How’s the investment process? Do you look for investors or do you expect those who are interested to come to you?

It’s a mixture of both. In the beginning, when we weren’t very well known, we used to go looking for investments. We did that a lot.  Not only did we introduce ourselves to companies, but we also did the same with influential people such as ambassadors or lawyers. Now we have one of those problems that comes with success: we have too many proposals and we have to choose.

One of our objectives is to bring new GDP to the city. A kind of GDP that normally wouldn’t have been in Toronto, and that generally doesn’t come only for this market, but it aims at reaching the whole North American market – at least.

Our selection and work cycle has four stages: prospect, qualify, propose and close. Prospecting is very important because it’s about selecting who should be in Toronto, and qualification involves checking to determine if there is an honest desire to be here. 

And when you sell Toronto as a place to invest, what are the main ideas behind your message?

We have five pillars in that message. The first one is a strong and stable economy, which has proven to be a great selling factor during the recent economic crisis, because we were one of the few cities that never stopped growing.

We have very competitive business costs. The only place in North America that would be cheaper is Mexico, and that is extremely relevant when it comes to doing business. The third pillar is about the talent: people in Toronto are very qualified and highly educated, and they are very well connected to other parts of the globe.

Toronto is also a global business hub. Geographically, in an hour and a half we can reach a market of nearly 180 million people. But we are also strategically located with respect to all the Americas; we have a strong North- to -South flow, and vice versa. The fifth pillar is about quality of life; we are consistently at the top of all the quality of life rankings. 

From the beginning, your office has been interested in Latin America and Brazil in particular. Why?

Canada has a long tradition of working with Latin America. One of our first Free Trade Agreements was with Chile. When you look at Brazil and Latin America, you see a kind of explosion in movement. Look at what’s happening in Brazil, just as an example:  in 2014, the World Cup will be held there and in 2016 the Olympic Games. Globalization set these economies free, and that allows them to grow.

We are looking at companies in those countries and we see they are doing well, and we think that they could expand and succeed in Canada. Not just to come and take this market, but to partner with their Canadian peers and study how their consumers might behave; for example the growing middle class.

It´s not just about coming here to grow. It means to come, to learn and to apply it in their country. Learn, partner, and establish a new base to serve not only Latin America but North America and Europe. It really is about expanding their own capabilities. 

Do you think there is an understanding between Latin America and Canada on business and commercial trade? Is there anything that can be improved?

In individual businesses there are good partnerships. We can always improve the more systematic aspects. It has to be understood that the North-to-South commerce flow is much more than sending our manufacture ‘down,’ it is to see the advantages in making investments walk the opposite path. We must open our eyes to that new possibility.

Brazil is a clear example of this. Its outward investment flows grew from $52 billion in 2000 to $181 billion in 2010.  I think there is a lot to be done to analyze how we can work together, and not just in trading commodities.

What kind of sectors do you look at Latin America? Can you provide examples of Latin companies that settled in Toronto?

Three years ago we went to see the Bimbo Group and they ended up investing here. It is a huge investment of $1.81 billion dollars. This group was looking not only into their assets, but they also wanted to know how to make more nutritional food, and how to ensure better food safety. And that is what they found in Toronto.

I’ve been to every continent and the experiences are very similar: food, water and extractive products such as oil and mining are the things that everyone wants. The other things are health care and education. Canada stands out in those five fields and that is very important for industries.

Invest Toronto assisted a Brazilian company called Coach IT that has expanded its business to provide IT services to companies here in Toronto, and as a result of being in Toronto they will be able to connect with IT companies in Brazil as well.  The tech sector is booming in South America and Toronto is an ideal place to learn and grow in that particular area.

Also, with the Pan-American Games we are going to do more work in Latin America. It seems it is all about Brazil right now, but we are also looking to expand our presence in Mexico.

So the Pan-American Games will help to generate more business opportunities…

Yes. There will be explicit actions to promote Toronto as a business destination, such as conferences, and people will come for that. But it is also a good excuse for the average South American businessman to spend a few days of his holidays in Toronto and discover all the opportunities here. 

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