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In this episode  of the Strategy Lounge, we will be talking about the cannabis sector and the realities facing this new, yet increasingly competitive industry

In a newly regulated industry whose players are still nascent – with little revenue and unproven operations – companies need a strong business strategy to survive long after the initial enthusiasm peters out.

On October 17th, 2018, Canada legalized recreational cannabis use, bringing a black market worth an estimated $5.71 billion into the regulated confines of a tax-generating industry.

This sector is undergoing what all fledgling enterprises experience in the first 12-36 months of existence: an intensely competitive phase that will culminate with a clear distinction between winners and losers.

Industry players are seeking ways to stay on the winning side of this equation by:

  • Building a brand within the restrictions of this tightly regulated market.
  • Developing a strong customer experience.
  • Overcoming the stigma associated with cannabis use.


A shift is upon us

Established majors, such as Constellation Brands, Molson Coors and Altria, have already moved into the market, raising the bar for the whole industry.

It’s a sign of a shifting landscape towards a more mature stage – the capacity of Canada’s top 10 licensed producers alone is projected to double the country’s demand by 2020.

Without partnerships to protect supply and demand, companies won’t be able to lure investors and please the market.


Lack of export opportunities

In the U.S., cannabis is still illegal while other global markets are already establishing domestic production to meet local demand.

This is placing greater emphasis on revenue growth, supply agreements, partnerships and IP ownership with consolidation for strategic purposes as a likely end game.


We’ve seen this before

A financially speculative business climate and turbulence were rampant during the dot-com bubble. Roughly 50% of dot-com firms survived those early days, often because companies ran out of cash.

More relevantly, we’re witnessing a similar scenario play out in those U.S. states where adult-use cannabis has been legalized.


So, what’s next?

Plotting a successful course of action in a vertically segregated retail environment will demand several key measures, including:

  • Building a purposeful differentiation from the pack with a deep understanding of and focus on the customer.
  • Establishing and communicating your value proposition.
  • Strategically managing your value chain.
  • Fostering partnerships and supply agreements.
  • Avoiding commoditization by establishing the IP, competencies and core processes.
  • Keeping an eye on global markets for opportunities to establish first-mover advantage.


To read the perspective paper in full and find out how LEVEL5 can help during this transient time, click here.

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By Hua Yu, Managing Partner and Sylvia Palka Melo, Director

The term “brand” is one of the most misunderstood assets within an organization. Many of the brand’s custodians – company managers – are often misinformed about the brand’s core values and how they relate to human capital.

At LEVEL5, we define brand as the value of a promise consistently kept™.

The way your company operates in the marketplace and workplace reflects its brand principles that can and should be used to manage all aspects of an organization.

So, How Does Brand Impact Talent?

Brand values can attract the right talent, as those candidates who share your organization’s values will naturally gravitate towards it.

By normalizing employees in the right behaviours that reflect your brand promise, your organization’s success can organically take care of itself. This is because your brand promise dictates hiring (and firing), training methods and behaviours required to create the desired customer experience.

And How Do You Use Your Brand to Attract and Hire Brand Talent?

Clarify your vision and combine it with your organization’s values. This will help translate the brand into hiring criteria and convert those values into competencies that align with the brand. 

Both are great fuel for helping managers develop questions that determine if candidates embody those values and have those competencies.

How Do You Use Your Brand to Develop and Nurture That Talent?

This is achieved by creating an “academy culture” with structure and processes that facilitate formal coaching.

Training academies support employees in delivering the brand and its promise in the market; and they decipher the brand into metrics towards the promotion of common values that enable employees to prioritize and make better decisions.

And Finally How Do You Use Your Brand to Assess and Reward Talent?

Employees generate value in a number of ways that doesn’t necessarily have a direct relationship to the bottom line.

For this reason, employees should be evaluated holistically by managers and peers to assess the employee’s detailed contribution and reinforce the brand’s values that improve the company’s long-term welfare.


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By: Hua Yu, Managing Partner, Frank Zhang, Senior Consultant, & Richard Wang, Analyst

When Tim Hortons opened its first Chinese store in Shanghai on February 26, 2019, it received an incredible warm welcome from Chinese consumers – some lined up for 18 hours just to try a Tim Hortons coffee.

Thinking back to when Tim Hortons first announced its expansion to China in July 2018, many Chinese Canadians were excited to see another Canadian brand enter the Chinese market and shared the news with their friends and family in China. As a result, Tim Hortons, a brand with low awareness in China, suddenly attracted significant attention from Chinese consumers. As the chart below illustrates, online search volumes peaked in July 2018 when the expansion was first announced, and again in February 2019 when the first store finally opened.

Source: 360 Search Index


The popularity Tim Hortons has gained in China thus far can be largely attributed to its strong brand loyalty among the Chinese Canadian community, the second largest visible minority in Canada. According to a survey conducted by the Chinese Research and Analytics Society of Canada, Tim Hortons has extremely high brand awareness (97%) among Chinese Canadians in the GTA. 93% of Chinese Canadians have visited a Tim Hortons branch in the past year and 60% of them do so at least once per month.

Tim Hortons’ strong brand awareness and loyalty have also been coupled with its community engagement, converting many Chinese Canadians to become advocates for the brand. In 2006, Tim Hortons launched the Every Cup Tells a Story campaign. One featured commercial, Proud Fathers, tells a story of a Chinese father who was always very strict to his son about putting his studies ahead of playing hockey. Fast forward to decades later: that same boy is now a father cheering on his own son at a hockey game. During the game, his father unexpectedly shows up with two cups of Tim Hortons “double-double” coffees, and it is revealed that he had secretly attended his son’s hockey games to watch him play all those years. This commercial spoke to Chinese parenting styles and cultural differences in the expression of parental love, and resonated with many Chinese Canadians who felt deeply touched by its message.

This Tim Hortons commercial demonstrates the importance of relevant and nuanced storytelling in executing a successful multicultural strategy. Multicultural consumers have a vast array of experiences that exist outside the mainstream Canadian narrative, and bringing them into the spotlight in a culturally appropriate way can create a deep mutual understanding and strong emotional connection with a brand. This unique opportunity should not be ignored, as multicultural consumers are becoming increasingly important within the Canadian market. Visible minorities are projected to account for 36% of the Canadian population by 2036, and building a strong multicultural strategy will be crucial for businesses to maintain their market share as they move into the future.

While the road ahead for Tim Hortons in the Chinese market will be challenging, underscored by shaky diplomatic prospects and fierce competition from both global and local players, the company has managed to score a spectacular opening goal. Perhaps there is a key lesson to learn from this story: Canadian brands should consider engaging with local multicultural communities before stepping into overseas markets.

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Author: David Kincaid, Founder and Managing Partner

Few professional experiences can be as exciting and overwhelming as taking on the CEO role for the first time. Everything changes in unexpected ways; it’s not about climbing the next rung on the ladder, it’s a quantum leap into a new reality. Brand new CEOs need all the practical, impartial and time-tested advice they can get – the select few who can actually say, “Been there, done that.”

We have put together the top 10 “lessons learned” in building your personal brand as the new CEO. We hope you find this helpful.

1. Engage the Board as a Strategic Partner
Boards today need to own strategic decisions jointly with the CEO; they no longer simply anoint them at an annual off-site. The CEO must keep the board engaged in the same way that business units are expected to engage the CEO. Do only what only a CEO can do. With so many tasks vying for attention the CEO must focus on shaping the company’s definition of success, breaking the frame (for example by changing some fundamental aspect of the company’s business model), resetting expectations, and integrating the company parts with the whole.

2. Move Faster, Drive Harder
In hindsight, most CEOs wish that within their first six months in the job they had narrowed their agenda and quickened their pace. They wish they had selected very few high impact organizational priorities, stayed thoroughly focused on them, and then driven them to completion with a relentless sense of urgency.

3. Set the Tone of what’s Important
Do something concrete that makes a difference to profitability. It establishes your value-add and even more importantly, sets a tone of what is important to you. Not process, not perception, but rather performance and that you hold yourself to the same standard of adding value in a measurable way.

4. You are the Company’s Face to the World
Most executives spend years learning how to manage what goes on inside the company. But the moment they become CEO, they need to make a quick pivot and turn much of their attention to the outside world – not just customers, but investors, shareholders, analysts and the media. It’s almost like learning a whole new job – including some critical lessons on what you can and can’t say, when, and to whom.

5. Find a few people to Confide in
Most CEOs say the cliché is true: It’s an inherently lonely job. As early as you can, identify a select group of confidants, coaches and trusted advisors, including some incumbent or retired CEOs. Every CEO needs some safe outlets – people with whom they can be candid, seek advice, admit to uncertainty, and just let their hair down once in a while.

6. Don’t get distracted by flattery and happy talk
As one CEO advised another, “The moment word gets out that you’re going to be the CEO, your jokes suddenly are funnier, your wife is prettier and your kids are smarter.” Be prepared for how differently people treat you – starting with their reluctance to be the bearer of bad news. Be persistent; get beyond the smoke and smiles and discover what’s actually going on inside the organization.

7. Stop doing your old job
All new CEOs have to establish their own leadership identity – but that’s particularly hard for those promoted internally, who must quickly achieve the requisite escape velocity to be viewed as “a boss, not a buddy.” Start by identifying the specific things you did in your previous jobs that you will now delegate and distance yourself from – even if you’re convinced you can still do them better than anyone else!

8. It’s all about leading through teams
New CEOs quickly bump up against the limits of their personal influence, and come to understand the necessity of leading through others. It starts with your senior team; if they aren’t 120% aligned – with you and with each other – there is no way your influence will extend past the first row of offices. Make no assumptions, push for clarity from them and ensure everyone “is visibly dancing to the same music and willing to shape the culture.” In large companies, the CEO has to quickly figure out how to keep hundreds of managers reading from the same page and the leadership team is key to accomplishing this.

9. Getting the Culture working with you
As you prepare for and then begin the new job, broaden your perspective beyond strategy, operations and finance to understand that one of the CEO’s greatest opportunities – and challenges – is to manage and, if necessary, change the organization’s culture and social dynamics. Successful and sustainable execution of strategy requires a culture that enables and supports the strategy. Many CEOs have failed because the culture “ate their strategy for breakfast”! That begins with understanding what the culture actually is, versus what people say it is. Then connect the company’s strategy to everyone – connect the dots for them so they can see their role in helping achieve your goals. And when communicating, repeat and repeat again the key themes… and then repeat again!

10. Don’t drag your feet on the tough talent decisions
Pushing a new agenda is impossible without the right people in the right jobs. By far, the most common specific regret acknowledged by first-time CEOs is that they didn’t act faster to remove people in key roles who lacked the necessary skill or commitment. With the best of intentions, new CEOs often delay the difficult moves far too long, at great cost to the organization and to the dismay of top performers. New CEOs – and in particular, those from the outside, who are still learning who’s who – need to gather information quickly, seek the best available advice, trust their instincts and then make a decision.

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By: Matt Kelly, Managing Partner

In a recent collaboration with the Schulich Executive School of Business and Southwest Jiaotong University, I had the great privilege of speaking at several high-speed rail forums on building global brands this past week (as I write this post, I’m traveling in comfort by high speed rail between Chengdu and Beijing, whisking along at 310 kmh).

At the University I saw emerging rail technology that will soon see trains traveling at 1000 kmh… the same speed of the 777 jet I took to fly to China. Furthermore, the hyperloop that they are currently prototyping will travel at 2000 kmh and one day up to 4000 kmh, so they claim. A far cry from the Via Rail I recently took from a trip Montreal to Toronto.

Two things struck me at the conference:

1.  How far behind we are in North America when it comes to high speed rail, in a country of vast distances built on rail travel

2.  Our LEVEL5 point of view that great brands truly are the ‘value of a promise consistently kept’ travels across categories and continents


This fantastic rail technology is traveling around the world. But it, too, is a highly competitive category, with German, French, Japanese and others competing with the Chinese for market access and market share. The functional benefits delivered by high speed rail are impressive, moving people at incredible speeds and distances, reducing pollution, and driving economic prosperity to name a few. But they all do that.

To succeed, these rail companies will need to build brands, brands that make more than a promise of speed and on time performance. As one of the most successful travel brands in the world, Cathay Pacific promises a ‘life well traveled’. They delight with a brand experience built on insight and long on quality. They have established a deep emotional connection with their customers by driving quality into every corner of their organization. They command a price premium over other airlines.

High speed rail will transform travel and with it the lives of billions. What a glorious opportunity to build an inspiring brand just as Steve Jobs did ten years ago with the introduction of the first iPhone. The first job for these brands is to understand what really drives value in the markets they plan to enter. Uncover and quantify the most powerful drivers of purchase behaviour that will get consumers out of their cars to take the train. They must then make a compelling promise to their customers, strategic partners and communities they impact, and rally their organizations to consistently keep that promise as Cathay Pacific did. That’s what great brands do.

Smart brands also understand the cost of making a mistake if they misread a market prior to entry.

Within 10 years we’ll see these brands in North America… which one will be the Apple or Cathay Pacific of high speed rail travel?

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By: Matthew Kelly, Managing Partner

It is amazing how after just 10 years Apple has convinced consumers to pay up to 10x more for the new iPhone than they did with their first phone.  Apple phone sales have flattened out recently, but prices, and presumably margins just keep on rising. Despite competitors who have largely closed the gap on functionality.

The three new phones approach $1300+ in cost. The XS Max is $1519. More than many laptops and all other cell phones. The new gold phone will likely be a big seller in China as a luxury good according to CNN. “Better than ever before” promises Apple exec Phil Schiller. Sure size, colour and new functionality is important. But what is really driving value and a luxury brand price premium? The power of the Apple brand. The emotion that goes along with treating yourself. Status. Feeling even perhaps a bit more powerful. Out front.

Apple sells to desire not need.  And like all powerful brands they make and consistently deliver a compelling promise. Powerful brands command a price premium and deliver superior margins.  And earn what is so uncommon these days – consumer loyalty. I have to admit sneaking a peak at the new XS iPhone and wondering when my iPhone 8 contract ends. You can pre-order yours today.

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By Alexander Czegledy, Intern Analyst (Summer 2018)

Summers always fly by, but this one’s felt especially fast due to the pace and pleasure of working with LEVEL5.


Every organization talks a lot about culture these days and LEVEL5 is no exception. The difference is that here, you can feel it. From my first case interview to my end of Summer debrief, everyone has been exceptionally friendly and outgoing. The team here is tight-knit, and you get to meet them outside of the office early and often. On my first day I was out for lunch at St. Lawrence Market with my cubicle mates, and by the end of that week, found myself dueling the consultants over arcade games. Each new recruit has a mentor to oversee their overall progress; it was always good to have Frank to go to with general questions. To train as a consultant, the learning process more closely resembles a series of apprenticeships, with different L5’ers teaching you distinct aspects of the job as you encounter clients with their own set of challenges.

Another key benefit is the team composition: each project is “owned” by a Partner, facilitated by a project lead (often a Principal, Director or Manager) and driven by Consultants and Analysts, putting you in touch with expertise at every stage of a consulting career. Each client has a specific need to address, and every partner has a unique background and managing style. Adapting to this is sometimes challenging, but always a rewarding learning experience, made easier as everyone is so open and approachable. There’s a down-to-earth atmosphere at LEVEL5 that I was pleasantly surprised to discover in the finance district.


Companies must be catching on to this, because my next favorite thing about the internship was the list of clients I was introduced to. After expressing interest in the travel, I was attached to a primary Summer project: brand transformation for a leading North American travel operator. The project was certainly research heavy, but I was also brought in to collaborate on strategic frameworks, join interviews and board meetings, and even help articulate our main findings. At every stage I felt like a valued member of the team – my only regret is that I won’t be around to see it through to the end.

However, working at a boutique firm, it’s inevitable that you’ll have the opportunity to work on a variety of projects. I was able to work in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors, with clients that included one of Canada’s top retailers, an innovator in the Health industry, and a local sports organization. At this company, you will take on multiple roles that allows you to gain valuable experience in different areas, quickly. For me, this provided the balance I was looking for. LEVEL5 is good at noticing when you take on these additional tasks. Going above and beyond is recognized informally, and formally, over a Kudos lunch at the end of every month. In that spirit, I’d like to thank them for an exceptional Summer.


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Written by: Matt Kelly, Managing Partner

These days, it feels like the daily roar of news stemming from the chaos enveloping our southerly neighbours is drowning out almost everything else that’s newsworthy. But one very famous brand did manage to make headlines this week with a very bold, calculated piece of marketing.

Nike is turning 30 this year and it’s making some noise.

To celebrate its anniversary, the sports giant is launching a new advertising campaign featuring NFL football player Colin Kaepernick – he who famously took to his knee during the national anthem to highlight racial injustice.

The reaction to the new campaign, which (as of writing this) hasn’t yet aired, was swift and pointed, with some critics burning Nike shoes and clothing in protest and initiating boycotts under the hashtag #JustBurnit.

The NFL, which experienced a decline in television ratings following the kneeling controversy, could no doubt do without its premiere sponsor launching such a controversial campaign at the season opener.

As for Nike, its stock has been increasing steadily for years. Although its value experienced a slight setback in response to this news, the campaign is clearly a very shrewd and calculated move on Nike’s part. 

Why Nike’s right to just do it.

Nike sales have struggled as of late, with several new and high-profile product launches failing to generate much excitement. One could even say that the brand that daringly launched the ‘Just Do It’ campaign featuring Michael Jordon in 1986 has been becoming too mainstream and, for its hardcore advocates, perhaps even a bit tired.


Being viewed as tired, or losing relevance, is the kiss of death for a brand. (Think Blockbuster, Sears and Compaq.) But Nike’s far from done. With the launch of this campaign, the company’s injecting a shot of daring and controversy into its brand and it’s sure to benefit from the hype that ensues.


Sure, Nike may lose some of its older customers, but with Lebron James and Serena Williams – the two most celebrated and admired athletes on the planet – riding to its defence, Nike is reaffirming its relevance to an entirely new generation of customers. 


Nike is staying on strategy. What about you?

On our Brandmap™, the opposite of a ‘tired’ brand is one that is ‘outspoken’, evokes ‘shock,’ and is seen as ‘pushing the limits.’ For 30 years, ‘pushing personal limits’ has been core to the Nike brand’s DNA. So, with this bold campaign, they’re bang on strategy.

Nike’s being talked about, and for millions of consumers under 40, being relevant. Sure, Nike’s a bit old, but it’s ok to be an older brand. It’s just not ok to be stodgy and out of date, and that’s something many Canadian brands could benefit from reflecting on.

Do you really understand what is at the core DNA level of your brand? Is your brand losing relevance? Is your brand positioned for the next wave of consumers who view the world very differently from aging boomers? How does your brand break out from the clutter and get talked about? If you need a hand figuring this out, you might want to consider giving our BrandMap a try.


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By: Selina Phan, Analyst Intern and Richard Wang, Analyst 

On August 20, 2018, LEVEL5 welcomed a group of inquisitive students to our newly renovated office for the annual Open House event. Ian Madell, President and Managing Partner of LEVEL5, kicked off the event with opening remarks, speaking to LEVEL5’s history from its origination 16 years ago to where it is today.

After the team introduced themselves, students were assigned to separate breakout rooms where they had the opportunity to participate in panel discussions and get a better idea of what it’s like to work at LEVEL5. Among the topics covered included our culture, the work we do for our clients, and the lessons we’ve learned through our careers in consulting. Students were particularly interested in learning about the opportunities around transformation work, which is becoming an increasingly important part of L5’s service offering.

As the panels drew to an end, everyone came together again to network and connect. Students had the chance to ask their burning follow-up questions, and LEVEL5 was able to meet and get to know many of the wonderful people who came out to our event. It was a night of learning and laughing, and we hope that our guests were able to get a feel of the culture that we pride ourselves on so much.

With recruiting on the minds of many students as they head back to school this fall, here’s some advice from us:

  1. Be yourself. Remember that recruiting is a two-way street, and cultural fit is crucial for both students and firms as they evaluate each other. Good cultural fit leads to greater job satisfaction, increased retention rates, and overall higher-quality work. Most importantly, it’s often what makes you look forward to going to work every morning. Culture is in everything we do here, from the hard work and impact-driven results we produce, to the laughter and camaraderie in the office on any given day.

  2. Put yourself out there. Companies can only get to know you if you make yourself known, and it’s important to do that so you’re not just another name on a resume. Step outside your comfort zone and reach out to representatives from firms you’re interested in. Talk about your goals and your interests. It helps a lot to have people inside the firm on your side, and having a personality attached to your application does a great deal to differentiate you from other equally qualified candidates.

  3. Don’t stress out. It’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of expectations, especially when recruiting season is in full swing and your peers are all scrambling to find jobs. Don’t worry if you don’t find a fit right away; companies are recruiting throughout the year and it doesn’t matter if you’re the first in your class to sign an offer or the hundredth. As long as you keep things in perspective and stay motivated no matter how bleak it looks, things will eventually work out.

LEVEL5 would like to thank all the students who attended, and we wish everyone the best of luck as the new semester begins. Be sure to keep an eye on your university’s career services calendar to find out when LEVEL5 will be at your next on-campus recruitment event!

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Written by: Hua Yu, Managing Partner & Frank Zhang, Senior Consultant

In June 2018, Ant Financial Services Group – operator of China’s biggest online payment platform – raised around $14 billion in what market watchers called the biggest-ever single fundraising effort to be undertaken globally by a private company.

Ant Financial, currently worth 50% more than Goldman Sachs, is poised to become one of the most valuable financial companies in the world. What surprises me is that the company didn’t start out as a traditional bank, accumulating its assets by attracting deposits. Rather, it was initially created to serve as a payment solution provider when its parent company Chinese technology giant Alibaba started out as an online shopping platform.

In China, money primarily flows through a pair of digital ecosystems that blend social media, commerce and banking. These ecosystems are run mostly by Alibaba and another Chinese tech giant called Tencent. While neither company started out as a bank, both have surpassed Chinese banks in terms of fee-based revenues, in particular, revenues from payments.

If we put this into a global context, while many traditional banks are struggling to increase their fee-based revenues in this low-interest rate environment, two forerunners have already emerged in China.

Furthermore, driven by leading Chinese online financial institutions, the Chinese financial service industry is evolving to adopt a scenario-based financial service model based on the concept of ‘finlife’ – a term originally coined by Long Chen and later echoed by Cheng Li, the CTO of Alipay.

“We call it from fintech to finlife… Alipay has evolved from a digital wallet to a lifestyle-enabler.”

  -Cheng Li, CTO of Alipay

China has put ‘finlife’ on the map. Should Canada follow their lead?

It appears we’d be wise to do so.

According to Chen, ‘fintechs’ have been able to grow much faster in China compared to the rest of the world because there has been a concentrated effort to develop financial services that aim to make ‘real life’ better, rather than strictly digitizing existing financial services, as the chart below illustrates.

By following China’s trend-setting lead, Canadian banks will find themselves well positioned to:

1. Leverage leading practices from other countries to develop unique competitive advantages in their home markets

Banking is a highly competitive yet saturated industry in North America. At least in Canada, all five major banks offer similar products and services. It is hard for a bank to differentiate itself from others in terms of products and services. Thus, it is important for any player in a traditional industry (such as bank) to learn from leading organizations in other countries and develop differentiated practices and advantages.

2. Better serve multicultural consumers by fully understanding their pre-immigration input

Through our own research here at LEVEL5, we’ve learned that few organizations are actually aware of how their multicultural consumers previously banked in their native markets. Nor do they have a sense of what trends have driven growth in those markets. We’ve also discovered that the way these consumers used to bank can significantly impact the way they expect to be treated in Canada. 

In examining the concept behind “from fintech to finlife”, as Cheng Li refers to it, one thing became clear to me. Chinese financial service providers have already gone beyond banking and are looking to address real-life scenarios. As such, customers coming from China are likely to have very different and higher expectations than other Canadians when seeking banking services.

At LEVEL5, we leverage our experience and expertise spanning global regions and industries to uncover the market whitespace that drives growth opportunities for Canadian organizations. If you’d like to explore potential growth drivers for your organization, contact us to learn more.