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Atkins: The things you think about with a new year dawning

A small business in Sudbury is impacted by all sorts of things you wouldn't have imagined 40 years ago.
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

This will be the 46th time I have entered a new year pondering the economic climate and how it might impact our business. This is not unusual for those of us who have the responsibility to predict. That’s what business is. It doesn’t get simpler.

We ask the linear questions first, like will someone like Sears go bankrupt this year and confiscate their annual spend? Will they pay their bad debt and should we put our bad debt allowance up or down or leave it alone?

Can we count on Canada Post to be more or less on strike into the new year, with any anticipated bonuses for our distribution system that would balance the former?

Internationally, will the new and controversial president of Brazil (head office for Vale) cause the company to do something unanticipated in the Canadian market where they dominate nickel production? Will that impact on their supply chain in some way and influence our Northern Ontario suppliers and, ultimately, our mining publications?

In Sudbury, where we publish newspapers and magazines, will the city succeed or fail in their absurd determination to move the Sudbury arena out of the downtown and build a new one, along with a casino and a new hotel, in an industrial setting three kilometres away? How many restaurants will go down when the casino offers meals below cost to attract bettors? What will happen to downtown businesses and how will that impact cash flow?

Will the change in provincial government starve Sudbury (with no government members) of any meaningful government support for the tens of millions of dollars they need to invest in the downtown to counteract the arena fiasco, and will it impact the retail economy?

On the climate change file, will there be another massive fire in northeastern Ontario, which is devastating to our people and businesses, but very good for digital traffic? 

Will global warming impact the distribution of our newspaper with floods, or snowstorms or hurricanes, which is entirely possible? If you do something that involves weather (like distributing 50,000 newspapers every week), you need to read the Farmer’s Almanac.

Then there is GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Will Facebook continue to stumble and rearrange their logarithms, impacting media? Will Google lose its battle in Europe for aggregating news and change their global strategy? All of these things impact a digital company. This was not even a topic 45 years ago. 

Will Trump tariffs affect the price of newsprint, which it did last year? Will softwood lumber be resolved, or will it languish along with the punishing steel and aluminum tariffs still in place? In Northern Ontario, we export. When it’s cooking, there are ATVs for all. When it’s not, you cut back.

Will the United States Congress reject the new NAFTA? What will that mean to our economy?

If Trump and China get into a trade war, what does that mean for us? What happens when we arrest the chief financial officer of Huawei? Our universities depend on foreign students to be sustainable.

Everything is connected. A small business in Sudbury is impacted by all sorts of things you wouldn’t have imagined 40 years ago.

What is constant in Northern Ontario is courage and determination. Two months ago, General Motors announced 2,500 layoffs in Oshawa. It was and is a big deal. That said, over the last 30 years, more than 15,000 workers have been laid off in the primary mining sector in Sudbury and the city continues to flourish. It refused to die. It now exports mining products and solutions around the world, and the same amount of nickel, with 15 per cent of the personnel.

That’s why most of us in Northern Ontario do the math once a year on an astonishing array of factors and march on with enthusiasm. There is no better place to be in a world gone mad.

Happy new year.

Michael Atkins is the president and owner of the Laurentian Media Group, a diversified media company, which includes Northern Life,, Sudbury Living Magazine and Northern Ontario Business.