Toronto Star
January 15, 2009

Terrence Belford
Special to the Star

Every year on Christmas Eve, the 100 staff members at LEA Holdings Group’s head office in Markham have a potluck lunch. For many Toronto employers, that might mean a spread of tuna casseroles, pasta salads and fried chicken. Not at LEA Group. Company chair John Farrow notes with great pride that his head office staff speak more than 40 languages and regional dialects between them.

Their contributions to the feast reflect this vast cultural diversity. There might be muamba from Angola, biltong from South Africa, curries from the Indian sub-continent, stir-fries from China, crispy-skinned roast suckling pig from the Philippines, fermented fish sauce from Vietnam, delicately spiced lamb dishes from Ethiopia – in a profusion of sweet, sour, spicy and hot main courses and sides from countries around the world.

Farrow says there are tremendous business advantages to diversity in a workforce, not the least of which is a competitive edge when it comes to finding, signing and conducting business around the world. LEA Group, an international consulting engineering and urban planning venture, ranks second to the giant SNC Lavalin group in size, Farrow says. About half its annual revenues come from foreign projects and 90 per cent of its 1,000-member staff is based outside Canada. The company employs 850 people in 14 offices in India alone.

“Clients in countries like India, Pakistan, Uganda and Ethiopia hire us because they want the best of North American engineering skills for their projects,” Farrow says. “But at the same time, they want staff that recognize their own cultural, social and political realities.” LEA Group’s diversity enables it to satisfy on both fronts, he says.

The company is not alone among Canadian employers who have realized the powerful networks immigrants bring to Canada , says Ratna Omidvar, chair of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, a not-for-profit group founded in 2003 by the Maytree Foundation to improve integration of skilled immigrants into the Canadian workforce.

These networks can smooth the way and provide key advantages when conducting work in foreign countries, she says.

“I look at corporations like the Bank of Nova Scotia and its rapid and profitable expansion through places like Latin America,” she says. “Scotiabank has done that by leveraging on a highly diverse staff here in Canada.”

LEA Group’s Farrow recalls a project in Hanoi his company wants to bid on. The first step was to contact a former staffer originally from Viet Nam.

“We asked if he would like to go back for six months to head up the project, get it organized, recruit local staff and spend time essentially back home on a North American salary,” he says. “He jumped at the chance and we got that terrific mix of Canadian experience and a mastery of local customs.”

Farrow points to the example of a recent contract in Uganda, privatizing state vehicle registration.

“We approached a South African fellow who had worked for us,” Farrow says. “He had worked in Uganda and was able to identify a local Ugandan partner and then, working as a trio, we were able to…assemble a local team, all experienced in the African way of doing things, supervised by professionals with North American experience.”

The benefits of diversity can also be simple and everyday, he notes.

“We had this fax arrive in Chinese characters,” he recalls. “One of our people recognized it as being in a Shanghai dialect. We just passed it on to one of our people originally from Shanghai, who translated it within minutes,” he says.

“Ask yourself where we would have been if we did not have that kind of talent pool to draw on?”

Reference: Toronto Star