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Earning trust through integrity, transparency and following through

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In Conversation With… Grant Pearson, Vice President, Business Development, Nuna Logistics

HSBC’s In Conversation With… series is aimed at spotlighting diverse business leaders who serve as a source of inspiration to entrepreneurs and executives everywhere.

We recently sat down with Grant Pearson, Vice President, Business Development at Nuna Logistics, a majority Inuit-owned civil construction and contract mining company that specializes in infrastructure projects in the remote North. Grant shared his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for Indigenous businesses, the importance of community trust and the development of the Far North.

Tell me about Nuna. How was it founded and how has it grown into the business that it is today?

In the early 1990s, the founding owners of Nuna recognized opportunities were being created through the development of the emerging Canadian diamond industry, and saw the vast project potential of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. They also understood the importance of a majority Inuit-owned entity.

Nuna was well-positioned to contribute to the construction of Canada’s first diamond mines, and that early experience helped us develop a solid reputation for construction excellence in remote and challenging environments. Our experience, competitiveness, reputation and continued focus on excellence has helped us to grow into other regions in Canada.

Nuna is proudly majority Inuit-owned. How has this had an impact on the success of the business?

For our clients that have Impact Benefit Agreements with our Inuit ownership, we have delivered on employment and training objectives. That’s contributed to our success because we offer clients solutions on several fronts. Our owners are also significant investors in Nuna and active members of our Board of Directors, so their insight and guidance over the years has been critical.

Outside of Nunavut, being a majority Inuit-owned company has also opened up doors with other Indigenous communities in Canada, leading to new partnerships and business opportunities.

Tell us how Nuna is helping develop the North.

From a human resources perspective, Nuna has always recognized that projects in close proximity and competing for the same labour pool necessitated training in order to meet skilled labour demands. Our ongoing commitment to training has expanded employment opportunities for people in the North. As well, our completion of key infrastructure projects — like air strips, all-weather roads, winter roads or general site infrastructure — have helped our clients develop projects that have contributed to the overall economic success of the region.

We support initiatives like the Kitikmeot Inuit Association’s Grays Bay Port and Road project. In its first phase, the project will create a deep-water port in western Nunavut and a 230-kilometre road that will extend south, close to the Northwest Territories border, and will eventually link up to a road that goes all the way to Yellowknife. The project will be a game-changer in developing the North.

Has public trust been important to the success of Nuna, and if so, how has your company earned the trust of the communities where you’re operating?

Absolutely. Without the trust of our employees and their families, our clients, or the general public, we couldn’t operate as we do today. Earning trust through integrity, transparency and following through on our commitments to all stakeholders is key to our continued success.

I visit communities long after our projects are complete, and when a community member asks me when Nuna’s returning, I know we’ve done something right. Even after the completion of a project, we continue to be good partners, participating whenever we can in community events and activities.

What unique challenges do Indigenous-owned businesses and business leaders face in the Canadian market?

It took a while, but the Canadian market is finally recognizing that Indigenous business leaders are excellent partners, not barriers. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re seeing continued improvement from where it was even 20 years ago.

In terms of the challenges Indigenous-owned businesses face in starting up businesses and in the Canadian market, none of them are necessarily unique to Indigenous businesses. The skill sets, opportunities and resources have to be in place to survive the initial start-up. Businesses need to withstand market fluctuations in order to survive slow periods.

Many Indigenous businesses say getting resources to remote communities can be difficult. Has that been a problem for Nuna, and how do you tackle those supply chain issues?

In Nunavut specifically, there are no roads that connect communities — it’s all air freight or summer sea lifts. Many of our project sites are only accessible via winter road, air freight or sea lift. That means we have to do extensive logistical planning well in advance of starting a project. In many cases, we only have one opportunity to get it right.

How have financial institutions helped businesses like yours grow? What should they be doing better to support Indigenous-owned businesses?

Reliable access to lending facilities at competitive rates has helped our business finance capital purchases and manage working capital requirements. But due to the remote Northern areas we operate in, logistical efforts to mobilize work sites are complex, carry significant upfront costs and require long lead times before our projects begin. Financial institutions that take the effort to fully understand Nuna’s business model have allowed us to pursue more projects.

Many Indigenous-owned companies have solid business models but may lack capacity for risk to fully fund all their project requirements, especially for larger projects. Financial institutions could reduce barriers for them by offering creative solutions to help them grow via equipment ownership without introducing excessive risk.

How has the Indigenous business community been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s been tough on everyone, but people in remote communities who have been under lockdown and cannot travel outside the region have really struggled.

With many fly-in-fly-out remote camps, in Nunavut in particular, the lockdowns have been necessary to keep people safe, but it’s been hard on people who need to work.