In a few short years, DEFSEC Atlantic has grown into a leading Canadian defence and aerospace conference, attracting a wide range of companies from across Atlantic Canada and throughout the country. Colin Stephenson, the tradeshow’s executive director and a close observer of the region’s defence community, spoke with Vanguard about changes to the sector and how those are reflected in this year’s event, September 7-9, in Halifax.

What do you see as the most significant change to the Atlantic Canadian defence and aerospace sector over the past several years?

Because we are a gathering point and a networking opportunity for all of Atlantic Canadian aerospace, the major development I have seen is a synergy among the various companies that now see themselves as a team. And that Atlantic Canada team is starting to recognize its collective strength, that they are much stronger when they present themselves to the world that way. One of the great things we have seen is increased cooperation between the four provinces with the Atlantic Alliance, and that is probably a critical change that has moved things forward.

Your focus is on the marketing end of the business, not necessarily the technology, but do you get a sense of any trends that are emerging?

We have a number of large companies that do meat and potatoes things like platform maintenance, repair and overhaul, but we are constantly surprised by the number of niche companies that receive contracts that get us into areas like space development or composites on aircraft. At sea surveillance seems to be a big one at the moment, whether it is advances in sonar buoy technology or geospatial mapping. What is exciting is the talent that constantly emerges from this region. What we’re seeing is not a trend in any particular direction but the fact that we can go in almost any direction.

Are you attracting a different type of company to the conference than in previous years? Is the event becoming more international?

I think we’re finding a greater variety. This year we are seeing more naval supply companies; not simply parts for ships but auxiliary things like zodiacs and small hull supply companies. We’re getting a lot of interest from the United States and central and western Canada because of the business-to-business opportunities. A lot of our growth is coming from outside of Atlantic Canada.

We continue to grow an international flavour, but it takes time. We have a greater presence from the U.S. than we have ever had before. Canadian trade commissioners from six different American cities are bringing two or three companies each. They are very interested in dipping their toe in the water and seeing what the event is all about. We’re exploring the same type of efforts in places like Brazil, and we anticipate the big U.K. pavilion to be back next year.

Are you seeing a greater emphasis on electronics and systems software?

IT companies are recognizing the huge industrial regional benefits (IRB) opportunities offered by original equipment manufacturers (OEM). We draw the largest aerospace companies in the world to Halifax, so we are seeing IT companies that want to be a part of their supply chains. They want to know how to get qualified to be a supplier to a Lockheed, a General Dynamics or a Boeing. We’re finding that the show is often less equipment customer-driven and more OEM to SME driven. So we see Atlantic Canadian small and medium enterprises coming out of the woodwork with solutions for these big companies. And the large companies are coming here looking for that expertise and talent, looking for partnerships, because of their IRB obligations. That makes for a great synergy at DEFSEC.

Has that become the strength of the show, providing SMEs a platform to showcase what they do?

At a show where the customer is the focal point, the large OEMs are focused on the customer and it can be difficult to get their time and attention. But when those OEMs come to Atlantic Canada and they are looking for partnerships, it is a golden opportunity: the door is open, they’ve brought their IRB staff, and SMEs have the opportunity to interview with them. That business-to-business element is one of DEFSEC’s great strengths. At the same time, we also have the customer, from the procurement offices in Ottawa and the end-user of any product, be they coast guard or navy or air force – 40 percent of the Canadian Forces is stationed in Atlantic Canada.

There has been an increasing effort in the region to build strong relationships between industry and academia, especially with area colleges to ensure the necessary training programs. Are you incorporating that into your programming?

One of the things we are trying to do with the event is not simply be a tradeshow but create an atmosphere where the conversation can be started about current trends in the industry; not only technical problems and solutions, but how the political and policy side of the community works. We’re finding that by having panel presentations the academic world has a reason to participate because they know we are not simply a widgets and gadgets show. That will help us to grow the participation of universities and colleges.

Atlantic Canada has been able to market its location as a strength, perhaps not something that is readily recognized by other regions of the country. How would you characterize the region’s competitive advantage?

You can go to a lot of places and find technical expertise or the capacity for getting jobs done. The uniqueness of Atlantic Canada is as a gateway between North America and Europe. Geographically, it is positioned beautifully to create that easy crossing – 4.5 hours to the U.K. If you combine that with the incredible lifestyle appeal that is offered in any of the four Atlantic provinces and the lower cost of living, you can attract long-term, permanent, highly technical and well paying jobs. It is a very laid back setting that gets its work done – and you don’t have to drive far at the end of the day to be in an ideal spot. The aerospace industry is finding that it is less and less difficult to attract people from other parts of Canada and the world to live here once they have had the chance to experience it.


Interview with Colin Stephenson