Northern Opportunities for Business Limited (NOBL)
All across the country, banks and credit unions are tightening small business lending and reeling in any risky loans. So where do you go if you’re a self-reliant entrepreneur with a good idea and the nerve to plunge into the small business world?
Many prospective business owners in northeast Nova Scotia are heading to Ron O’Brien’s office in New Glasgow. As the executive director of NOBL (Northern Opportunities for Business Ltd.), O’Brien gets excited when a new client looking for business support walks in his door.
“For me, it’s the perfect rush,” says O’Brien, who has run the government-sponsored office for 17 years. “We’re helping people take care of themselves and there’s nothing better than that. It doesn’t always work out the way we intend, but it’s still an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise be getting.”
NOBL operates in the largely rural counties of Pictou, Antigonish and Colchester, promoting economic development and delivering government small business funding programs.
Though several major corporations, including Sobeys, Empire, Scotsburn Dairy, Michelin and Maritime Steel, are in Pictou County, the region of just 47,000 people continues to struggle with unemployment and economic challenges.
That’s why NOBL is a key catalyst in helping create new business opportunities in northeastern Nova Scotia. The innovative Community Business Development Corporation (CBDC) was formed in 1986 by a group of local volunteers who met to discuss solutions to the high unemployment in the region, then hovering around 15 per cent.
“Those volunteers were concerned how that high unemployment was impacting society here,” explains O’Brien. “So they got together to discuss alternatives and identified self-employment as a means for people to take care of themselves. But they realized that they needed funds to do it — so they formed the CBDC.”
Employment prospects are more favourable in neighbouring Antigonish, where St. Francis Xavier University provides many direct and indirect jobs, and in Colchester County, which boasts a solid manufacturing base.
Unemployment continues to hover around ten percent in Pictou County. So the alternatives are clear, says O’Brien.
“You either head out west or you find something to do here on your own. We’re really happy that a lot of people try to find things to do here.”
That’s where NOBL comes to bat.
“We help those (prospective entrepreneurs) identify their markets and talk to them about their business idea. We have three volunteer investment committees, one in each County, of local business people who frequently come up with excellent ideas that we can relay to our clients to make their business stronger.”
The NOBL head office is based in New Glasgow, staffed by O’Brien, an administrative person and two business analysts. Two additional business analysts are based in Truro and Antigonish, both working under the NOBL umbrella.
But Pictou County is home for NOBL. It was started in New Glasgow and the need remains the strongest there. Last year, NOBL invested $2.2 million in 80 small businesses in Pictou County, an additional $600,000 in Colchester County and $500,000 in Antigonish County.
Like the banks, NOBL offers business loans at competitive rates and set terms for repayment of the money. But understanding that these businesses are often riskier enterprises, O’Brien says the CBDC tries to be flexible in accommodating a repayment schedule.
“There are always issues as the business goes along, and we try to address those fairly.”
O’Brien recognizes a strong streak of self-reliance and a drive to succeed among the small business owners in the three Counties that pushes them to take risks and find possibilities in a hard economic environment.
With a loan cap of $150,000 per case, NOBL is not there to invest in big business. The average loan is slightly less than $30,000, with a focus on small and micro-business and helping make those businesses self –reliant.
When all goes well, some of those businesses will grow beyond the one and two-person shop typical at start-up.
Scotsburn Mechanical is a shining example of the ingenuity and drive that make companies successful. The owner started a small business with a single contract with Michelin to provide ductwork to the tire manufacturing giant. That business has grown in two short years from about six employees to more than 30, with contracts all over Nova Scotia and the Maritimes.
NOBL invests primarily with high-risk ventures, mostly projects that banks wouldn’t bankroll. Yet the write-off rate is less than eight percent, says O’Brien.
In 1986, NOBL started with an investment fund seeded with $2.05 million from the federal government. That fund has now grown to more than $5 million (and with added borrowed funds, NOBL has over $10.0 million invested in their communities at any given time), through careful investment loans and many entrepreneurial success stories in all three Counties.
The network of 41 CBDCs through the region has established the Atlantic Canada Community Business Investment Fund, pooling any excess money from the various branches. That central pool allows the individual offices access to more investment capital money to spread around the potential wealth. Last year, the fund assisted 13 CBDCs with a total of $8.6 million -- money that went right back into helping Atlantic Canadian small businesses.
That central fund model is uniquely Atlantic Canadian and it is considered the country’s most efficient loan pool, with over $30 million placed with its member CBDCs. With close to $240 million in the field to upwards of 7,000 businesses, the CBDCs are a significant contributor to small business in Atlantic Canada.
O’Brien is not shy about showing his enthusiasm for the work of NOBL. ACOA recently conducted a satisfaction survey of clients on the service offered by NOBL, and the ratings came back at back-slapping 96 per cent.
“I love what we’re doing, and so does the staff here too,” says an obviously proud O’Brien. “There is an absolute commitment to what we do. Five of us here have sworn that this is where we’ll retire from —and three of those people are under 40.”