The high-tech sector includes motion picture production and post-production, telecommunication, engineering services, software publishing, and other computer and related services. According to the Profile of the British Columbia Technology Sector 2019 Edition (Released in May 2020) British Columbia' high technology sector expanded by 2.7% in 2018, while revenue in the sector grew to $34.7 billion.
The high technology sector employs 123,170 people in 10,941 business throughout BC, which equates to 5.4% of BC's workforce. This is more than the mining, oil and gas, and forestry sectors combined.
Vernon is part of the Thompson Okanagan Development Region. Collectively in 2018, this region had 886 high-tech companies, representing over 8% of all high-tech firms in British Columbia. Approximately 115 of these companies were located in Vernon and the North Okanagan. Over the past decade, the number of high-tech firms has continued to increase in the Vernon area building on the strength of the provincial and regional trends.
Vernon is well situated for technology companies capitalizing on the synergies leveraged from the Thompson-Okanagan region, representing considerable technological and economic diversity. Vernon companies have a long history of leveraging the community’s amenities and outdoor-recreation assets to attract a skilled and desirable workforce. Vernon’s local post-secondary educational institutions including Okanagan College and University of British Columbia Okanagan provide access to a highly trained workforce as local students train close to home and often remain in the community.
Technology companies in the Vernon area include:
When Garry Van Soest wants to clear his head, he walks the picturesque trails in Kalamalka Provincial Park. It’s a few minutes’ drive from the Vernon offices of AVS Systems, which he co-founded in 2007. As a career entrepreneur with more than 30 years of experience (he’s started up and exited nine tech companies in that time), Van Soest understands the need to keep his mind fresh in order to solve problems and stay innovative. He freely admits that operating a financing software company like AVS in a quiet town like Vernon goes against conventional wisdom.
From a strategic standpoint, his company would probably be better situated in a major economic centre like Toronto. That way, it would be right next door to all of the major financial institutions that use his company’s software. It would also make AVS Systems more visible amongst its competitors. Van Soest, 51 and a father of three ski-crazy children, has been there, and done that. As logical as that line of thinking might seem, he’ll happily take the laid-back surroundings of the North Okanagan. For him, it’s more about achieving work-life balance.
“Silicon Valley works because they feed off one another, but it’s so busy and so intense that it just eats you up,” says Van Soest, who maintains a direct presence in Toronto where the president of AVS maintains a sales office. “We’re healthy. There’s a bit of tradeoff where every entrepreneur has to have enough time to be creative. To be creative inside the walls of your office is a challenge.”
Van Soest has also heard the argument for situating a company where there’s an abundance of available skilled workers. Until recently, the Okanagan wasn’t exactly recognized as a technology hotbed. To operate a company like AVS Systems—one that creates, publishes and supports software for leading financial institutions and other credit-issuing organizations—it requires employees with special skill-sets.
He points to UBC Okanagan’s burgeoning computer science program, noting that AVS Systems has hired two graduates from it in the last 18 months alone. There’s also a new generation of tech talent being pumped out of Okanagan College’s Centre of Excellence where AVS recently hired another employee. “Our talent pool has grown with UBCO’s success. That’s very important to us,” says Van Soest, who works with a team of 20 in Vernon. “The colleges are doing better. They’re finding better instructors.”
Of course, sourcing talent from further afield isn’t overly onerous, adds Van Soest. The Okanagan Valley, with its charm and extensive lifestyle opportunities, makes it an easy sell to prospective job candidates with the right outlook. “It’s quite easy to import talent. You have to find people who think way outside the box and believe in an hour of solace a day in Kal Park: it’s one of the greatest places on the planet.”
Being located in a remote area also helped AVS Systems in an unexpected way. It allowed Van Soest to operate under the radar, so that when it came time to launch the new software, it took the market by storm. “We developed our software solutions under a bit of a cloak,” he says. “When we designed our solutions, we blindsided the market and we set a new standard rapidly adopted by all financial institutions.
At its core, the software AVS Systems produces helps financing institutions streamline many data-intense functions. Before Van Soest’s team came along, most of the processes were paper-oriented and laborious. “We were disruptive in that innovation, and it changed the way vendors assessed risk,” he says. “We brought a lot of efficiencies to the industry. We brought a lot of credibility and auditing tools. We brought a lot of quality that wasn’t there before.”
Van Soest relocated to Vernon from Victoria in 1996, after selling one of his tech companies in the provincial capital. An outdoorsman at heart, he enjoys many of the activities the area offers: ski racing, mountain biking, motocross and competitive water skiing, to name a few. He’s also a director of the Vernon Ski Club, where his children are active participants. “It was realistically to live the dream. I wanted to raise a family and have work more integrated with my lifestyle,” says Van Soest, of coming to the Okanagan. “It’s an amazing place to be, for sure. I’ve lived in a lot of places. It’s close to an airport and it’s a good central location for recreation.”
It takes a unique skill-set to develop wood products software. More than just someone with a strong IT and computer background, it also requires knowledge of the forest industry and wood products in general. Epicor Software Corporation has found the right mix with its office in Vernon, BC.
Steeped in forest industry tradition, British Columbia is the ideal location for Epicor to develop its LumberTrack and BisTrack software products. LumberTrack is a fully integrated sales and inventory control system supporting sawmill and panel production, remanufacturing and value-added production as well as wholesale and brokerage. The software is used by companies across North America and in the UK and Ireland. BisTrack is a business management system for lumber and building materials distributors and dealers or contractor lumber yards. Both products are leaders in their fields, with a reputation for excellence in design and implementation—due largely to the in-depth industry knowledge of the Epicor staff.
“With our products, when we’re looking for staff, we want people with forest industry experience,” says Judy Matterson, Director, LumberTrack. “We want people with the technical expertise as well, but for us, it’s more important in some cases that they have strong forestry knowledge.”
“People know about forestry in British Columbia because the industry is a focus of our economy. It really makes sense.”
Epicor’s Vernon office includes a team of 50 developers, quality assurance, implementation and support staff. Together, they design, support and implement the LumberTrack and BisTrack products.
Formerly operating under the name Progressive Solutions Inc., the Vernon office was acquired by Epicor a few years ago. Based in Austin, Texas, the tech firm has a global presence with customers in more than 150 countries.
“It’s been going very well (since the merger),” says Matterson. “We’ve grown.”
“We have long-term employees and very low turnover. People love the area and they love to live here. It’s a quality of life choice”.
“Being able to keep long-term employees is a real benefit to us as a company, and it’s not hard in this area. You don’t have to commute, the cost of living is less than in a larger city and it’s a great place for families. There are so many outdoor activities with skiing, hiking, watersports. Our staff loves the area and wants to stay.”
Matterson adds that Epicor maintains a community presence by sponsoring a local soup kitchen at the Anglican Church three times per year, and by donating money every Christmas to the Vernon Women’s Transition House Society. “We’re a really family-oriented and community-minded company too. We try to help the community where we live and work,” she says.
While its headquarters are in Austin, Texas, Epicor operates a number of other remote offices similar to Vernon that specialize in other industry-specific software solutions. They cater to a wide array of businesses and organizations in all sectors, including: manufacturing, distribution, retail and services. Many of the products are available on cloud-based infrastructure. “It is helpful for a lot of the smaller companies that don’t have the dedicated IT people in-house and it is the direction that many companies are heading” says Matterson.
As a company that develops and supports software, Epicor has learned it’s not essential to operate entirely in larger centres. “It’s not a problem,” says Matterson. “Our customers are very spread out and with technology you don’t need to be in the same location. Even during implementations, a lot of the training can be done remotely.”
She says another advantage of being located in the North Okanagan is the proximity to Kelowna International Airport (YLW), which offers direct service to Seattle and Vancouver. So when travel is required, it’s simple to arrange flights. “If you can get to Seattle or Vancouver, you can get to wherever you want to go in the US or Canada.”
For more information visit Epicor
There have been points in the history of Protocol Technologies Inc. when the founders looked across Highway 97—south to Kelowna, and northwest to Kamloops—and considered moving shop. And yet for every move in search of more space, and there have been four moves since the company opened in 1993, Protocol knew Vernon would remain home. “The difference was, in Vernon, people want that connection, they want a person they can trust and who is accountable to them, who can’t just disappear,” says Todd Hanna, CEO and co-founder. “Kamloops is another market that’s fantastic for us. They like the old school way of doing things. A handshake is a handshake.”
When Protocol opened in 1993, it was the first Vernon company to focus exclusively on business IT services. Today it’s renowned for helping organizations in the Okanagan and beyond make technology more accessible, secure and effective. As a local business in the Thompson Okanagan and as the ‘small town’ provider to big city organizations, Hanna says Protocol’s chosen location has forced the company to focus on stellar service. “We can’t afford to lose customers, so our level of service has to be higher. You’re used to being accountable and doing what you say you’re going to do to keep your reputation.”
For larger clients (Protocol’s largest, at the enterprise level, is in the US), Hanna says, “It’s not about location. It’s about attitude. If it’s broken, we can fix it. And the bigger component is we can put that technology to work. We’re pretty renowned for being able to go into a business and identify solutions and opportunities with technology they may not have thought of.”
Working across regions and industries, from manufacturing and medical offices to hospitality and professional firms, has also given Protocol its agility. The company is adept at working with multiple platforms and vendors. “We’ve become a lot more well-rounded for it,” says Hanna, adding his team is also able to apply the solutions that work for one sector to others."
When Protocol started out, he recalls clients laughing when they were asked about their IT budget. Now they recognize technology as a vital part of the way they collect, store and leverage data to remain profitable. For many of clients, which often have between 10 and 250 staff, Protocol is their IT department. Hannah jokes about his team having a bit more gray hair than people are used to seeing in IT, but it’s his tenured employees’ experience that allows Protocol to gain that kind of trust with clients. “They’re past business owners and senior managers. They can directly relate to our customers because they’ve got that background, and you draw on everyone’s experience,” says Hanna, who has turned recruitment challenges into an opportunity.
More than half of Protocol’s more than 20 staff is from the Okanagan; the rest have been brought in from cities such as Vancouver and Calgary. Hanna says when he has to sell Vernon, the headlines are always lifestyle, a slower pace and family. “You find time in the day to get out and enjoy Vernon. Everything is here. We have walking meetings in the park,” says Hanna.
In 2011, Protocol moved into its new building on Polson Drive, just off Kalamalka Lake Road and footsteps from the paths of Polson Park. For Protocol, Vernon’s turned out to be a good place to do business. “It’s still a somewhat small-town environment where you work with somebody and then you see them on the street, and you see how your work is impacting their business. Or you speak with someone else and they’ve already heard of you. The smallness of the market can be quite rewarding.”
He and his peers believe Vernon will and should continue to grow its tech community. “It’s a clean industry, and if there are technology jobs, that means opportunities for young people.”
For more information visit Protocol Technologies
For more than 36 years, Meyer Sound has been creating and supporting high-quality products for sound reinforcement and recording for professional audio practitioners. While the company is headquartered in Berkeley, California, some of its most advanced work is being carried out right here in Vernon, BC.
John McMahon is responsible for the Vernon-Berkeley connection. He started a tech company called Cadence Digital Audio, which ultimately merged with LCS Audio, in Vancouver in the early ‘90s. As that company grew from a small-time operation to one that was gaining traction by 1996, he moved it back to Vernon, where he was born and raised. He eventually set up shop in the Alpine Centre on Kalamalka Lake Road, where it is still located today.
LCS Audio specialized in designing and manufacturing products such as audio show control systems, mixing consoles and large-scale sound processing units. They’re used in a variety of settings: theme parks, Cirque de Soleil, Disneyland, cruise ships and Broadway shows, to name a few.
“In 2004, we started developing a product for Meyer Sound, and in 2005 they indicated they were interested in acquiring the technology behind that product,” says McMahon.
It turns out Meyer Sound wanted more than just the product. They proposed an acquisition of the entire company, which was realized in early 2006. “Since the acquisition, we’ve continued to grow and invest in the Vernon operation,” says McMahon, now Vice-president, Solutions and Strategy, in Berkeley. “We have some very sophisticated tools and equipment. We’re very leading edge for the audio industry.”
For example, the 15-person tech team in Vernon creates processor boards that are as complex as a Mac computer (they’re manufactured in California). They also specialize in cutting-edge technology such as high-speed networking, signal processing and loudspeaker alignment.
Asked why they chose to keep the R&D office in Vernon, rather than relocate it to Berkeley, McMahon says the possibility has been discussed. “It cuts both ways. There have been times where we’ve indicated we’d be interested in relocating, but there’s also a functional reason to keep things remote. It’s very unique from the mainstream work we do down here (in Berkeley). “They’ve (Vernon office) often been held as the model for how we want to do things down here. It’s a very talented group.”
Any talk of relocation has since been put to bed, as Meyer Sound recently committed to staying long-term in Vernon by buying their offices outright. A combination of the low Canadian dollar and sky-high real estate prices in Berkeley (they’re higher than Manhattan at the moment) helped make the decision easier. “Our dollar goes a long way, even without the dollar exchange,” says McMahon, of investing in the Canadian market.
From a logistical point of view, McMahon adds keeping the Vernon office doesn’t make much difference because it’s mainly used for design purposes. Modern communication makes it easy to keep everyone in the loop, and when needed, McMahon and other team members fly to and from Vernon for face-to-face meetings.
“It adds some overhead, but it’s a global company,” he says. “We’re OK with having remote developers, because you can these days.”
Global indeed. Meyer Sound employs more than 300 people and operates satellite offices in Nashville, Canada, China, Dubai, Germany and Mexico. “We have partners in pretty much all of the major centres in the world,” adds McMahon.
The quality of life in the North Okanagan means Meyer Sound’s Vernon office doesn’t experience a lot of turnover. And when it does, McMahon says they’re able to draw on the professional talent available in Vancouver and Calgary.
“It’s a great place where people want to move and start families,” explains McMahon. “You tend to get a very dedicated workforce that’s happy to be there. People are able to have an affordable lifestyle with four seasons. If you’re at all recreationally oriented, everything’s there for you.
“While it’s a bit of an outpost, it’s perfectly logical once you dig under the surface. We have terrifically happy staff that are dedicated and professional and constantly learning.”
For more information visit: Meyer Sound
It used to be a garage at the very tip of East Hill. Today, inside Sproing Creative headquarters, five men and women sit in front of wide Mac screens making things happen: a strategic plan to move a made-in-Vernon cracker to Alberta store shelves, a storyboard for a mortgage broker’s video, a new logo for a local non-profit, web coding to allow a non-profit’s website to process donations. In the summer, staff parties are held in the barn out back, meetings on the picnic table overlooking the valley along East Vernon Road.
“It was kind of an accident, really,” says Sproing Creative co-founder Heath Fletcher, who lives on the property with views of the city and Okanagan Lake, now home to his multimedia agency too. “It really came out of us being tired of paying rent, but it’s turned out to be the best decision.”
And yet without rent, Sproing may have never come to be.
In 2005, Fletcher and his wife moved to the Okanagan from Calgary to raise a family and be nearer to relatives. Shortly after, he began working as a photographer, and eventually found himself sharing office space on 45th Avenue with Clint Ingham, then owner of Ingenius Web Design. Over time, so many of Ingham’s clients needed Heath to take photos, and so many of Heath’s clients began needing website services, that in 2011, they decided to merge.
“We had two really complementary small businesses sharing a workspace, and we found some symmetry and chemistry, and our company was born out of that.”
At first, Sproing offered primarily web design and development, graphic design and photography. Nearly every year the company discovered another way they could add value for their clients. Hosting and support. Marketing and SEO. Content creation. In 2015, they added two services that would become game-changers for the company: video production and business strategies.
The strategic planning came after years of working with business consultant Real Rousseau of Real Focus Consulting, which merged with Sproing and now sees Real in the role of partner and business coach.
“There are so many different ways clients come to us now,” says Fletcher. “Maybe they need a portrait or they need to move their domain, but now we can take a bigger picture 10,000 foot approach: Yes you need a logo or a website, but do you have a strategy so all these things can work together to support your business goals for the future? Now we can help people see how all of these are connected.”
Adding video production services—a service Sproing saw growing demand for and filled by brining on a video director/editor—now allows them to help companies take business to another level yet.
“Video is definitely one of the items people are putting on their list now,” says Fletcher, adding the business community as a whole is making much more conscious decisions to seize the buzz and added mileage of online marketing.
Today, as Vernon’s only full service creative agency with a team of seven in-house and a handful of other contractors, Fletcher says Sproing has expertise, momentum and a reputation to match.
“We have a diverse group that’s come from all over the country and brought those skills and experiences to the table. Most of us have been freelancers or independent contractors at some point in our career, but there really is power in collaboration.”
Getting to do that collaborating in Vernon, especially that garage-studio with breathtaking lake views, is just a bonus, says Fletcher, who has also enjoyed the smallness of the Vernon market—that it’s easy to understand and also get to the know the people and stories of entrepreneurs. Though Sproing does have some clients outside the Okanagan, Sproing is happy to call Vernon home.
“If businesses here have great websites that show them doing innovative things, and that we have a vibrant business community, we’re really helping to showcase Vernon to the world.”
For more information visit: Sproing Creative
Starting up a tech company requires a certain amount of entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity. Vernon’s Cirillo family has been demonstrating that innovative approach to business even before the Internet existed.
It began in the 1980s when Joe Cirillo launched Info Tel, an immensely successful telephone directory publication. After that, he founded Auto RV World, a consumer buy-and-sell magazine. However, as the demand for digital marketing started to take off in the 2000s, Joe, who was eventually joined by his marketing-savvy son, Michael, saw an opportunity to shift their focus.
With their experience in the automotive sector, Michael, Joe and partner Dan Collingridge co-founded FlexDealer, a digital marketing company that specializes in building responsive car dealer websites.
“In 2005, customers started asking about websites,” says Michael. “We just went all-in on the digital side. We took it and played around with it and started to get some understanding.
“We finally got to the point where the overhead to print the magazine wasn’t worth continuing. It (FlexDealer) exploded and continued to grow. Even in 2008 when everything crashed, our company grew by about 400 per cent.”
FlexDealer builds proprietary dealership software from the ground up. The company has a staff of about 20 employees with seven based in their downtown Vernon office. They also have satellite offices in Utah and Toronto, as well as sales representation in Pennsylvania. And they have clients all over the world, including Canada, United States, South Africa and Australia.
One of the benefits of FlexDealer software is that dealerships have a tremendous amount of flexibility to configure the way their websites look and function.
“It’s basically a drag-and-drop website builder for car dealers,” says Michael, noting FlexDealer also provides other digital marketing services for clients as well. They are in the process of creating a subsidiary company that will offer similar software and support to other vertical markets.
Michael has become a leading authority on digital marketing in the automotive sector. As a best-selling author and public speaker, he travels extensively to give talks to industry peers. He is produces and cohosts the podcast The Dealer Playbook, which attracts more than 100,000 listeners a month in more than 55 countries worldwide.
As the head of a burgeoning company, one of the things Michael emphasizes is creating a positive corporate culture. Many tech companies these days are going all out to create work environments that attract forward-thinking employees and inspire innovative thinking. The Googles and Apples of this world are investing heavily in designing state-of-the-art office spaces to encourage productivity, and they nurture employees with amenities like tranquil lounge areas and upscale cafeterias.
FlexDealer has followed suit to some extent, but with the beautiful Okanagan Valley at their doorstep, there’s no need to go to extremes. When it comes to inspiration, all they have to do is remember where they live and work.
“If you want to be able to do what you want to do in an environment that people could only dream of…that’s why people come here,” says Michael. “Other companies spend millions of dollars trying to simulate it, and I don’t have to do anything. It’s already here.”
If there’s one challenge to operating in a smaller centre, Cirillo says it’s finding local talent. However, he adds that is changing all of the time. “People need to know that something like this does exist here. There are places here to work and they can stay here and enjoy the lifestyle that comes with the Okanagan.”
Aside from quality of life, another major upside of the Okanagan is the cost of living. Compared to major centres like Vancouver and Toronto, renting or buying property in the area is relatively affordable.
“I’ve got graphic artists who have relocated from Vancouver just to be here,” explains Cirillo. “They get to enjoy the culture of the company and where they work, but they also just gave themselves a $1,000-a-month raise.
“The money people make here goes a lot further. The cost of living is less than the city, plus you get all of the perks.”
For more information visit: FlexDealer