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Jock FinlaysonStatistics Canada’s latest survey of corporate headquarters provides updated counts of direct head office jobs for each province and the biggest metropolitan areas across the country. The data shows B.C., and Vancouver in particular, are falling behind.

The survey covers publicly-traded and privately-owned companies as of 2017. A head office is defined as an “establishment … primarily engaged in providing general management and/or administrative support services” to affiliated operations and lines of business owned by the company in question. In most cases, a head office oversees facilities/operations located in more than a single community.

The definition used by Statistics Canada captures large and mid-sized companies from every sector of the economy. Among large companies, some examples of locally-based firms with significant operations in B.C. include Tolko Industries, Polygon Homes, London Drugs, Teck, Stemcell Technologies, Coast Capital Savings, and Ledcor Industries. The survey also counts firms that are headquartered in B.C. but whose activities are dispersed broadly across multiple jurisdictions (e.g., Methanex, Silver Wheaton, Lululemon).

Table 1 below shows the number of head offices, as well as direct head office employment, nationally and in the five biggest provinces for 2013 and 2017. Table 2 does the same for the leading Canadian metropolitan areas.

Head offices and direct head office jobs by province, 2013 and 2017

2013 2017
Head Offices Jobs Head Offices Jobs
Ontario 1,094 93,793 1,090 97,677
Quebec 573 51,772 552 53,293
Alberta 398 40,839 388 37,401
B.C. 319 16,813 308 18,027
Manitoba 108 6,879 107 7,762
Canada 2,773 224,779 2,729 228,130

Head offices and direct head office jobs by census metropolitan area, 2013 and 2017

2013 2017
Head Offices Jobs Head Offices Jobs
Toronto 702 73,673 696 77,167
Montreal 392 41,106 385 42,619
Vancouver 242 14,840 239 15,783
Calgary 216 31,935 213 29,068
Edmonton 119 6,559 115 5,924
Winnipeg 90 6,616 90 7,312
Ottawa-Gatineau 70 7,198 68 7,532
Quebec City 58 6,598 56 6,969

A few points are worth noting:

  • From 2013 to 2017, head office employment in Canada rose by 1.4 percent but the number of head offices dipped slightly.
  • British Columbia ranks fourth among the provinces in both head offices and head office jobs. However, B.C. trails far behind third-place Alberta in head office employment, with less than half as many corporate jobs. This reflects the comparative paucity of large companies based in B.C.
  • The number of B.C. corporate head offices dropped by 11 between 2013 and 2017, while metro Vancouver lost three headquarters over the same period.
  • Somewhat surprisingly given the economic vibrancy of the greater Toronto area, metro Toronto also lost head offices over 2013 to 2017. However, the Toronto region gained head office jobs in the period.
  • Within Canada, employment at head offices remains concentrated in Ontario (42.8 percent), Quebec (23.4 percent) and Alberta (16.4 percent).
  • The majority of head office employees work in census metropolitan areas (CMAs). Among CMAs, Toronto has the largest number of head office jobs (77,167 in 2017), followed by Montréal (42,619), Calgary (29,068) and Vancouver (15,783).
  • Toronto also hosts the largest number of corporate headquarters, 696 as of 2017, followed by Montréal (385), Vancouver (239) and Calgary (213).
  • While it’s home to slightly more corporate headquarters, metro Vancouver has barely half as many head office jobs as Calgary.

British Columbia as a whole and Vancouver as a metropolitan region continue to struggle to develop a strong cluster of major corporate head offices. That’s worrisome, since the presence of locally-headquartered enterprises of significant size is a powerful economic driver and a key factor in creating and sustaining high-wage employment.

Consultants at McKinsey describe metro Vancouver as a “minnow” in the North American context, judged by the modest number of large firms based there. When juxtaposed to sky-high housing prices, the weakness of metro Vancouver as a host community for corporate headquarters is even more striking.

Provincial and many municipal politicians in the lower mainland are obsessed with the issue of affordability. One way to improve overall affordability is to boost the incomes of employees and households.

Unfortunately, making progress on this goal will be very difficult without a thriving and expanding corporate head office sector.

Jock Finlayson is executive vice-president of the Business Council of British Columbia. This commentary was co-1uthored by Kristine St.-Laurent, a senior policy analyst at the Business Council of B.C.

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