As China booms, Canada Inc. misses out

Natural-gas engine maker Westport is a rare example of a company tapping the country's green zeal

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

VANCOUVER -- David Demers says he is embarrassed by all the attention he is getting for his success at selling natural gas engines to China. Not embarrassed for his Vancouver company, Westport Innovations Inc. Embarrassed for Canada.

"It's embarrassing that when Canada is looking for China success stories we come to the top of the list," he says. "We've got big ambitions, but we're a tiny company."

He has a point. After five or six years in China, Westport and its U.S. partner, Cummins Inc., have equipped about 3,500 Beijing buses with natural gas engines, part of an effort by the Chinese government to clean up the capital's foul air for the Olympic Games in August. Westport's annual take from doing business in Asia has yet to crest $10-million.

Yet as excitement rises about the business potential of helping China fight its massive pollution problem, authorities in this country are showcasing Westport as an example of what a Canadian company can do. B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell sang the company's praises during a trade promotion trip to Asia in May.

"Everyone has mentioned the environment," Mr. Campbell said during that trip. "There are big, big opportunities here."

The problem, Mr. Demers says, is that Canadian companies aren't seizing them. With thriving enviro-tech companies and its reputation as a green land of open spaces, Canada should be leading the drive to break into the environmental market in China. Instead, it is losing out to other, more aggressive countries.

The Australians, he says in an interview at the company's Vancouver headquarters, are doing particularly well. "Why can't Canada?"

It is a question more and more business people are asking. "We are missing the boat," says Chinese-language school operator Carla Kearns, who organized a conference on the issue in Toronto earlier this month.

Her message to Canadian companies specializing in environmental technologies: "Get your ass over there. The opportunity is huge..."

Yet only a handful of companies, most of them as small or smaller than Westport, have won environmental business in China. B.C. officials point to Carmanah Technologies Corp., a Victoria-based company that makes solar-powered lights, signs and power systems; Vecima Networks Inc., another company based in Victoria, which makes products for broadband access; and Vancouver-based Xantrex Technology Inc., which makes various electronic products...

Full article: Globe and Mail