It was mid-2014 when members of the senior management team at Bluewater Power first began scoping out the creation of a homegrown internet service business, part of what has become the “group of companies” strategic direction that not only adds value for the municipally owned enterprise but positioned Sarnia-Lambton for future growth.
Part of that was a visit to Stratford, Ontario, a community that had become one of the first in the nation to leverage its local electric utility into a powerhouse of digital connectivity.
While Bluewater Power may have differed from Festival Hydro in its ownership structure—the Stratford utility was and still is wholly owned by one municipality, not the six here in Sarnia-Lambton—that was seen to be largely minor.
But what caught the attention of members of the Bluewater Power team was the individual that arguably had orchestrated the creation of Rhyzome Networks, the Festival Hydro subsidiary the visitors from Sarnia-Lambton were hoping to emulate.
Paul West is the son of a lawyer who had originally attended Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo with that path in mind.
It was after West’s first year at university that a cousin in Toronto offered him a summer job in a burgeoning tech company that sold computers. West ended up doing deliveries for the firm, not a particularly glamourous job but one that paid the bills before he would return to school in the fall.
The cousin asked if he could open a sort of “satellite” store in Waterloo, which West was happy to oblige, taking out space in the back of an Inuit art gallery.
He also took out a print ad in one of the university publications in which he offered dot matrix printers (younger readers should Google that for comic interest), periodically checking the answering machine he had installed.
“At the end of the first month, I had a whole bunch of business,” recalls West. “After the second month, we were the supplier of record for the business school, and by the end of November we had a staff of three people.”
West admits he didn’t really know what had happened but what he did realize was that he didn’t know enough about business in general so he “parked the arts study” and shifted to the business school.
What happened next was fairly predictable: the part-time gig turned into a full-time job and West never finished school.
He also started to get even busier at his new field, to the point where he was recruited to run a subsidiary of ICI, which offered him a minority stake in a business that would be headquartered in Stratford and which would target farmers interested in using the power of computers to better manage their business.
Stratford became home and remains so to this day, not far from Waterloo, where he and his wife first met.
He also became busy even after leaving the firm that had recruited him, relocating his business activity but always keeping Stratford his base.
“I’d go wherever I needed to,” he said, listing off the various points where his developing skills were in demand.
Gigs with Motorola, and a subsidiary of Bell Canada are on that list, with projects that included providing network installation services at places like Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.
Today, that’s in Sarnia-Lambton, where West makes the 90-minute drive from Stratford—a “pretty drive” he says.
There’s good reason for keeping Stratford his base, not least of which is his wife’s career as a school teacher, who worked with the wife of Don Mathieson, then and now the mayor of Stratford.
That connection lead to a discussion on the potential for the community to benefit from a robust digital infrastructure project.
“He would hear what I was doing at Sunnybrook and elsewhere and made the point that most of the work was on projects that were about the size of Stratford,” said West.
Eventually, a job was posted, and West became the successful candidate, leading to the role that became of interest to the visitors from Bluewater Power.
Since its formal launch in the summer of 2015, Bluewater Regional Networks has not only had its sights on improving connectivity in the Sarnia-Lambton community, but is making substantial progress as it adds customers and continues to seek out opportunities to grow the business and beyond.
West sees his strength in the business world—and part of what has kept him excited over the years—as a “collector of dots.”
“I don’t know when or where those dots will need to be connected, but I talk the language and I’ve been able to make connections with people through relationships. It’s served me wonderfully over the years, being able to see any business situation and apply some knowledge that I’ve gained elsewhere,” he says.
“I also like working in a team environment.”
It’s here that the concept of competition in the high-speed internet business is worth touching on.
With two providers in place before BRN was established, the reaction of Bell and Cogeco could easily have been to back away from the market.
In fact, they’ve done the opposite, doubling down on expansion efforts, which has the effect of improving service options for customers and reducing costs, all part of the magic of competition.
And in doing so, all three of the providers are committed to “playing well with others,” a particularly strong point when you understand how the market works.
“There’s a strong wholesale market operating,” notes West. “We provide services to carriers where they are not built out and they do the same when we need to reach customers. It’s made possible by protocols and standards that are part of an industry that has matured and where everyone can interconnect securely without impacting traffic.”