‘Practice firm’ participants build company from scratch

Eleven nervous people sat staring at the pristine white writing board at the front of the room. They exchanged cautious smiles, not quite sure what to expect on their first day.
Then a woman clad in a red business suit addressed the group.
“Guess what? You have to start a business from scratch,” said Cathy Emes, operations manager for the “practice firm” which started here Monday.
The board is filled with notes by lunchtime, employees are exchanging ideas, and the Fort Frances “practice firm” is off and running.
“Practice firm” is an international program where people produce, buy, and sell products within a virtual world.
The simulated work environment lets participants gain hands-on experience running a business. Of the 3,500 such “firms” worldwide, Fort Frances is the only one between Ottawa and British Columbia.
The local firm will begin with 11 participants, who are referred to as employees.
Don Lovisa, campus manager of Confederation College here, had hoped for more initially but after talking with “firms” in Quebec, he learned fewer people could be a blessing.
“We originally wanted to start with 12 or 14 people but they couldn’t believe that. They said we needed to start with a small group. Start with 10, that’s a perfect number,” he said Monday.
“It’s an exciting day,” Lovisa said while touring the “firm’s” office space on Scott Street. “It will be a month before there will be any sort of official opening.”
That’s because the employees must make some decisions before opening their doors to the public—such as a name, logo, and most importantly, what they will sell.
Employees also will have to be divided up into the various departments required in a business, such as human resources, accounting, marketing, and management.
“They learn to work as a team, and it’s important that they interact with each other,” Lovisa explained.
While attendance times will vary for participants down the road, it is expected the first batch of employees will remain in the “firm” for the full 20 weeks since they must get the business off the ground.
The local “practice firm” will not exist in a world unto itself. A board of directors with members from the local business community also will be involved in the process, offering guidance and practical experience to the employees.
“It’s important that the business community look at this as real training and that people involved are getting real skills,” he said.
“The most important thing about the practice firm is to get everyone gainfully employed,” business manager Paul Zaremba told the employees at their orientation meeting Monday morning.
“It’s learning by doing, by putting yourself into the job.”
Some participants were a little intimidated on the first day of the program.
“At first I was scared,” admitted Winnie Sinclair from Devlin. “After a while, I kind of relaxed and everyone seemed to be working together.”
Sinclair working in shipping in Toronto, but wanted to get more experience in the industry.
“I was bored of not getting any success at finding a job,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to update my job skills.”
Michelle Nickel from Fort Frances, who worked in automotive dealerships in the parts and service departments before now, said she’s looking at this program as a way to try something new.
“I’m recently unemployed and looking into a new career. This is a good opportunity to get into a couple of different careers,” she said.
Nickel, who will be exploring accounting and human resources at the “firm,” said she was excited about starting.
“It was wonderful. We have a really great group of people,” she said. “I just wasn’t expecting to start with as little as we started with. We came in and they handed us pens and pads of paper, and that’s all that we had.”