Paul Laliberte had a good job as a physiotherapist working at the Minnedosa hospital when he decided to go into private practice.
“I think every entrepreneur can say at some point in time a seed is planted,” he told a business forum in Minnedosa last week. “Mine started with just a discontent with punching a clock and not giving my patients the time I really wanted to and felt they deserved.”
Laliberte opened Liberty Physiotherapy this spring on Minnedosa’s Main Street. It was a move as much about putting down roots in a community he and his family love as about pursuing a dream of private practice, he said. But switching from a secure public-sector job to entrepreneur is not an easy decision to make.
“The challenging part is knowing when to go through the transition,” he said.
Helping others take their business idea to the next step was what was behind the ‘What’s the Big Idea?’ business forum sponsored by the towns of Neepawa and Minnedosa, surrounding municipalities and local chambers.
Laliberte also served as a judge on a “Dragons’ Den”-style panel assembled to hear pitches for business ideas that ranged from upcycled furniture stores to selling lower-tech tractors and running mobile hearing testing clinics.
Marlies Soltys, owner of Modern Mosaics, earned a ‘best pitch of the day’ award for a passionate presentation about starting an art gallery in Minnedosa where artists can sell and display their work and where art classes and retreats could be held.
Art is the ultimate value-added production, she told judges.
“And we have extraordinarily talented photographers, knitters, quilt makers, glass makers in town,” she said.
These kinds of businesses have real potential to revitalize rural Main Street, said local economic development officers in Minnedosa and Neepawa. They were inspired to host this event after attending another in Boissevain this past spring where prizes offered to best pitches included free chamber memberships, offers of mentorship and ‘chamber bucks’ for spending locally.
They did this to link potential new business startups with the supports they need in mentorship, financing and business management advice, said Marilyn Crewe, economic development officer for Neepawa.
“There’s a lot of business development that goes on in the coffee shops of our small communities where everybody has a good idea of what can fill those storefronts. The opportunity for a business to try a storefront is something we can promote through an event like this.”
Rural communities know they can’t bring back the kinds of businesses Main Street used to have when Prairie towns needed to be self-sustaining, added Vern May, economic development officer in Minnedosa.
But others can take their place — if entrepreneurship is fostered locally, he said.
“You may not have the car dealership and furniture store in every rural town anymore, but there are other things,” said May.
“One of the pitches that was very successful was the cultural arts space and gallery. You might think of that as more of an urban-type attraction but we’re recognizing that we can do that rurally and there’s also a growing appetite for this,” he said.
Meanwhile, health and wellness-focused enterprises like Laliberte’s are an excellent fit for rural areas, he continued.
“In Minnedosa over 28 per cent of the population is over 70 years old,” he said. “There’s definitely a market.”
Laliberte said as he weighed the prospects of private practice he saw many advantages to operating rurally. For one thing, there’s less competition. If you can establish a business on the basis of trusted relationships, you’ll do well, he said.
“People in rural communities want to see businesses on Main Street and for the most part will support you,” he said. “If you genuinely care about your customers, no matter what your business, and treat your customers like family they’ll be loyal to you.”
Beth McNabb, co-owner of The Fashion House in Minnedosa, served as a judge alongside Laliberte at the forum.
A desire to offer exceptional customer service and “to treat people like family” was something she heard repeatedly at the forum, she said, adding she was equally impressed with the diversity of ideas and the grasp these potential new business owners have of rural areas’ needs.
Community Futures Westman, Entrepreneurship Manitoba, the RBC, FuturPreneur, Backswath Management and Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development were agency partners for the event.