Global Report

This New Brunswick firm used small-town connections to expand globally

Professional Quality Assurance leveraged network of compatriots

Skyline of Federicton, New Brunswick

Fredericton, New Brunswick (Russ Heinl/Getty)

When Keith McIntosh decided to set up Professional Quality Assurance, a small software testing shop, in Fredericton, N.B., in the late 1990s, he had the field pretty much to himself, at least in New Brunswick. Unlike the sexy software development world, testing lacked cachet and was seen by many firms as an extra expense.

But, as McIntosh points out, the testing sector has taken off with the proliferation of computing platforms—no longer just PCs and laptops, but also an ever growing universe of mobile devices and tablets, as well as increasingly complex applications, from e-commerce sites to mobile banking apps.

The testing industry, moreover, has moved far beyond computer games, its original bread and butter. As McIntosh puts it, “If you put a banking app out on the web, you can’t afford to get it wrong.”

The $6.5 million-a-year company (418th on the 2013 PROFIT 500) has 100 employees and specializes in testing software used in healthcare, banking, telecommunications, gaming and e-learning. It has been trawling for international customers, often tapping into the far-flung network of New Brunswickers who are working in the U.S. and Europe—to exchange intelligence and trade business leads. As of fiscal 2012, about 17%, or $1.2 million, of the company’s top line came from off-shore clients.

From the start, McIntosh deliberately instilled a small town ethos to the way the company does business, both in Canada and abroad, He stresses the importance of friendly personal connections and a highly adaptable approach to client relations. “You don’t have to change to work with us,” he says. “We really think we should be the ones to make it work for the customer, not the other way around.”

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One of PQA’s most significant international customers originated through its local network. The company had been working with Apple Canada for a small New Brunswick-based e-learning company. Through that gig, McIntosh was introduced to a large Ireland-based e-learning firm, called Intuition Publishing, which has directed over $2 million of testing work to PQA in recent years.

But PQA also provides another sort of service for Intuition, which has a North American division in Dallas. McIntosh says his firm services as a kind of time-zone compromise between the Dublin and Dallas offices. It also provides some creative input to Intuition’s content production as well as its conventional testing services.

The company helps bridge the considerable cultural gap between Intuition’s two divisions, adds McIntosh. “There’s a huge difference between a Texan and an Irishman.”

As PQA built its relationship with Intuition, the company also found itself looking beyond Atlantic Canada for new opportunities, as well as employees with the right mix of software testing skills. About four years ago, it opened offices in Vancouver and Calgary. The company wanted to offer value-added services as a means of establishing a point of differentiation between itself and the hundreds of low-cost software testing factories in south-east Asia.

With the applications becoming increasingly complex, McIntosh’s solution has been to provide clients with on-site staff support as part of the testing process—a strategy that required him to create field offices in western Canada, including one run by the founder of a large B.C. software testing firm that was recently acquired.

But McIntosh says the most important development for PQA is a new alliance it forged with an Austrian firm, Renorex, that has created an automated software testing tool designed to work on mobile devices. McIntosh says his team connected with Renorex through a mutual client in Wichita, Kansas, using a reference from a New Brunswick connection. McIntosh arranged to meet with Renorex’s marketing officials at an Anaheim, Calif. software event last September. “We hunted them down at the trade show and said, ‘We can make both of our lives better.’”

The Austrian company, in fact, had established a U.S. sales presence about a year ago, but needed a North American partner to deliver support. Renorex and PQA inked an agreement about a month ago that will allow McIntosh’s team to deliver the post-sales service to firms that acquired Renorex’s testing tool. McIntosh says PQA will be involved with training and implementation of Renorex’s product.

“It opens the whole North American market,” he notes. “Whoever downloads the tool, we’ll have to do the support work. They’re a growth vehicle. It’s going to be a great partnership.”

And it all started with a call from one New Brunswicker to another.