6 Questions: One-on-One with Dennis Hamilton, president & CEO, ERMS Corp.

Crisis management software maker ERMS sells readiness and a little peace-of-mind in a topsy-turvy world.

Whether or not statistics bear it out, the world appears to most to be a less secure place than it was even just several years ago. Blame it on fear of terrorism, sensational crimes or planet-wide weather patterns that seem bizarrely atypical, but the feeling is there. That's where ERMS (Emergency Response Management Services), a small crisis management company, comes in. Based in the rather tranquil locale of Oakville, Ont., the privately held company (with investments from several companies including BMO) has developed a software-based solution for the enterprise. ERMS sells primarily to telecom companies who then provide the service to their customers via a battery of networks (landline, wireless, Internet, etc.). To date, partner Bell Canada and end-user the University of Toronto are the company's biggest sales. Hamilton had been in the business for 20 years as a consultant prior to co-founding ERMS in 2002. He says the company's latest development is the introduction of GPS technology called “Mapper.” The feature allows customers to select an impact zone and identify which stakeholders are being impacted by an event so that the modular crisis management solution can be efficiently deployed.

• What is the greatest challenge currently facing ERMS and what are you doing about it?

The most obvious challenge we have is finding quality, skilled and compatible professional people. As a software development company the competition is extremely fierce. Couple that with a very strong economy and it's very hard to find people. We've tried the traditional routes of search firms, running our own ads, word of mouth, etc., but I think, as a lot of companies are now doing, you're out there farming for your own people. You have to go looking for them through various forms of contacts ? and it's a combination of things you've just got to constantly be working at.

• Who else ? person or company ? do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?

A company that I've always been extremely impressed with is Research In Motion. Turning into a multibillion-dollar opportunity something that was fundamentally developed in a lab as a concept and an idea, and leading the world from a technology standpoint, is pretty impressive. And they did it with not a lot of scars. Yeah, they got some bad press and they had some issues around patents, but when you look at the level of technology they're in, they've been able to recruit an unbelievable talent base and retain it.

• How would you describe your leadership approach/style?

The most appropriate term I would use would probably be 'democratic'. What I mean by that is certainly an attempt by managers and employees to be empowered to make operational decisions. We use just about the entire company in various forms to participate in what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. I fundamentally believe in majority rules decision making. Not to interfere with time-sensitive decisions, but I've always believed if you've got eight people and seven of those people say we should be doing it one way, and me as the president says, “No, we're going to do it this way,” is a fundamental error because those seven people are right. And as a business you have to listen to those people. You have to let them drive your decisions. The other part I believe in and try to apply is there's a people orientation to our company and that's fundamentally in terms of what we offer ? employee ownership in the company through stock options, profit sharing, different kinds of programs. ? That people orientation drives a key thing we all look for in business and that's motivation. Motivation drives productivity. Productivity drives success.

• How is the market for your type of service changing in the wake of what appears to be increased global (e.g. terrorism) and local (e.g. school safety) insecurity?

I think the fundamental shift [among companies] now is life safety and protection of the brand image. And that in part has been driven by, in some cases, regulation; in some cases it's issues around the board of directors saying, “Make sure we are well protected, make sure the company is doing the right thing.” What generally changed is a shift [to business continuity and] crisis management, emergency management ? where life safety and brand image become the two priorities. The demand has really been coming out of major corporations and now the services sector is responding with solutions toward that end.

• Some Canadian CEOs and politicians are speaking out against what they say is too much foreign ownership of Canadian businesses. Do you feel Canadian-owned businesses should be protected in some way?

I'm a nationalist so the emotional answer to that is, absolutely. I'm upset with the level of foreign ownership. But you have to temper that with the real world. We do live in a global society, we will have to maintain open borders and if we want access to other markets and other businesses, they in turn have to have access to ours. I think it's a shame and it's too bad that the financial wherewithal does not exist within the country itself to make our own acquisitions and have a greater impact on the global scene. ? I think there are certain industries that we have and should continue to protect ? infrastructure related, telecommunications, power, oil and gas, any kind of natural resources. The biggest concern I have is that when organizations here get acquired, quite often what we end up losing is the manufacturing component because the companies that buy are only interested in the market as a consuming nation. So they'll move the manufacturing to Mexico or the U.S. or somewhere else and we lose the manufacturing jobs. People get fooled into believing our unemployment rate is only 5.6% or whatever, but it's all in the services sector and those are really short-term, vulnerable jobs.

• As a beer aficionado, which country has the best beer and how do you like to enjoy it?

I think Canada has overall the best beer ? not that I was weaned on it as a child and therefore it's the only one. But I've been fortunate enough in my job that I have travelled the world quite a bit, probably into a good 85-90 countries. And again, this has nothing to do with my level of consumption, but I have tried beers in a great number of countries and overall I think we rate right up there with any of them, whether it's the Germans, the Dutch, etc. I also think Brazil has great beer. But I think ours for taste, quality and certainly the cost ? it's a lot less here than most places in the world. ? Warm weather, on the deck, barbecuing ? I think that's when you enjoy a cold beer. I haven't quite got onto the people who drink warm beer.