Q&A: Toronto Global chair Mark Cohon on becoming the city’s cheerleader-in-chief

Q&A: Toronto Global chair Mark Cohon on becoming the city’s cheerleader-in-chief

Job number one? Persuade Amazon to choose us (over 237 other cities) for its second headquarters

Your new position, in a nutshell, is selling the world on Toronto. Does that make you the rare individual whose job is easier in the Trump era?
What’s made my job easier is the evolution of the Toronto region. I grew up here but spent my early career in the U.S. and Europe. When I came back in 2002, people were comparing Toronto to other great cities in the world, whereas today people compare great cities to Toronto.

Still, POTUS’s protectionist agenda must make us a little more appealing.
There’s definitely a stark contrast, and it works to our advantage: our government opens doors, we don’t build walls. Half of the inquiries we get from businesses interested in setting up operations here are from the U.S. They look north and say, “Hmm, tolerant society, amazing tech talent, easier to bring people in from around the world. Maybe that’s a place we should be.”

If we’re in such a good position, why do we need an agency like Toronto Global, which costs taxpayers $19.5 million?
The Economist called us one of the best cities in the world to live in, we’re one of the safest and greenest cities, and our quality of life is second to none. But in terms of bringing in foreign investment, we punch below our weight. Toronto Global was created to change that.

What’s your game plan?
We identify companies, like Slack, interested in setting up here and act as their concierge service to Toronto. We show them site locations, take them to a Raptors game or concert, address issues like immigration and relocation, and provide real estate expertise. All of a sudden, high-profile companies are asking, “What’s going on in Toronto? What’s Mississauga and Burlington?” In 2017, the New York Times chose Canada as their No. 1 place to visit, and the Toronto region was a huge part of that.

With respect, I don’t think the Times was recommending a visit to Burlington.
A lot of people come here to visit downtown, but tourists want to visit Halton Hills or the Escarpment, too. In terms of untapped potential, the region is huge. A company might set up their headquarters in downtown Toronto, but they’re going to pull talent from across the region, which has 7.8 million people.

In the fall, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asked North American cities to apply to be the site of the company’s second headquarters. You oversaw Toronto’s nearly 200-page bid. Can you distill that into a 10-second pitch?
To be successful, Amazon needs people. It’s looking to fill 50,000 jobs. We pump out 40,000 STEM graduates a year, attract international talent based on our immigration policies and retain talent because of our quality of life. Our diversity is also so important. For example, Booking.com, a global company, chose Toronto for their new office because they needed staff who could speak multiple languages, including five ­Portuguese dialects, and they found that here.

Other cities offered Amazon incentives and tax breaks. Why didn’t Toronto?
We stressed the intrinsic advantages of running a business in Canada. Amazon can save $600 million in health-care spending a year, and average talent costs in the Toronto region are about 30 per cent less than in comparable cities. It was also a matter of attitude. At our very first meeting about the bid, we decided that we would come from a position of strength and confidence.

Does this mean Toronto has finally stopped looking for outside validation?
I’ve joked that I am going to be a little un-Canadian. I hope we stop describing Toronto as a “world-class city,” because we never say that with confidence.

Does having a Rolling Stone–approved PM help with our national mojo?
I’ve known the prime minister for years. He’s an authentic leader who embodies the characteristics of an open society, and people are responding to that.

Is he as charming in person as he is in selfies?
Maybe ask my wife that.

Are you as much of a Toronto cheerleader when you’re off the clock?
Absolutely. I’ve worked in 30 countries, and my wife is from New York. When my time as CFL commissioner ended, people thought I’d take a job at an American sports team. But my wife and I decided there was no other place in the world we wanted to raise our daughter.

Speaking of ideal childhoods, your dad, George, was the man who brought McDonald’s to Canada. Did that mean one Happy Meal after the next?
Ha. Well, I can still sing the Big Mac song by heart.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.