Fort Frances’ Belluz Concrete sees digital as differentiator
In Fort Frances, if you needed precast concrete – park benches, sidewalk slabs or septic tanks – you knew Belluz Concrete had it. “Like anything else in a small town, you know where you're going to go get certain items, right?” says Mike Belluz, owner of the family-run business. “(Fort Frances) has around 8,000 people and then there are some surrounding communities but word of mouth was really how everyone found us.”
But when mining company New Gold’s nearby Rainy River project brought “a whole bunch of new faces to town” a few years ago, Belluz realized they had to establish themselves amongst this new segment of the community. “We found we were getting a lot of new people that were surprised by what we carried so I wanted to get a little bit more of an online presence.”
Belluz Concrete has had a website since the early days of the business and over the years it has been updated to give a snapshot of the precast products the business sells and the equipment rentals it has on hand. Belluz says he’s always been interested in technology so he’s never questioned the value of it. More than anything, the barrier has been time commitment and resources.
A few years ago, Belluz stumbled on Digital Main Street, a program combining grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario and the Ontario BIA Association alongside partners like Google to help main street businesses strengthen their online capabilities and plan for the digital future. “I was doing a search for Ontario business programs and I subscribed to it,” he says. “I really liked it… I did a couple of online tutorials.”
Belluz Concrete had hired a co-op summer student and together they worked through the digital assessment. Although the business sits outside of the town’s main street, the team from Kenora, a larger city centre to the northwest of Fort Frances advocated for Belluz Concrete to get a Digital Transformation Grant. “We got the grant, which was great because every little bit of money helps.”
And not just that, Belluz had a vision of creating a more digitally-active business, one that would stand out in an industry where online presence and e-commerce is often overlooked. “We're going to slowly implement where you can browse online and you can place an order and it will email the office and then we'll get the order ready,” says Belluz.
Social presence has also been a focus. The business had a Facebook page but really only started working to drive customers to it last spring by posting a couple of times a week. The Digital Transformation Grant helped Belluz Concrete hire their co-op student Lauren part-time. “She’s going to Ottawa University and doing marketing and business analytics,” explains Belluz.
Lauren has helped create content like videos and pull together a content calendar to help them manage what they’re putting out when business picks up in the warmer months.
“I’m pretty happy… what I'm really looking for is a metric to see, is it really working? That's the biggest thing,” says Belluz. “I know that we have a lot of engagement on Facebook and I think that counts – I know we are getting calls directly related to (our) Facebook.”
The good part is, Belluz knows the customers are out there. “If your population is older, they’re not expanding or building (as much),” he says. “So bringing that new blood in, they’re working under backyards or building decks or adding so we’ve been very, very fortunate.”
Written by Andrew Seale
Digital Main Street was created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) with direct support from the City of Toronto. DMS is also supported by a group of strategic business partners, including Google, Mastercard, Shopify, Microsoft, Facebook, Intuit QuickBooks, Square, Yellow Pages and Lightspeed.
A $7.45 million from the Province of Ontario brought together the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, Communitech, Invest Ottawa and the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association to expand the Digital Main Street Platform in order to support more businesses going digital as a response to the impacts of COVID-19 in Northern Ontario.