Like many successful small business owners, Rachel Mielke was, for a time, too busy to realize just how successful her upstart jewellery enterprise had become.
But when Queen Elizabeth II wears a brooch you’ve made not once, but four times, it’s hard not to realize that your business has hit the big time.
“The day we found out the Queen had worn the custom brooch we designed for her was definitely one of those life-changing moments where you realize the company will never be the same,” says Mielke, 37, founder and chief executive officer of Hillberg & Berk, which is appropriately based in the Queen City itself, Regina.
“It really gave me an opportunity to reflect on how far we’d come.”
And certainly Hillberg & Berk — a designer, manufacturer, retailer and wholesaler of luxury jewellery — has come a long way since Mielke started making and selling pieces largely as a hobby after graduating almost a decade ago with a business and administration degree from the University of Regina.
Today, her business sells jewellery across Canada, in the United States and elsewhere. Her designs have been worn by celebrities and dignitaries such as Michelle Obama, the Queen, Celine Dion and Carrie Underwood. She now employs about 150 people, most of whom are based in Regina.
By those measures alone, Hillberg & Berk may have outgrown being a ‘small business.’ And its story — while unique in many ways — is by no means uncommon in the province. The little enterprise growing into a big deal is a familiar tale in Saskatchewan.
“It really is an environment where anything is possible, and there are people with an excellent work ethic, whether that was fostered by growing up on the farm or whatever the case may be,” says John Hopkins, chief executive officer of the Regina and District Chamber of Commerce.
“That’s resulted in a lot of success with really small companies growing into global players.”
While Saskatchewan is home to many global giants in sectors from agriculture to mining, small business has and continues to be a major driver of the economy. Small businesses account for one-third of Saskatchewan’s gross domestic product, employ more than 30 per cent of the province’s workers and pay more than $6 billion in wages.
And small businesses make up the majority of enterprises in the province. Of the close to 150,000 businesses in Saskatchewan, 98 per cent have fewer than 50 employees, says a 2015 report from Government of Saskatchewan’s Ministry of the Economy.
In part, the government has created an ideal environment for small companies to thrive and make these important economic contributions, says Hopkins.
“The tax environment is quite competitive with the rest of the country, and that is an important factor for any small business,” he says.
But it’s more than just tax rates. The province has implemented a host of tax incentives aimed at helping grow Saskatchewan businesses across many sectors.
And small businesses often benefit most because the tax savings tend to have a much bigger effect on their bottom line. For example, the Manufacturing and Processing Exporter Tax Incentive provides non-refundable tax credits worth $3,000 per employee to eligible businesses that expand their number of employees.
It’s incentives like these that have helped make life easier for fast-growing companies such as Hillberg & Berk.
“The government here really gets behind small business and it understands the challenges we face,” Mielke says, adding her firm used the exporter tax incentive last year.
“We would have expanded aggressively in the last couple of years regardless, but it definitely helps out because cash flow is the lifeline of any small business, and if you can have benefits like that from being in Saskatchewan, it just helps the business grow.”
Besides a beneficial tax regime, the province also has an infrastructure system that small businesses can easily tap into, from broad access to post-secondary institutions producing highly skilled workers to roads and bridges undergoing extensive renewal and expansion.
Beyond that, Saskatchewan intrinsically has advantages few other jurisdictions have, Hopkins adds.
“The most important aspect is Saskatchewan has what the world needs: food, fuel and fertilizer,” he says. “Those three key resources are going to be important drivers of the economy as we move ahead.”
And thanks to the achievements of companies such as Hillberg and Berk, another ‘F’ can be added to that list — fashion.
“Since I’ve started there has been a whole culture of fashion that has evolved in the province,” Mielke says.
It all boils down to the down-home Saskatchewan attitude that everyone’s in it together, she says.
“Everyone wants each other to succeed and we all understand that in the long run that benefits the province as a whole.”