He said it should be the manufacturing industry's goal to go from 82 percent reliance on U.S. markets to 60 percent in the next decade.
"That should be the government policy, to assist you in doing that. To make the tax policy, to set up relationships with other markets, trading agreements. That has to be the focus," he said.
He encouraged attendees to focus on high gross domestic product growth geographies. In many ways, he said, Canadian technology is premiere technology, and companies on the rise can benefit from them.
Strong currency, growth opportunities
O'Leary believes that Canadian businesses have a real opportunity to make an impact on productivity while we have a strong currency. With rising input costs, he suggested that Canadian companies buy as much technology to enhance their productivity as they can while it is affordable.
"You should be buying as much technology with the strong Canadian dollar as you possibly can in this cycle to enhance the productivity of your manufacturing by as much as 15 percent. That's how you fight input costs. Any firm that doesn't invest now when rates are low and the Canadian dollar is high is making a big mistake," he said. "Even though there's uncertainty in the markets, it's the time to be doing that."
As part of that investment, however, he also believes that manufacturers have to sell the value of automation to the general public.
"People think that automation is killing jobs in Canada, when in fact you're enhancing the value of the jobs you do provide. I don't think you're getting the message out. Automation is good. It enhances the job creation and the value creation in a big way. It's your responsibility to communicate that because the public doesn't get it. When they see a robot go into a plant, and a big button that you push to start it up, they think that somebody lost their job, when really somebody got a much higher paying job that came out of a great education that provides for a much better standard of living for Canadians. That's what the message should be."
He also encouraged manufacturers as a coherent group to lobby government to relax environmental regulations so that manufacturers here are playing on a level field with other countries. At the same time, he encourages forging closer ties with government to keep the lines of communication with them open.
"Make government your friend," he stressed - to protect manufacturing interests and to get the industry a proper hearing.
With files from Mary Del Ciancio