Montreal Touts Call Center Potential to US, Europe

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MONTREAL - A determined civic drive to attract foreign call centers to this bilingual city has landed 18 new facilities in the last three years, half from the US with several other American companies close to moving here.

"Our unemployment here is close to 9 percent, so there are a lot of available people, and most of them speak two to three languages, which is right in line with what call center operators are looking for," said Alain Riendeau a founder of Vision Quebec, a coalition formed to attract businesses, particularly call centers.

About half of Montreal's 1.8 million labor pool is bilingual, speaking both French and English, and an estimated 20 percent is trilingual. About 65 different languages are spoken altogether.

The city's polyglot culture, combined with other factors, like the availability of labor and inexpensive real estate, have attracted a diverse group of companies to the city.

Riendeau said that in addition to the 18 foreign call center operations already here he expects several other US firms to announce plans for opening facilities here over the next few weeks.

Joining such US-based companies as computer direct marketer Insight Enterprises, Tempe, AZ, and delivery giant Federal Express, Memphis, TN, both of which have recently opened call centers in Montreal, some European companies also have established call centers in the city.

French perfume maker Yves Rocher, which markets its fragrances through mail-order catalogs, maintains its call center in Montreal, where agents are available to speak with customers in 17 languages.

Air France recently opened a 70-agent center in Montreal, which currently handles North American calls but is preparing to handle calls from France as well.

"Montreal has become a center [for the call center industry] because of this bilingual factor," said Lyne Villeneuve, site manager for call center operator Sky Alland, Columbia, MD.

It opened a facility in Montreal about three years ago and now is seeking to expand. She said she is currently scouting for a new location in Montreal that will allow here to double or triple the center's capacity.

She said the center, which places calls throughout Canada for five different clients, makes about 20 percent of its calls in French and 80 percent in English.

In addition to the language factor, Villeneuve said Montreal's location in the Eastern time zone has helped make the location a success. The center, which employs 25 agents, operates from 8 a.m. to midnight, calling Western Canada until 9 p.m.

Villeneuve has been able to recruit labor from the city's college training programs. Several local colleges offer courses specifically for call center agents and supervisors, including some training in Web integration.

In addition to the collegiate training, Montreal also offers financial incentives for companies to open call centers, including reimbursement for up to 20 percent of the salary for each agent they hire in the first year.

US-based companies that operate in Canada can take advantage of the country's favorable exchange rate, which makes the Canadian dollar worth about 65 U.S. cents.

"Agents here get paid about the same as they do in the States," said Riendeau, "but you always have that 40 percent difference that applies favorably when you cross over into Canada."

Real estate also is cheaper than it is in Toronto or in some large U.S. cities. Riendeau said real estate costs about C$20 a square foot in downtown Montreal, or about US$12, vs. about $35 per square foot in Chicago.

Other factors that have helped the city lure care call centers include its relative proximity to the major business hubs on the East Coast of the United States.

"The city is very well-located," said Pierre Marc Jasmin, president of Triad Services, a Montreal call center consulting firm. "It's accessible from anywhere. If a company has their headquarters in New York and their call center is in Montreal, it is a 55-minute plane ride. It's not like some little remote place you never heard of."

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