Increasingly law librarians are asked not just for help with legal research but also with business research. One of the most frequent requests is to find information on a company. There are some fantastic paid databases that you can use for this kind of research, but not all legal professionals have access to these resources. Fortunately, there are also a number of free online resources that can used to research Canadian companies.
Step 1: Determine what information are you looking for
The first thing to determine is why are you looking for company information? Are you looking for this information to assist with a Request For Proposal (RFP) or to draw up a list of potential clients? Do you want to know everything there is to know about the company or are you purely interested in finding contact information along with a brief overview of what the company does?
It can be useful to develop a template that lists all the information you are likely to be interested in and all the potential sources, so that you do not inadvertently miss something. Information that you may want to list on the template includes: financial statements, the company’s management and board of directors, recent company developments, past and current litigation, who the company’s competitors are and what they are doing, and industry developments.
Step 2: Is it a public company, a private company or a crown corporation?
This information will help you to decide what resources to use and to know how much information to expect. Generally there will be far more information available on a public company (due to regulatory requirements) than there will be on a private company.
Step 3: Jurisdiction?
Where is the company located? Do you know whether the company is incorporated under the Canada Business Corporations Act or a provincial equivalent? This will help you focus your search.
The following lists a number of online resources that can be used to find information on Canadian companies for free. Since the majority of company research I do is for British Columbian companies, please note that there is a decided B.C. bias to the list.
Company website. The company’s website generally should be your first port of call. It will give the company’s head office, address, a description of what it does, and will usually include a list of management. The company’s Annual Report can give you an idea of the company’s strategic direction and any challenges it is facing. Some company websites will include all regulatory filings.
Google Finance (https://www.google.ca/finance) and Yahoo Business (http://ca.finance.yahoo.com/) both provide summaries of company information including a profile, financial information, statistics, news, key staff and a list of competitors.
Strategis offers a searchable database of federal corporations, as well as a database of Canadian company capabilities. With regards to provincial corporations, the majority of provincial company registries require payment for information; Nova Scotia will allow you search its company database for free.
SEDAR provides access to documents and information filed by public companies. SEDAR is not as user friendly as it could be, so you may prefer to use a paid service such as DisclosureNet or Westlaw Business to search these documents.
Newspaper articles can be a very good source of information about private companies. One challenge is that newspapers have been increasingly limiting access to their stories online, so it is worthwhile investigating which databases your local public library subscribes to. FPInfomart (which indexes a significant number of Canadian newspapers) will allow you to search its database for free; however, you will incur a charge if you need to view the full text of an article. Keep in mind that not all newspapers are in these databases, so you may have to target your search to the website of a specific newspaper. The search function on a number of small newspaper websites can be poor, so consider using Google instead and limiting the search to that site with site: URL. Searching Google News is also an option, although the results from it can be somewhat hit and miss.
CanLII can be used to search for recent litigation. CanLII contains only judgments and not the full details of court proceedings, so it will not give you information on current litigation, cases that were settled out of court or where the defendant pled guilty, or many of the cases in which there was an oral decision.
Court registries. Unfortunately the majority of provincial court registries cannot be searched online to see if the company is currently involved in litigation. British Columbia’s Court Services Online is the exception; it will allow you to see the existence of court cases (along with the docket number) for free, but you will have to pay to see additional information.
Business in Vancouver is an excellent source of news if you are looking at British Columbia companies, private or public. It produces a number of lists each year of companies by industry type. It also includes a list of recently filed lawsuits.
LinkedIn can be a useful way of finding who is at a company, along with their title and email address. However, because the information on LinkedIn is entered by individuals, data may be incomplete or out of date. If LinkedIn shows that one of the lawyers at your firm has a contact at the target firm, that should be added to the report.
These are just some of the resources available; depending on geographical location and what is being looked for, there may be other equally helpful resources not listed above. As I mentioned above, I also recommend checking with your local public library to see what databases they offer access to. That said, if you do a lot of company research, you will want to look into subscribing to one of the paid services that have already compiled and analyzed company data, as this will save you a lot of time.