CEO’s ‘au­da­cious’ gam­ble pays off

Led by ex­ec­u­tive ‘dy­namo,’ tech gi­ant Ross Video keeps revving up growth en­gine

Ottawa Business Journal - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID SALI david@obj.ca

East­ern On­tario firm’s re­lent­less push to ex­pand its global cus­tomer base earns David Ross CEO of the Year hon­ours

Eight years ago, David Ross de­cided he needed to do some­thing dra­matic to shake his com­pany out of the dol­drums.

The chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ross Video took a cold, hard look at the num­bers, and he wasn’t happy with what he saw. The firm his fa­ther John had founded in the base­ment of his Mon­treal home in the early ’70s, a busi­ness that had more than 15 years of “re­ally good growth,” had ba­si­cally shifted into neu­tral.

A mix of fac­tors – a slug­gish global econ­omy and cur­rency fluc­tu­a­tions among them – had geared a com­pany en­gine that was used to dou­ble-digit ac­cel­er­a­tion down to a mere one per cent growth for three or four years run­ning.

In the world of busi­ness, the old say­ing goes, if you’re stand­ing still, you might as well be go­ing back­ward. Re­verse was a gear with which Mr. Ross was not fa­mil­iar.

“This isn’t right,” he re­mem­bers think­ing. “This com­pany is bet­ter than that.”

Tak­ing a page from Built to Last: Suc­cess­ful Habits of Vi­sion­ary Com­pa­nies – one of the count­less busi­ness books he’s read in a re­lent­less drive for selfim­prove­ment – Mr. Ross de­cided it was time to cre­ate a “BHAG.”

That’s BHAG as in “Big Hairy Au­da­cious Goal,” a medium- to-longterm or­ga­ni­za­tional ob­jec­tive that is,

as the name sug­gests, dar­ing yet not im­pos­si­ble to achieve.

Af­ter some thought, Mr. Ross came up with what he fig­ured was a BHAG wor­thy of the name.

“I said, ‘We’re go­ing to grow. We’re go­ing to more than dou­ble the size of the com­pany in five years, and we’re go­ing to

in­crease the profit while we’re do­ing it.’”

That was in 2008. Since then, the east­ern On­tario-based video equip­ment com­pany achieved Mr. Ross’s ini­tial goal and is on pace to once again dou­ble in size within a sec­ond five-year span. Ross Video’s an­nual rev­enues are ap­proach­ing $200 mil­lion, and its head­count has

“He’s not only a tech­ni­cal ge­nius, but he has tremen­dous busi­ness and man­age­ment acu­men as well. He took the com­pany into places that I don’t think were even thought of back in the days when John cre­ated the com­pany. He has that sort of spark, that en­thu­si­asm, which is very con­ta­gious. And he has the tal­ent for sur­round­ing him­self with ex­tremely com­pe­tent peo­ple.”

— BRIAN BALDRY, FOR­MER BOARD MEM­BER OF ROSS VIDEO

rock­eted from 400 in 2012 to about 640 today. The firm’s 80,000-square-foot man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in Iro­quois, south of Ot­tawa on the St. Lawrence River, is run­ning full tilt, and the com­pany is plan­ning a 40,000-square-foot ex­pan­sion in the near fu­ture.

Over­all, the firm’s av­er­age growth rate over the past quar­ter-cen­tury is an eye-pop­ping 18 per cent. Not bad for an op­er­a­tion that com­petes with the likes of Ap­ple, Canon, Pana­sonic and Sony.

Mr. Ross’s bold lead­er­ship has earned him the OBJ-Ot­tawa Cham­ber of Com­merce CEO of the Year award. He’ll of­fi­cially re­ceive the hon­our dur­ing the Best Ot­tawa Busi­ness Awards on Nov. 10.

“No­body wants to be here on the year that we sud­denly don’t grow,” he says dur­ing an in­ter­view at his mod­est of­fice in the com­pany’s R&D head­quar­ters on Auriga Drive. “It’s not greed. It’s like you won the World Se­ries three years in a row; you want to go for the fourth, you know? It’s the game – it’s the fun. We’re al­ways look­ing at all of the an­gles of what do we need to do to grow the com­pany. It’s just more fun to be part of a grow­ing com­pany. The other thing is it grows your brand, not just in Ot­tawa, but in our in­dus­try.”

That grow­ing brand aware­ness has been fu­elled partly by an ac­qui­si­tion streak that has seen the com­pany buy no less than 13 smaller firms since Mr. Ross is­sued his bold mis­sion state­ment in 2008.

A man who does his home­work, he won’t pull the trig­ger on a deal un­til he’s con­vinced it’s the right fit. He searches for part­ners with ex­per­tise in prod­ucts and ser­vices that com­ple­ment Ross tech­nol­ogy, and he has two key cri­te­ria: the com­pany must align with Ross’s cul­ture, and it shouldn’t be any larger than one-tenth of Ross’s size.

“I look at it as say­ing, the most you can get out of some­thing, es­pe­cially if you buy a com­pany that’s No. 1 in their in­dus­try, is you might save some (money) in sales and ad­min,” ex­plains Mr. Ross, who took over as chief ex­ec­u­tive from his fa­ther in 2006.

“If some­thing goes wrong with an ac­qui­si­tion that’s 10 per cent of your size, it’s painful, but it’s prob­a­bly not go­ing to kill you. You buy a com­pany that’s 70 per cent of your size and you make a mis­take, it could kill you re­ally fast.”

So far, the peren­nial World Se­ries of Busi­ness con­tender is bat­ting a per­fect 13-for-13 in the ac­qui­si­tion game, and those deals have given Ross a breadth of prod­ucts many of its com­peti­tors sim­ply can’t match.

For ex­am­ple, its ac­qui­si­tion of South Florida’s Mo­bile Con­tent Providers in 2013 lit­er­ally gave Ross a new ve­hi­cle for its switch­ers and real-time mo­tion graph­ics sys­tems in MCP’s trucks that pro­duced live col­lege sports events.

Brian Baldry, who served on the com­pany’s board of direc­tors for 18 years be­fore re­tir­ing in 2014, points to that deal as a prime ex­am­ple of Mr. Ross’s busi­ness acu­men.

It not only gave Ross Video a more vis­i­ble pres­ence in the mo­bile pro­duc­tion field, he says, it also meant that free­lancers who worked in the trucks would be­come fa­mil­iar with Ross’s tech­nol­ogy and, con­se­quently, would be more likely to pro­mote it to their bosses dur­ing gigs at ma­jor net­works such as ESPN – thus ex­pand­ing the firm’s cus­tomer base even fur­ther.

VIR­TUAL RE­AL­ITY

“That was the phi­los­o­phy,” says Mr. Baldry, a for­mer vice-pres­i­dent of en­gi­neer­ing at the CBC. “It was not just to build mo­biles. There was a strat­egy be­hind the whole thing.”

Such moves, along with the com­pany’s own com­mit­ment to R&D, have ex­tended Ross’s reach into nearly ev­ery cor­ner of the video pro­duc­tion field, from vir­tual re­al­ity to robotic cam­eras.

“The more prod­ucts you have to sell, the more rea­sons you have to visit the cus­tomer, the more ways you have a re­la­tion­ship with the cus­tomer,” says the 51-year-old Mr. Ross, a fit­ness buff with a boy­ish mop of dark hair who looks a decade younger than his age. “And the more places you sell your prod­ucts, the higher per­cent­age of world­wide de­mand that you can take and put back into re­search and de­vel­op­ment.”

Ross gear can now be found from New Zealand to Kaza­khstan, and news­casts around the world are pro­duced us­ing the com­pany’s equip­ment. The Gram­mys and Os­cars are among its ma­jor clients, and last year the firm won an Emmy Award for its pi­o­neer­ing prod­uct openGear, a com­bi­na­tion hard­ware plat­form and soft­ware con­trol sys­tem that al­lows users to per­form tasks such as con­vert­ing ana­log video to dig­i­tal or com­press­ing video streams.

Ross equip­ment has even found its way onto the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, where it was used to con­vert video from ana­log to dig­i­tal for trans­mis­sion back to satel­lite re­ceivers on Earth.

Mr. Baldry uses one word to de­scribe the man be­hind the com­pany’s mer­cu­rial rise: “Dy­namo.”

“He’s not only a tech­ni­cal ge­nius, but he has tremen­dous busi­ness and man­age­ment acu­men as well,” he says of Mr. Ross. “He took the com­pany into places that I don’t think were even thought of back in the days when John cre­ated the com­pany. He has that sort of spark, that en­thu­si­asm, which is very con­ta­gious. And he has the tal­ent for sur­round­ing him­self with ex­tremely com­pe­tent peo­ple.”

He re­mem­bers watch­ing one of Mr. Ross’s re­cent speeches at a broad­cast­ing con­ven­tion and be­ing re­minded of an­other much-lauded en­tre­pre­neur.

“There he was on the stage, and I thought, ‘My good­ness, there’s Steve Jobs.’ He had the same dy­namism.”

Ac­cord­ing to his fa­ther, David Ross the tech wiz­ard emerged at about age nine af­ter the fam­ily left Que­bec and set­tled in Iro­quois in the mid-’70s. Us­ing an early home com­puter John as­sem­bled from a kit, David started de­sign­ing video games, writ­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware and win­ning na­tional sci­ence awards.

“Pretty soon, his pro­gram­ming skills had passed mine,” John says, laugh­ing. “He was off and run­ning. No­body ever told him, ‘You’re too young.’ He was in there with both feet.”

The fu­ture CEO be­gan work­ing at his fa­ther’s shop in high school. Af­ter study­ing com­puter en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Water­loo, he joined the firm full-time in 1991. Three months later, he was in charge of half the R&D de­part­ment.

“It was a lit­tle bit scary,” he ad­mits. “I was a good en­gi­neer, but I had a lot to learn about man­age­ment and busi­ness.”

Thank­fully, he’d been get­ting home­schooled for years. Rather than sports scores or idle talk about the weather, din­ner­time chat­ter at the Ross house­hold fo­cused on top­ics such as HR is­sues, on­go­ing busi­ness chal­lenges and the lat­est video tech­nol­ogy.

“It’s not like any of this stuff was for­eign to me,” he says with a grin. “That was prob­a­bly pretty good train­ing.”

Mr. Ross left no stone un­turned in his quest for knowl­edge, soak­ing up wis­dom any­where he could find it.

“I read as many man­age­ment books, en­gi­neer­ing books, strat­egy books, lead­er­ship books, as I pos­si­ble could, and I still do today,” he ex­plains. “I’m the only per­son I know that has com­peted in a half-marathon while lis­ten­ing to a busi­ness book. You mul­ti­task.”

COM­MON TOUCH

The proud papa says his son is still an en­gi­neer in a CEO’s body, the man in the cor­ner of­fice who’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and fig­ure out ex­actly what needs to be done to make sure a prod­uct fits a cus­tomer’s needs.

“He doesn’t waste his R&D money,” John says. “He is sure when we start a project that it’s go­ing to be a win­ner.”

Mr. Baldry says he is a boss with a com­mon touch – “It’s not ‘Good morn­ing, sir.’ It’s, ‘Hi, David,’” he says – that in­stantly makes co-work­ers and cus­tomers alike feel at ease.

“They don’t build a prod­uct, then ask the client if they’d like to use it,” he says of Mr. Ross and his team.

“They go and see the client and then build the prod­uct the way the client wants it. He knows from the cus­tomer’s view­point what is re­quired and what has to be done, and the prod­ucts show that in­sight.”

Still, there were times, both fa­ther and son con­cede, when they two didn’t see eye to eye on strat­egy. David, the young up­start, would push for ex­pan­sion, while John, the sea­soned busi­ness vet­eran, would cham­pion a more cau­tious ap­proach. Mr. Baldry was re­cruited to the board in the late ’90s to be an im­par­tial voice, which helped smooth over their dif­fer­ences.

“There was al­ways a ten­sion there – es­pe­cially at bud­get time,” David says. “I’d al­ways be push­ing for more, and he’d al­ways be push­ing for re­straint. It could get tense, but the nice thing is we al­ways man­aged to re­solve it.”

– DAVID ROSS, CEO OF ROSS VIDEO AND OT­TAWA’S 2016 CEO OF THE YEAR

Today, there is a hint of amaze­ment mixed with a healthy por­tion of pride in John’s voice when he talks about his son’s ac­com­plish­ments, par­tic­u­larly the “BHAG” that came to de­fine the com­pany.

“That was an awe­some goal, but it was achieved,” the el­der Ross says. “I watched with great awe as he did achieve it. He cer­tainly took the com­pany through very dif­fi­cult times be­cause it was so am­bi­tious, but in the end, it was the right thing to have done.”

As for the fu­ture, Mr. Ross made an­other mo­men­tous de­ci­sion last year when he turned 50: Ross Video would go pub­lic within 10 years, giv­ing him enough of a “run­way” to re­tire at 65 if he so chooses.

The fa­ther of two teenage daugh­ters says his kids have no in­ter­est in tak­ing over the fam­ily busi­ness. Af­ter look­ing at var­i­ous po­ten­tial sce­nar­ios, in­clud­ing

sell­ing the com­pany to a com­peti­tor or a pri­vate eq­uity firm, he con­cluded an IPO would be the best way to pre­serve the Ross name while giv­ing the busi­ness room to grow.

“When I looked at all the pos­si­bil­i­ties, I said tak­ing the com­pany pub­lic is the only op­tion that I ac­tu­ally like,” he says.

But that’s still a few years down the road. For now, Mr. Ross is eye­ing more ac­qui­si­tions and con­tin­u­ing to ex­plore new tech­no­log­i­cal fron­tiers. And, for a few hours on Nov. 10, he’ll stop to savour a bit of recog­ni­tion for what he de­scribes as the ul­ti­mate team ef­fort.

“I’ve had so much help and so many men­tors over the years,” he says. “This is a re­ally nice award for me to win, but I just hap­pen to be at the cen­tre of a whole bunch of peo­ple work­ing re­ally hard try­ing to ac­com­plish some­thing.”

Some­thing big and au­da­cious. And lo and be­hold, they’ve done it.

“No­body wants to be here on the year that we sud­denly don’t grow. It’s not greed. It’s like you won the World Se­ries three years in a row; you want to go for the fourth, you know? It’s the game – it’s the fun. It’s just more fun to be part of a grow­ing com­pany.”

PHOTO BY MARK HOLLERON

David Ross’s de­ci­sion to go af­ter a ‘Big Hairy Au­da­cious Goal’ of dou­bling his com­pany’s size within five years proved to be a game-changer.

PHOTO BY MARK HOLLERON

An Emmy Award is just one of a mul­ti­tude of hon­ours Ross Video has earned un­der David Ross’s lead­er­ship.

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