Ottawa's CEO of the Year: David Ross turns family firm into a dominant video technology force

David Ross CEO of the Year

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 self-improvement – Mr. Ross decided it was time to create a “BHAG.”

That’s BHAG as in “Big Hairy Audacious Goal,” a medium- to-long-term 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 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.

"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. We’re always looking at all of the angles of what do we need to do to grow the company."

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.

“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 home-schooled 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.”

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.