Opinion: 21 straight years of growth … and counting

Ross Video powers major television networks

“The sky is falling, the sky is …” This seems to be the cry of many observers of Ottawa’s tech scene, who think it’s the end of Silicon Valley North.

But try telling that to David Ross, the owner of 90 per cent of Ross Video. (The other 10 per cent is owned by family and employees).

“Tech unemployment in Ottawa is something like 2.2 per cent,” says the athletic-looking, 40-something father of two teenage girls. “So it’s hard to hire in Ottawa – it takes longer. But we are building one of the best companies in the world, so they want to come here. I mean, we grew revenues by 47 per cent last year and invested 23 per cent of sales in R&D. Where else can you go where they do that?”

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Ross Video has a 100,000-square-foot plant in Iroquois – located on the St. Lawrence River east of Highway 416 – which manufactures many of the company’s products. The real estate is also owned by the company.

Its R&D campus on Auriga Drive in south Ottawa is rented, as is the company’s new Kanata location, which was acquired through the purchase of Norpak. The west-end offices house a portion of the company’s more than 400 employees, compared to just 25 in 1991.

Ross Video uses Norpak technology to embed information into broadcast streams so advertisers know what people are watching. Nielsen uses the system to produce its TV ratings.

Last year, the company hired approximately 100 people and it expects to add a similar number this year after signing up 40 new staff in its first quarter of 2012 alone. The company does all its manufacturing in-house and currently has about 160 engineers on staff.

Mr. Ross won’t disclose sales, but given that many of his products are expensive technology such as robotic cameras, it’s a reasonable guess it exceeds $100 million. The division that produces those devices, now called Ross Robotics, is based in Belgium.

Acquisitions in that country, as well as in Australia and the Netherlands, gives the business a broad international reach. Mr. Ross wants to be more like Apple than Walmart – sell high-end gear that works seamlessly with a great brand to a diverse group of customers in many geographic markets, instead of everyday low prices.

If you watched the Grammys or the Academy Awards this year, all the on-screen titles were made possible by Ross Video products, software and services. ABC recently bought 3,000 of Ross Video’s fibre cards to move video and audio between its buildings in New York.

Ross Video has mastered the art and science of fibre transmission, partly thanks to some ex-JDSU engineers who work there. All this is to say that despite some competition from Japan (mainly Sony) and from some Brits as well, Ross Video gear finds its way into pretty much every nook and cranny of the broadcast industry. Companies such as JVC – and 29 others – act as resellers for Ross Video technology; they use Ross Video gear as part of their systems, and then slap their own label on it.

Within the span of just three days, at the 2011 National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas, Ross Video sold 63 Carbonite switchers at a list price of $40,000 each. That’s like a car dealer selling 63 cars on a long weekend. Company officials showed it as a prototype, discussed delivery dates, then shipped over a month early. Ross Video has now sold more than 500 of these switchers.

Its video servers, which are like home PVRs on steroids, are for professional use by broadcasters, universities and stadiums. Widely used by major touring acts, the technology was also employed to broadcast the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The equipment is also on the International Space Station, where it is used to convert video from analog to digital so it can be transmitted from the space station to terrestrial satellite receivers.

More down to Earth, the company makes automated production control systems that allow one person with a mouse to produce a live newscast, something that used to take a room of people to do. Two hundred TV stations have gone to air with it, including ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer and Good Morning America.

Mr. Ross is the majority owner, president, CEO and chairman of the board. He was chief technology officer too, but gave that up in 2011. Ross Video was started by his dad, John, in 1974 with $3,500, which he raised by selling his plane. The company has never taken a dime of angel or venture capital money. Through recession and currency fluctuations, it has had 21 consecutive internally funded years of growth.

Mr. Ross says he does not want to be like Research in Motion, which basically has one product, the BlackBerry.

“It’s too easy to knock off,” he says. “We sell high-complexity, low-volume stuff with a lot of customer support and service. It’s not something that the Chinese can easily do, at least not yet, so we’re safe for now.

“With our robotic cameras you can get shots that were never possible before. Our cameras know where they are and where they are pointed at to an accuracy of one part in a million. We can insert virtual reality into moving images in real time with our equipment. Try that with a human-held camera!”

Next up, says Mr. Ross, is So You Think You Can Dance. Closer to home, Ross Video is redoing Scotiabank Place’s infrastructure so that the Senators will be able to drive the team’s new digital high-definition screen to the max.

“You haven’t seen anything yet, Sens fans,” Mr. Ross says.

Professor Bruce M. Firestone is entrepreneurship ambassador at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management; founder of the Ottawa Senators; executive director of Exploriem.org; and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce.

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