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Talk to anyone in the know about Ottawa's tech scene, and you'll inevitably hear the line "… and don't forget Ross Video."
It's easy to overlook Ross, though its work hides in plain sight. The 580-person firm makes hardware and software for live TV production, including switchers, graphics and robotic cameras. Its broadcast customers include Shaw, NBC and Univision, and its mobile productions unit produces sports events for ESPN, NBC and Fox. Ross equipment and systems have even been used to make graphics for the Super Bowl, the Oscars and Grammys. The company also provides stadium graphics for professional sports teams including the Ottawa Senators, New York Mets and Buffalo Bills. Its latest business venture is selling automated broadcasting technology to governments and quasi-government organizations, such as the United Nations and the Canadian Parliament, to broadcast proceedings. Last week, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences said Ross would win an Emmy for its signal processor technology.
Ross has quietly developed into a heavyweight in its specialized industry, with revenues in the $150-million range and growing by an average of 18 per cent over the past 23 years. CEO David Ross, who owns 90 per cent of the privately held firm, says the company is "not for sale at any price," and its private status is a big reason the company flies "under the radar," says Bruce Lazenby, CEO of economic development agency Invest Ottawa.
Mr. Ross's father, John Ross, a former CBC engineer, founded the company in Iroquois, Ont., in 1974 to make switchers – the elaborate, button-encrusted table-top devices that are central to broadcasting. Revenues and staff levels declined sharply during the early 1990s recession. That's when David Ross, an electrical engineer who had won three national science fairs in his teen years, joined the company, rather than pursue his dream of working for NASA.
The young man realized two things: Ross's technology was dated; and the company didn't do enough to market and sell itself, a pervasive problem in the Canadian tech sector. "I found that if you have even half-decent product, there's no better investment than putting another salesperson in the field," David Ross says, adding the company's success has as much to do with building the sales and marketing organization as developing technology. The company's code of ethics states employees "may rent helicopters if necessary" to help customers in times of crisis.
While Ross isn't disrupting whole sectors like Uber or Airbnb by creating new business models over the Internet, it is at the forefront of changing technology trends in its industry. "Think of us as 17 tech companies that interoperate at once," says the boyish, obsessively athletic 50-year-old David Ross, who has a workstation treadmill in his Ottawa office and a wall thick with ribbons, medals and race bibs from past races, including a half-Ironman.
Mr. Ross has charged up its expansion with 10 acquisitions since 2009, branching into such areas as robotics and graphics, serving the same customers. "One of our goals is to create a company that's hard to kill" by diversifying, he says.
Gerry Belec, director of news production and technology for Global News in Burnaby, B.C., says Ross's strategy is working. "They used to be a one-trick pony, selling iron" says Mr. Belec. "If you go to the trade shows, big iron suppliers have all gone off to the tar pits. There isn't much room left for people who just sell hardware. They've managed [to diversify] well. They've been very strategic up to now with their acquisitions."
Mr. Ross says: "I feel in some ways we're just taking off. There may be customers that love us for our switchers, but they've never used our graphics. We're starting to see more customers doing whole systems. When we start doing that globally, we can easily grow another 10 times" larger.