Tech companies rise and fall, but Ross Video has been a steady presence in the broadcast industry for decades. We talk to CEO David Ross about how his company has gone from strength to strength in a famously fickle business.
FEED: I know you’ve told the story before, but can we start from the beginning? How did Ross Video come together?
David Ross: I’ve been around since the start of Ross Video, when it was founded in the basement of our family house in Montreal in 1974. I was nine, but I remember quite a bit about how it happened. My father, John Ross, started the business making analogue production switchers.
I worked there through high school and as a university co-op education student, then I worked at some other places and finally landed at Ross Video in 1991.
My father really enjoyed small companies. He’d been in some big ones and seen some pretty significant dysfunction, so he decided he wanted to have a small, cosy company where he was the prime designer. And that went really well – until digital came.
When digital came, the paradigm changed from one engineer who was a genius analogue designer nobody else could match to a whole bunch of people thrown into a room who can design any product as long as they’ve got the right specifications. It stopped being a kind of black magic – an art form – and became more of a process.
When I started in 1991, after graduating from computer engineering, I told Dad, because I was seeing it in my own school: “Dad, all they have to do is hire a bunch of people and they will crush you.”
We have to grow, we absolutely have to grow. It has to become part of the DNA. So you can say from the day I started, it was the number one goal, and kind of explains why we’ve had 27 straight years of record growth. We’ve never not grown since then, which is funny, considering the company started with the idea it wouldn’t be a big company. It was founded to be small, and now it’s famous for growing perpetually.
FEED: Can you tell us in what ways the company has most grown?
David Ross: Every way you can imagine. It has grown with people, products and technologies, certainly. I don’t think my dad expected us to be one of the number one companies doing robotic camera systems when he started his analogue switcher company. It has also grown in areas – we were mostly North America-focused back in the day. It’s grown in market verticals, in trying to cater for the very specific needs of news, or sports, or house of worship, or stadiums and so forth.
FEED: What were the first steps in that growth?
David Ross: Pursuing the small idea, he could do it all himself, Dad moved with a small team to Iroquois, Ontario, a little town of 1200 people on the Saint Lawrence River. Mostly because there was a runway there and Dad was a pilot, but it also had a bridge across the river to the US and was close to both Montreal and Ottawa, and it was a rural area that had some manufacturing in it as well.
When I joined in ’91, I hired some engineers. They lasted a year or two. I hired some more and after about a year, they were leaving too. It was hard to get young engineers to stay in a small town. So I moved five people north to Ottawa to start an offshoot of our R&D. Since then, that has become the central hub and there are about 250 people in the Ross Video campus now.
The Art of Technology “My father, John Ross, started the business making analogue production switchers”
FEED: And Ross Video now has locations around the world.
David Ross: Most of our R&D is in Ottawa. We also do R&D in something like 11 countries now. I think at last count we were in 17 different buildings worldwide.
Iroquois is still our core manufacturing. Ottawa is our core research and development and head office. But we’ve got sales and service and demonstration offices in key locations around the world. There’s one in Reading, the UK. There’s one in Singapore, there’s another one in Sydney and there’s one now in Beijing.
The rest are places where we either bought or formed R&D companies. For example, Abekas is in Sunnyvale, California. The Ultrix Router development team was formed in Virginia Beach and the XPression graphics solution came out of the Netherlands.
FEED: Part of Ross Video’s expansion has been moving into new verticals. How has that progression happened?
David Ross: I don’t like being bored. When I joined in ’91, our core expertise was analogue circuit design and production switchers. We actually had a strategic session; a few hours of soul searching. The world is going digital. Are we an analogue design company or are we a production switcher company? Which of the two are we going to be? It was a fundamental question: is your business based on the technology you know or on the customers you serve and the products they need?
In the end, we decided it was the product and customers. We had to change the technology we knew and move over from analogue to digital – which is not trivial at all when you’re redesigning the same thing with completely different parts and processes.
I had a realisation when I started visiting television stations. You talked to the chief engineer, he would show you his camera systems and he’d know all about those. Then he showed you his pedestals and he’d know about those. And if there was augmented reality and green screens, he’d explain that. Then he’d explain his editing systems, his newsroom systems and then he’d show you his mobile and production truck. And then he’d go outside and show you his microwave dish and his transmitter.
This chief engineer knows 20 different technologies and how they all work together. You, as a company, know only one or two things. I realised that if our customers had knowledge about such a breadth of technologies, even in the head of one person, companies could have a broad technology range as well. You just have to jump in there and find the right people to make it happen, whether you’re hiring them in or you’re buying a company.
That was a really freeing moment. I’m an engineer; engineers are used to being specialists in something. It was like doing a trust fall, saying ‘now we’re going to do robots’, ‘we’re going to do cloud-based software processing’, ‘we’re going to do control systems’, ‘we’re going to do production’. But when you start aligning your company to the needs of your customers rather than sticking with the technology you know, you start building a Ross Video.
“Is your business based on the technology you know or on the customers you serve and the products they need?”
FEED: So the growth of Ross Video is about the shift in going from what you do, to what your customers need you to do. It seems like there needs to be a letting go at some point?
David Ross: Yeah, exactly. But it’s scary. One of the reasons my father wanted a small company is if his accountant left, he could still do the books. If an engineer left, he could finish the design. Suddenly, you start doing things where you need other people and other skills you’re not an expert in. You may appreciate them, but you’re not an expert; you couldn’t jump in and do their job. It’s a transformative moment, going from a small company to a larger company and you start giving that up.
FEED: You’re trying to be flexible, but bigger. You’re trying to listen to people, but still maintain your vision and integrity. How do you balance all that and keep on the right track?
David Ross: There are two different parts to the answer. First, is the question about what I call the ‘long tail’ of the broadcast industry. The second is about decisions on how to grow the company.
So, on the long tail of broadcast industry: we sold our last analogue switcher around 2005, which is not that long ago. We weren’t selling analogue switchers as a primary thing, but there were still people buying brand new ones, even then. You hear in the industry that it’s all IP now. And everything in the magazines and press releases says everything is IP. But you realise, no, there are still people, actually about a third of the world, still broadcasting in standard definition.
You have standard definition (SD) out there, high definition (HD) and ultra-high definition (UHD). You’ve got people who want to do SDI, people who want to move to 12GB SDI, people who want to do IP, people who want to be able to use NDI – they want to use compressed real IP. You’ve got people who want HDR, but they want it in HD. The world is a lot more complicated than it was even ten years ago.
We made a decision to be customer-focused. We don’t want to lose customers who need the next HD product or the next UHD product or the next IP product. So, we’ve reorganised R&D to be able to say yes to everything.
I know some companies have been… I would use the word ‘ideological’, saying ‘No, we’re only going to do the cool new thing’. And I think that’s gotten some of them into some big trouble. I think we’ve been more practical, recognising there’s a market out there and customers who have trusted us for a long time.
Some people say the industry is consolidating and converging. We took the opposite view. From what we see, the industry is fragmenting, specifically around technology.
The second part is knowing which area to move into next and what your strategy is. When you move into technologies that are not core to your company, the easiest thing to do is to buy a company that already knows how to do it.
We’re a little different from a lot of the other companies out there – certainly the big ones. We have a rule we don’t buy a company more than 10% of our size. We see consolidation in the industry where big companies are merging together. That’s a business decision they’ve made – and certainly they add big dollars in sales and big swathes of customers all at once by doing that. But it’s not always a good news story, because you end up letting go a lot of sales people and senior people. You end up shutting down a bunch of manufacturing and obsoleting a lot of products. You make a lot of people unhappy. It’s not a good news story for the most part.
When we buy a small company, instead of looking for a fallen giant or a big company in distress, we look for the company that’s going to be the next big thing. I think it’s harder to find, but you find that gem out there and it’s like in A Charlie Brown Christmas where they had that small Christmas Tree. You water it, you take care of it, you fix it up and all of a sudden it’s this awesome tree.
FEED: How do you go about looking for new sectors and verticals?
David Ross: In the past, we did extremely well – and we still do extremely well – in stadiums, while our competition was focusing exclusively on broadcast. Now I see press releases going out about how stadiums are important. After stadiums, we moved into esports, and now I see the competition talking about how important esports are, and so on. There are some interesting new places where we see growth areas, but I would prefer our competition to find out a year or two from now.
One thing is, I typically travel about a week a month, visiting customers and my sales staff and business partners. It’s one thing to get a report on your desk that says, ‘We’ve done an analysis and there’s a 13% chance this is going to be successful’. It’s another thing altogether to go out there and see it for yourself and make it part of the daily discussion.
My dad used to say, ‘You can sit and argue all you want in a boardroom, but if you actually get on a plane and go someplace, the answers are out there’. I swear, a lot of the other CEOs in the industry have stopped travelling and meeting customers. Maybe it’s because a lot of them are not from our industry, so it’s difficult to talk to a customer about their needs. It’s hard to innovate without having knowledge of the industry and the technologies that are available.
The second thing is having a lot of really good, open conversations inside your company. We have some fantastic trainers, technology support people, product managers and demo artists – and there’s a huge buzz of conversation going on in the company all the time.
We also work hard connecting all these people together – whether that’s through technology, such as forums and email connections, or regular face-to-face meetings and so forth. It’s not painful, it’s fun. And I think the sharing that happens inside Ross Video with the people plays a big part in it as well – of finding out what to do next.
“We’ve reorganised R&D to be able to say yes to everything.”
Dramatic Analogue Ross Video started out producing analogue production switchers like the old beauty pictured above.
FEED: So, what will the future bring for Ross Video?
David Ross: That’s an interesting question. A lot of people are talking about Ross as a company that’s arrived. And it’s funny because since I started in ‘91, the company has grown on average 17% a year and if you look at any five year period, you’ll find we basically doubled every four or five years. Last year, we grew by about 20% and, so far this year, it looks like we’re growing at least another 20%.
This is just business as usual for us. It’s part of our DNA and we’re having a lot of fun. I expect Ross Video, over the next four years, to double again and just keep innovating. I think we’ve got the magic formula and it’s working really well.
If people feel like they’re just now getting to know Ross, especially in places outside North America, they’re going to see a lot more of us.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 Issue of FEED magazine.