Ross Video quietly becoming a behind-the-scenes TV star

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For many Ottawa companies, buying an American firm would be a bold move.

David Ross is the CEO of Ross Video.

By David Sali

For Ross Video, it’s just another day at the office.

“I think we’re just getting started,” David Ross, the firm’s majority owner and CEO, says from the company’s R&D headquarters on Auriga Drive. “Every time we do something, we find there are many opportunities adjacent to those. I think Ross has the opportunity to be one of the very largest tech companies in Ottawa.”

In fact, it’s already there. The firm, which had 25 employees when Mr. Ross joined it in 1991, now has just shy of 500, a mark it expects to hit in the next few months. In 2011 alone, it hired about 100 people.

By any standard, Ross Video is a tech powerhouse. It dominates its field, manufacturing many of its cutting-edge camera and video production products at its 80,000-square-foot plant in Iroquois, located southwest of Ottawa on the St. Lawrence River.

In the past four years alone, Ross has snapped up seven companies, with its latest deal being the purchase of Florida-based sports production outfit Mobile Content Providers last month. Another acquisition is in the works.

Mobile Content Providers, which serves major sports networks such as ESPN by travelling to sports events and producing them for television in mobile trucks, already uses Ross Video’s technology.

Mr. Ross sees the acquisition as a way to strengthen his company’s foothold on the U.S. mobile production market. At times, he says, U.S.-based producers have been reluctant to use Ross equipment because they rely on freelancers who aren’t always familiar with the company’s technology.

“We’ve been locked out of this market for 20 to 25 years,” Mr. Ross says. “I realized this wasn’t going to change unless we did something major. It’s not every day that a company buys a customer.”

It’s that kind of outside-the-box thinking that has made Ross Video one of the city’s emerging tech leaders. The company has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Montreal in 1974, when Mr. Ross’s father John launched the firm in his basement with $3,500 that he raised by selling his plane.

Ross Video doesn’t disclose sales figures, but some industry observers say a reasonable guess, given it produces high-end technology such as robotic cameras, is more than $100 million annually. It has manufacturing facilities in Belgium, where its robotic cameras are made, offices in Melbourne and Singapore, and R&D teams in Boston and Virginia Beach.

Just as impressive is the fact that the company Mr. Ross calls “one of Ottawa’s best-kept secrets” has had 23 consecutive years of growth – not a cent of it funded by angel or venture capital funds.

When asked the secret of the firm’s success, Mr. Ross chalks it up to “patience and a little bit of a lack of fear.”

He thinks Canadian high-tech entrepreneurs have a tendency to play it safe, which means they’re more likely to end up being the target of takeovers than the ones pursuing an aggressive expansion strategy.

“There’s just not enough companies that seem to have the guts to think that way,” Mr. Ross says. “When they start to see a hint of success, they suddenly say, ‘I’ve got to sell or I could lose it all.’”

That go-for-broke mentality has paid off handsomely for Mr. Ross.

More than half of all Canadian news broadcasts and one-third of U.S. newscasts are produced using Ross Video equipment such as Carbonite switchers. The Grammys and Oscars are major clients, using Ross Video services and software to create on-screen titles. Its video servers are widely used by touring musical artists and major sporting events such as the Olympics. The local company’s equipment even found its way on to the International Space Station, where it was used to convert video from analog to digital for transmission back to satellite receivers on Earth.

Now, its robotic cameras are becoming a fixture at everything from live concerts to in-studio news broadcasts.

“We’re trying to change the look of news and get more motion into the shots,” Mr. Ross says.

Still, Ross Video isn’t keeping all its secrets to itself. Even though it has now entered the mobile video production business with its purchase of Mobile Content Providers, the firm is more than happy to build trucks for its competitors – stocked with Ross Video equipment, of course.

It’s a strategy that has worked before, such as when the company made its modular video processing technology available to rival firms. In the long run, Mr. Ross says, it leads to better products, which makes the whole industry stronger.

“It’s working with competitors to create a standard so that everybody benefits,” he says. “You pour in the water and all boats float up.”

It might not be conventional thinking, but then, Ross Video has proven it prefers the road less travelled.

“It’s more fun that way,” Mr. Ross says.

Organizations: Mobile Content Providers, ESPN, International Space Station

Geographic location: Ottawa, U.S., St. Lawrence River Montreal Belgium Melbourne Singapore Boston Virginia Beach

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