Ottawa's Fastest Growing Companies: Wireless radio supplier’s growth strategy solid as a ROCK

ROCK Networks
Joe Hickey is the founder of ROCK Networks, the No. 1 firm on OBJ's list of Fastest Growing Companies for 2019. Photo by Mark Holleron

Each year, OBJ recognizes the region’s rapidly growing firms with its Fastest Growing Companies awards. The aim is to honour the city’s top performers for substantial, sustainable and profitable growth. Recipients are ranked by their three-year revenue growth. They must have had revenues of at least $100,000 in the first of those three years under consideration. Revenues must have risen to at least $500,000 in their most recent fiscal year. The companies will be profiled online in the coming days and recognized at a cocktail reception on May 23 at Kanata co-working space Head Office Ottawa. Click here for info.

Three years ago, Joe Hickey was in the midst of an impressive career in engineering and sales that had included a stint as Nortel’s youngest vice-president.

Approaching his 50th birthday, Hickey was comfortably entrenched as VP of sales and marketing at Christie Walther Communications, an award-winning Ottawa-based supplier of radio equipment.

But Hickey, like many entrepreneurs, wasn’t comfortable with being comfortable.

When Christie Walther was acquired by fellow Canadian company Turris Communications in early 2016, the father of five left the firm to strike out on his own.

“I decided that was my passion,” says Hickey, now 52.

He already had a vehicle for his entrepreneurial drive in ROCK Networks, a consulting firm he’d started more than a decade earlier as a side gig in between tech jobs.  

ROCK’s name might have harkened back to Hickey’s Newfoundland roots, but he saw a future for the company that stretched from coast to coast to coast.

Barely a year after leaving his old job to focus full-time on his own venture, Hickey had already won a major contract to supply communications equipment to the federal government. Using the profits from that deal and a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada, ROCK Networks acquired Nova Scotia-based two-way radio supplier Nova Communications in a multimillion-dollar transaction in May 2017.

With the stroke of a pen, ROCK Networks transformed from a tiny venture based in Hickey’s living room into a wireless technology business with offices in three provinces.

ROCK Networks

Year founded: 2007

Local headcount: Five, with 25 employees in other provinces

Three-year revenue growth: 5,035.61%

2019 ranking: #1

ROCK now supplies two-way radio equipment and maintenance services to customers ranging from the Department of National Defence to Cape Breton’s Cabot Links golf course. The firm has 30 employees and operates sales offices in Calgary, Ottawa, Moncton, N.B., Dartmouth, N.S., and St. John’s, while its e-commerce site has customers in every province and territory.

This January, ROCK’s corporate headquarters officially moved from Hickey’s living room to its own space in Ottawa’s east end.

It’s been quite a ride, but Hickey believes it’s just getting started.

As radio technology shifts from old-school analog to digital-based systems, he sees new opportunities for partnerships in emerging fields such as 5G networks. ROCK recently signed a reseller agreement with Gatineau-based Solacom to provide next-generation platforms that will allow smartphone users to text 911 in emergencies.

ROCK is also planning an aggressive move into the managed services space, in which suppliers charge a monthly subscription fee to maintain and upgrade wireless equipment for customers such as police and fire departments.

The firm currently competes against hundreds of independent wireless equipment resellers across Canada for smaller contracts and individual sales while going toe to toe with multinational players such as Texas-based BearCom Group for bigger deals.

ROCK is not quite in the same weight class as the likes of BearCom and Bell just yet, but Hickey is nothing if not ambitious.

“The goal is to build a national company and be a $100-million-plus business,” Hickey says. “I can’t get there selling one two-way radio at a time.”

He concedes he initially wavered on submitting an application for OBJ’s fastest-growing companies competition this year, fearing he wouldn’t make the cut.

Clearly, Hickey had nothing to worry about. He’s already pondering his prospects for a repeat in 2020.

“If we’re No. 1 again next year, that really means we’ve knocked the ball out of the park.”