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Red Ventures CEO: We’re going to keep growing

Red Ventures CEO Ric Elias

Red Ventures CEO Ric Elias talks during a recent interview.
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Red Ventures CEO Ric Elias talks during a recent interview.

Red Ventures, the Indian Land-based marketing and sales firm that has more than doubled its workforce in the past five years, is poised for further expansion, CEO Ric Elias told the Observer.

Plans include construction of a fourth building starting next month on 120 acres the company bought in September around its headquarters, the company says. The new building can house 1,400 employees.

The current expansion would be the third since Red Ventures moved from Charlotte in 2009. Its workforce has grown from around 1,000 then to 2,500 now, including 400 at its University City office. Just Friday, the company announced plans to hire 500 more this month.

Founded in 2000, the technology-driven company helps its clients – Red Ventures calls them “partners” – attract and retain customers with services ranging from research, to taking inbound calls, to business development. Among its clients are Verizon, DirecTV and MetLife.

The company says its revenues have grown about 30 percent annually for the past three years. As a privately held company, Red Ventures doesn’t disclose figures on sales or profits.

Spend even a few minutes talking with Elias about his company, and his unorthodox approach is evident. He speaks of a flattened corporate structure, with no budgets, no meetings about hitting the numbers. Such things constrain creativity, he says.

He acknowledges that approach might invite skepticism, but he adds with a laugh: “I don’t really care what anybody thinks.”

In January, Red Ventures received $250 million from Silver Lake, an international private technology investor. Its other minority shareholder, General Atlantic, a global growth investor, has been with the company since 2010.

You’ve got to first be willing to outwork everybody. The second thing is you’ve got to be able to take risks. In life you will either play defense or offense – nothing happens to those who don’t take risk.

Ric Elias, CEO of Red Ventures

The company prides itself on its work environment: Workers can enjoy pool tables, a bowling alley, a basketball court and cafeterias.

Elias, 48, spoke little English when he moved from Puerto Rico to study accounting at Boston College. Later, he earned an MBA from Harvard University and worked for General Electric and Cendant, the former travel and real estate giant.

His 2011 TED talk on lessons learned from surviving Flight 1549’s “Miracle on the Hudson” landing in January 2009 has been watched 5.5 million times.

In his second-floor office overseeing Red Ventures’ campus from Building Two, Elias sat down with the Observer last week and discussed his grand visions for the company – from planting flags in Europe, China and Japan in the near future, to the days when no one drives to work and virtual reality becomes reality. Following are excerpts edited for space and clarity:

On defining Red Ventures:

Many people struggle to define Red Ventures because we don’t have a “comparable.” We took advantage of technology trends and aggregated a number of different industries into a business model. ... The reality is, because we are front and center of this technology evolution, we are changing quickly.

By default, the only thing you can conclude is two years from now, four years from now, it will be different.

When we structured Red Ventures, we made it very clear that speed was the one grade we will not deviate from. That’s how our culture got set up, our system, technology, people, everything. This year during the company trip, we talked about a second grade, and that’s employee growth.

We view ourselves as a platform, and our goal is for the time you are here, you contribute to the platform. Eventually, we will judge our success – I’m talking decades from now – by the success of our alumni, and did you leave the platform in a better place.

We have no (corporate) work structure, we have no budgets, we don’t sit here and talk about “OK, are we hitting the number we projected?” We believe all those things constrain growth, constrain creativity, limit opportunity and do all that.

This is our first time around – half of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. You’ve got to first be willing to outwork everybody. The second thing is you’ve got to be able to take risks. In life you will either play defense or offense – nothing happens to those who don’t take risk.

On lessons learned from surviving Flight 1549:

If you can get to the end of your life like I did – you can literally close your eyes and say goodbye – you realize that you should’ve taken more risks.

It’s going to be thoughtful risks. ... We do understand that size brings issues, scale brings issues, you can spread too thin. We are playing a big boy game.

You want me to be honest with you? I don’t really care what anybody thinks. The people that know us, the people that know what we are about – that’s the people that matters.

Everybody else? I am not running for office, I don’t need to be popular – I don’t mean not to be popular, I just mean to be who we are.

On what Elias expects from his workforce:

If you come here, you are going to need to want to be pushed, to be challenged, to work. If you are here to collect a paycheck, or to show up, don’t come.

Our basic promise is when you leave in a year, or a decade, you look back and say, ‘that was the most meaningful career stop I could have had.’

We are 2,500-plus employees right now. We have 50 undergrads starting this summer in our analyst roles. These are all kids that come out of Davidson, UNC, Wake. ... It’s very reasonable that we will be right around 3,000 employees by the end of the year.

We used to say two years ago we are in the bottom of the second inning; now I think we are somewhere in the third inning. We can still get it wrong, we can make the wrong bets, but we feel very confident that our best days are ahead.

Our best people never leave, because they are learning; they are challenged. Your responsibility is to excel; our responsibility is to challenge you. As long as we are both meeting our responsibilities, we will be together forever. When you leave, we are going to help you.

The other side is, the days of one job forever, the days of 20-year employment are long gone.

On the structure of Red Ventures:

There are teams, some with more seniority than others. Within the teams it’s a very flat structure. A lot of the stuff we do is in addition to your roles, so you will join a team to go pursue planning our annual company trips, or our community events.

The six divisions are a way to organize work. We have our home division that has nine very deep and meaningful strategic relationships. You have our energy division that has built a lot of proprietary assets and marketplaces.

Our insurance division, which we got in four years ago and struggled for the first 12 to 18 months, will be our largest business in five years. That business is growing more than 100 percent. ... It’s coming off a small base but it’s a big business.

Imagine a world where people are not using search engines, not buying the same services that they buy today – what are all the things we need to figure out?

Ric Elias, CEO of Red Ventures

Our FAST business is a combination of financial services and software. We are turning people down, in terms of partners that want to work with us. ... We want long-term value and opportunities. Our bar is ‘can we make enough difference to get the kind of relationship that we want?’ If the answer is no, let’s not fool ourselves.

For our Movers division, we made this big acquisition (of Imagitas, a Boston-based firm that facilitates address change requests for the U.S. Postal Service) and it’s going to be a core asset.

Think about it – there are 23, 25 million households that move every year, that’s when people reset a lot of the services and make a lot of purchases. The postal service relationship that Imagitas has is an opportunity for us to really give a shot to building the first true mover platform, digitally centric, in this country.

The sixth group is called Disrupt – because we want to disrupt everything we are doing. Imagine a world where people are not using search engines, not buying the same services that they buy today – what are all the things we need to figure out?

Virtual reality is real. Half of our world will be all virtual reality. The no-brainer is, we are not going to drive to work. Twenty years ago emails were only for corporate use.

The life expectancies of all these technologies are so different. Look at Uber. Look at companies that are just destroying and disrupting industries inside out. It’s fascinating.

On the future of Red Ventures

I’m in this for the journey. So eventually we might end up with 10, 12 different assets (divisions). Some of our leadership may want to take one of our businesses public. What I do know is that our core Red Ventures will stay private and we will continue to do things that are unique and different.

We just opened an office in Brazil – we have our first partner; we have 12 employees (there); we are killing it. We will be in Europe in the next 12 to 17 months. I want to be in China in the next three years. We had a team go to London a month ago, they came back really, really bullish. That is a fact, not a reason (to expand there) right now.

We have the potential to build something that will outlast all of us. ... We live in the greatest of times, we live in the greatest of countries, and we literally got the greatest luck one can get. To not go and show up or give it a shot will be a complete waste of a golden ticket.

On Charlotte:

We got lucky to pick Charlotte – the region of Charlotte. I don’t care where the state line is or isn’t – I find it humorous when people get so up-in-arms about words. I think the airport really matters. We are growing a lot as a city – we have an influx of talent that is evergreen right now. That is really valuable.

We owe a lot ... to the founding fathers of the city. There are a lot of older statesmen that have done wonderful things for Charlotte that we are reaping the benefits of.

A lot of people in that generation, Hugh McColl, Jim Rogers, Ed Crutchfield – I’m sure I’m missing so many – really set us up for success. I think it’s going to be incumbent on my generation of leaders to step up.

We are going to do it our way – just like we try to do everything (our way) – we are going to do it through impactful community programs. We are going to use our new facility to provide a new program for kids that are not going through the college process to get real skills.

You should leave it a better place than you found it.

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About Red Ventures

Red Ventures is a technology-driven marketing and sales company headquartered in Indian Land, S.C. Founded in 2000, the company is expected to have 3,000 employees on its payroll by year end, CEO Ric Elias said. It helps clients attract and retain customers with services ranging from research, to taking inbound calls, to business development. Among its clients are Verizon, DirecTV and MetLife. The headquarters is located across the state line from Ballantyne and its University City-area office is at Louis Rose Place with 400 employees.

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