New CEO Ravi Saligram’s big plans for Ritchie Bros.

Ravi Saligram | BCBusiness

The new CEO of Ritchie Bros. has worked at a variety of multinational firms in six countries. Now he hopes to take the Burnaby-based auction giant to the next level

Ravi Saligram has been in leadership roles at a handful of high-profile companies over the years including office supplies seller OfficeMax, hotel chain Intercontinental Hotels Group and consumer products conglomerate SC Johnson. So when the 58-year-old recently took over the job as chief executive officer at Burnaby-based Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers Inc., the world’s largest seller of used heavy equipment, it may have seemed like an odd fit. Not to Saligram. Selling trucks and tractors may be a different type of business than marketing staplers, Raid bug spray or a hotel stay, but the Indian-born, American-MBA-educated executive says each business he’s been with has one thing in common: a strong brand and focus on customer service. Ritchie Bros. was founded by three brothers in Kelowna in 1958 and has since expanded to 44 auction sites across 25 countries; it reported a 21 per cent increase in profit for the first six months of 2014, compared to the same period last year, while gross auction proceeds increased six per cent for the 12 months ended June 30. The married father of two 20-something daughters discusses the job he started in July and how he’s adjusting to life in Vancouver.

Why did you decide to take the job at Ritchie Bros.?
I’m hoping this is my last job as CEO. To me it’s important to leave a legacy of growth and taking something to the next level. There is a lot of opportunity to grow shareholder value—and that to me is a very important job of a CEO. There is also a strong culture here. There is a term in this company to express one’s loyalty, which is that they “bleed orange,” the colour of the company. That is what makes me enthusiastic about the job—that this team already has that ingrained spirit of passion for the customer.

What’s your vision for Ritchie Bros.?
It’s too early and premature for that—I’m not trying to duck the question. Ritchie has been a successful company. There’s a lot of opportunity to continue to grow Ritchie and how specifically we do that will be the strategies the team and I will build on. There is a strategy in place, so it will be an evolution of that. Over the next six months, I’ll come up with a plan.

You’re only the third CEO the company has had in 56 years. What is your mandate?
This is not—I emphasize not—a broken company. It’s not about a turnaround or fixing it. I think it’s really more about taking the company to the next level. I’m the first outside CEO to come in—and clearly, you look at things from a slightly different lens. There is also a lot more competition than maybe 50 years ago when Ritchie Bros. was a pioneer in this industry. To me it’s about accelerating sustainable, profitable growth.

Business aside, how are you settling into Vancouver so far?
I love the seawall. I try to walk along it at night after work—it’s very peaceful. Vancouver is just a beautiful city. What I like here is the emphasis on outdoors and well-being. I am a vegetarian and I’m trying to reduce my carbs. It’s not easy being vegetarian, but here in Vancouver I find people don’t look at you astonished when you asked for quinoa. Most restaurants have it. I also love the combination of the ocean and the mountains. It’s a unique combination.

You’ve lived and worked around the world, including India, the U.S., U.K., South Korea and Hong Kong. What’s different about the way Canadians do business?
When you live in a place, you are able to better appreciate the country and get a sense for the psyche. There is a tendency for people to view Canada as very much a place like the United States. While there are similarities, there are also a lot of differences. America is about individual liberties. Here it’s about peace and good government. One of the things definitely that is really liked about the Canadian style of business is the kinder, gentler approach. But I’m not saying that it’s not firm.

What else is different?
Canada is quite multicultural, which helps them in terms of looking at other parts of the world. At the end of the day, in any business, typically about 80 per cent of the drivers of the business are similar, regardless of which country, at least in the businesses I have been associated with. The key is to figure out what 20 per cent is different—how customers are different—and really understanding that. What are things that affect the fundamental drivers of the business? That is what a truly global executive really gets a good nose for and is able to sort out. That is what really allows you to bring scale.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in South Korea [with SC Johnson], one of my direct reports said, “Look, Saligram… you’re all about the superstars and you’re always looking for those, but you’re now running a company and not everyone is a superstar. A lot of people are average. Your job is to take average people and to help them become above average and bring the best out of them.” I’ll never forget that advice—which really, going into service businesses, helped me a lot. You really understand that the power is how to ignite the passion of hundreds of people across multi-unit businesses and get them aligned.