For Harold R. Ross, owner and founder of Ross Hammock Ranch, starting a guided hunting lodge and outfitter business was about following his passion for the outdoors. After a successful career in software development that included growing his own company to 400 plus employees and taking it public on NASDAQ in 1996, to winning Ernst & Young's Southeast Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Ross seized an opportunity to go in a completely different direction. Ross' story starts in 1976 when he graduated from Rollins College with a degree in Economics.
"My original plan was to go to Stetson University for law school," he said. "I had a few months with nothing to do before law school started, so a friend told me to check out a computer company called Burroughs Corporation. I ended up taking a position with them and never went to law school. In 1986, Burroughs merged with Sperry UNIVAC and the company was renamed Unisys. After the merger, I worked as a Manager for Unisys' Commercial Division in the state of Florida. At one point, I had about 100 people working for me. During that time, I met a very small startup in Pinellas County called Home Shopping Network (HSN). I was involved with the design, development and implementation of computer hardware and software that would allow them to go live via a satellite TV up-link to sell their products. The HSN CEO, Roy Speer, had a big impact on my business life. He was a consummate entrepreneur. Being able to see how he operated and his mindset was like getting a PHD in Entrepreneurship. That's when my own entrepreneurial seed was planted."
Ross worked for Unisys for several years after the merger. Unfortunately, things got too political for his liking and Ross went looking for a new opportunity. In 1990, he joined a small Boston-based software startup. After several years of helping to grow that company, they went public and Ross, who owned a small amount of stock in the company, cashed out and turned his attention to starting his own company.
"I was in a good spot," Ross said. "I paid off my debt and was sitting on a decent amount of cash. I wasn't interested in going back to work for someone else, so I came up with a business plan for a new company. I sent the plan to about 12 good friends of mine, all in the technology industry. All 12 friends loved the idea and wanted to invest. However, a few weeks later, when the day came to stroke the checks to form the company, ten of the twelve friends backed out! I was crushed, but went ahead with myself and two other investors. The company was called PowerCerv. We had $80,000 in startup capital and managed a positive cash flow since month one. We built client server computer software and offered the related services. We focused on offloading some of the work being done on corporate mainframe computers by utilizing the latent computer power of under-utilized employee desktop PC's. We took that company public in 1996 and, about 18 months later, not long after winning the E&Y/USA Today Entrepreneur of the Year Award, I cashed out, resigning as Chairman and CEO. I was 42 years old."
Ross spent the next three years traveling around the world chasing his real passion - bow hunting. He spent time in South Africa, Newfoundland, Alaska and throughout the United States and paid close attention to what worked and what didn't. He was surprised at how many places were poorly run and realized that by just being average, you could do well in this industry. However, Ross wasn't interested in just being average. He saw an opportunity to be exceptional and offer an incredible experience close to his Florida home.
"I already had the land," he said. "I was originally introduced to that area from a friend that also worked for Burroughs Corporation. He had a cabin in Gulf Hammock. I ended up joining a hunting club that leased the property, that would eventually be Ross Hammock Ranch, from Georgia Pacific. It took some convincing, but after about two years, Georgia Pacific sold me the land. My goal was to provide an unforgettable family-friendly affordable hunting and lodging experience just a short drive north of Tampa."
Ross Hammock Ranch opened its doors in January of 2000. Business started off slow and Ross quickly realized that the industry was more about word of mouth and repeat clients. It was also an adjustment getting used to a business where supply was more important than demand. A hunting lodge without ample game wouldn't produce a sale. It took a couple of years to build up a clientele, but once they reached the critical mass of having a solid customer base, things really took off.
Today, Ross Hammock Ranch is the largest hunting and fishing outfitter in the state of Florida. Between 800 and 1,000 people visit the ranch every year, including celebrities like Blake Shelton and Steven Tyler. Other guests include military veterans, TV evangelists, everyday folks, professional athletes, and occasionally even terminally ill kids with a last wish.
"You just never know who's going to walk through that door," Ross said. "We got a call about eight weeks ago from a lady with Make a Wish Foundation in Texas. They had a nine year old boy with leukemia. He was given eight weeks to live. The family offered to take him anywhere in the world to do whatever he wanted. The kid said, 'I want to go to Florida and walk through a swamp and kill a wild hog'. Say what you want about hunting, but this boy had a god given genetic level urge to kill a hog before he died. I'd like to see someone say no to that request."
We asked Ross about any negative push back and his thoughts on hunting detractors. "First consider that pretty much everything we shoot is eaten," he said. "If the meat is not wanted by the hunter, we'll donate it to a local charity. Nothing is wasted. As a landowner operating a business, the animals that inhabit our land represent our core economic value that we invest in to conserve and protect dearly. If you remove (by banning hunting) the economic value of these resources, the resources will quickly go away, as the landowner will no longer have the economic incentive and financial justification to continue the investment. Clearly, it's in the best interest of the animals to allow hunting as it helps to guarantee the survival of their species. Also, sportsmen pay a Federal Excise Tax which is levied on the hunting and fishing products they purchase. The money goes towards public land conservation."
In regards to the day-to-day operations, Ross handles the sales, marketing and accounting, while his wife, Terra, manages operations and helps with various administrative responsibilities. According to Ross, their 'secret to success' is that they're a true one stop shop. They have everything a guest could possibly need. They loan rifles, provide licenses, meals, snacks, drinks, guides, lodging and provide guests with access to an on-site rifle range, 3D archery range, as well as butcher and taxidermy services. The location of Ross Hammock Ranch even provides easy access to the Florida coast for guided world-class fishing. They've taken any hassle out of the experience. Ross has also obtained the trespass rights to hunt other private ranches and wetlands in the area. This gives his guests options to pursue different types of game.
Looking ahead, Ross is optimistic, but he's also very aware of the National downward trend in hunting. The long term outlook is not ideal. Based on the latest data, the industry has shrunk 20% in the last five years, as younger generations choose other forms of entertainment. Even though business continues to grow at Ross Hammock Ranch, Ross can read the writing on the wall. As such, he'll continue to invest in local real estate and grow pine trees as a way to diversify his revenue streams.
What advice does Ross have for aspiring entrepreneurs teetering on the fence between keeping their steady day job or pursuing a passion? "It usually comes down to a fear of failure," he said. "Complicate that with a responsibility to provide for your family and you're looking at a really tough decision. If you decide to make a move, try to be as financially conservative as you can. Anything you owe money on will only increase your fear of failure. You want to minimize your financial burden to clear your mind of the fear factor. I would also try to come up with a business model to where you can establish revenue streams early on. Use those early streams to grow your business even if you end up eliminating those streams later as your business matures."