It is not a stretch to suggest that a New Brunswick company founded 35 years ago based on one man’s unique piece of software has become a global organization vital to everything from ocean navigation, asset management and energy extraction to the cables that help keep the Internet operating.
Not even Dr.Salem Masry could have imagined the impact of the ping-to-chart digital mapping software he dreamed up while a University of New Brunswick professor.
Certainly he was aware of how important digital software could be in development of effective, well-managed nautical charts of the ocean floor. That was why he went out on his own with two UNB graduate students to commercialize the product under the name CARIS. That was 1979.
Today, that three-person start-up has 170 employees with offices in Fredericton, the Netherlands, the U.S. and Australia. It has 2,000 customers using its suite of software in 90 countries. Its biggest client is the British Admiralty that employs a staff of 200 working with CARIS software to develop the world’s ocean floors – that’s 5,000 charts.
The basis of the product is taking pings (or echoes) off the ocean bed and turning it into an ocean-floor model that is then used to derive the features that appear on the charts.
Internationally, every ship of a certain size is mandated by law to carry charts for navigation. CARIS sales and marketing manager Andy Hoggarth estimates that 90 per cent of the charts on the bridges of vessels are derived from CARIS software.
So how has CARIS built itself from start-up to global dominator?
In the beginning Masry linked up with the Canadian Hydrographic Service, part of the Canadian department of Fisheries and Oceans. Between them they collaborated to enhance the system and establish it as a uniquely effective nautical chart producer.
That was when word-of-mouth recommendation kicked in for the first time. The success of the CARIS system in Canadian waters attracted attention in the Netherlands. Exchanges between the Canadian and Dutch governments led to CARIS being selected to establish charts for the Netherlands. That led to the establishment of the first CARIS office outside Fredericton.
Hoggarth pinpoints other businesses besides navies and commercial shippers who must rely on navigational mapping.
Oil companies, for example, have to decide where to lay pipes or to investigate where oil deposits lie. The same goes for companies searching out safe cable-laying sites.
“Oil companies have to map the sea floor to know where a pipe needs to be laid or an oil reserve sits,” he says. “And across oceans fibre optics are giving us the Internet and channel surveys are needed for laying the cables. If you lay a cable pipe in the wrong place it is liable to break, to snap, even to be caught by fishermen.
“Really we are supporting the entire blue economy. Fishing, energy, the environment, the science aspect. I believe interest in oceans has never been so important.”
Hoggarth is quick to point out that CARIS takes pride in never seeking external investment during its growth. “We have always been completely organic. There have been no mergers, no acquisitions,” he says. “The company has grown slowly and steadily by reinvesting funds provided by software sales.”
If you ask how CARIS has maintained expansion, found new clients, Hoggarth will emphasize the importance of word of mouth recommendations, which serve to emphasize the quality of the product.
CARIS had no marketing department for at least its first 15 years. Today it has a small team that travels the globe keeping itself in the mind’s eye of prospective clients. They are involved in trade shows, missions, and conferences. Specialized magazine advertising –mostly digital – and social media are increasingly important. And one-on-one client meetings and regular contact with existing customers keep the CARIS software suite current.
Hoggarth also talks about how the CARIS experience can help other Canadian companies.
When he gives talks near home he suggests CARIS is the sort of company Canada needs. “We were a high-tech niche that hasn’t gone cap in hand to government and I want stories like ours to inspire other start-ups,” he says.
In addition, when he is on a Canadian mission in some of the 90 countries in which CARIS operates, he passes on recommendations
“I have a really good contact in Brazil to whom I’ve introduced probably 20 Canadian companies he has sold into his market,” he says.
Little did Dr. Masry know when he started out how influential his software suite could thrive or how much it would help other Canadian companies to get toeholds in markets in other parts of the world.