As one of 13 founding employees of a global stock exchange, a charter pilot, and founder of a local charity, C2FO advisor Joe Ratterman shares the three pivotal points that shaped his career, and his reason why we should all make a life, not just make a living.
C2FO: Joe, can you please tell us about your career to date?
Joe Ratterman: My career started out as a software engineer. I thought I was going to be an insurance actuary out of college because I had a teacher in high school that told me there would be no job market for programmers by the time I would graduate college. But, I kept gravitating towards computers and programming and ended up with a math and computer science degree.
It was six or seven years into my career when I got my first opportunity to be a software technology team lead. I was promoted over a period of 12 years from being the team leader of five programmers toe eventually becoming Chief Technology Officer at Knight Ridder Financial. I loved programming and I had a natural skill set for it. I was traveling a ton as CTO, and when Reuters acquired our company, they offered me a larger role, at a larger company — but I had to step off the treadmill. I missed my family.
I left Reuters and took the role as Chief Technology Officer for a local lab company, LabOne. I helped re-orientate and re-architect the software of that company, but I was only there for a couple years before I was itching to be a part of the securities industry again, where I had been the previous 12 years.
I stepped away and took a huge leap of faith. I chose to leave that company and go to work for Tradebot, with no title, no employees to manage and a huge cut in guaranteed pay. It was an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and be an individual contributor rather than just be leading from a far, so to speak.
I was there for about a year when we decided that we needed to build the BATS stock exchange. And we did that in record fashion; six months of software development and regulatory filings. We were up and running in January of 2006. BATS went from no one ever hearing of us to over a billion shares a day in a couple of years and taking NYSE and NASDAQ to task as a legitimate threat.
I was COO for a year and a half at BATS before the CEO handed the reigns over to me in 2007. I was the CEO from 2007 to 2015. We took BATS from a U.S. stock equity trading platform into Europe and became an exchange in Europe as well. After that we took on options trading in the U.S. as our third venture. We then bought another company and consolidated a competitor, followed by another acquisition that took us into foreign exchange trading. We went from ground zero to a $2.8 billion company by the time I retired in 2015. I stayed on as the chairman of the company for another year when the company was purchased by the Chicago Board Options Exchange for $3.2 billion. Then, I transitioned from chairman of the board to a board director, which I still am today.
C2FO: What was your best career or personal decision and why?
Joe Ratterman: You know, there were three decisions. I can’t limit it to one. There were three pivotal points in my career, that looking back, were hard, but important for different reasons. The first important decision was when I decided to leave Knight Ridder and go to LabOne because I knew that the career path I was on was taking more and more time away from the family and I really felt that I needed to be home and not travel so much. I had to find a way to earn a good living but not be on the road all the time. The point when I decided to turn down an even bigger, even cooler job from Reuters and stay local at LabOne was also pivotal because I could finally get back in with the family and be a soccer coach and go to track meets and I just didn’t need to be on the road hardly at all.
The second important decision was leaving LabOne and going to Tradebot. I left the safety and security of a well-defined job description, a large team, and a good salary within a publicly traded company. And I took a job with a huge pay cut, no staff to manage, and no title. Taking a leap of faith by stepping away from an executive leadership role that didn’t have a lot of hands-on element to it to going to a very hands-on role again. That led to the creation of BATS and becoming its CEO. I never thought in a million years that would be my path. I just knew that I wanted to be more hands-on. That led to a chain of events that put me in the CEO spot in a short period of time. The decision wasn’t made for business, it was for me to feel like I was contributing in a hands-on environment and keeping my technical skills fresh.
The third pivotal decision was to execute a leadership succession plan and leave the CEO role at BATS (that paid extremely well) a few years before anyone expected that to happen. I decided to step away from a prominent role at a growing, well-renowned company in a big industry — and then stay on the board but not have an operational role anymore. To be in my late 40s and be the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar firm – there were a lot of cool things that came with that — but I knew it was time to find someone who could take it to the next level. I also wanted to enjoy this period of my life with the family again and not be sucked in to the “24/7 constantly plugged in” path. It was a difficult decision that a lot of people didn’t understand, but I knew that it would allow me to still advise the company and be a part of it, but not take on the full load of CEO.
C2FO: Shifting gears, you are the founder of a local charity. What motivated you to give back and what has this experience taught you?
Joe Ratterman: Interesting, there’s a key point in here. Maybe another “aha” moment. In the early 2000s, I was in my 30s still. And I was thinking, “I have this long career ahead of me, I’m going to be successful and someday down the road, when I’m done doing all this career stuff, I’ll be able to focus and dedicate my life to giving back.”
I think a lot of executives fall into that trap. You can have all the great intentions in the world to work hard, earn, save a lot of money, and be successful, and then you can then be charitable for the rest of your life in that second half. It dawned on me, what if that day never comes? What if you don’t get to that point? And you worked all this time and you never got the opportunity to give back?
So, I thought I need to incorporate giving back into my life now and make room for it. That’s when we started Hope in the Streets in 2004. I committed that every week, at least once a week, I would be involved with our mission of working with homeless people in Kansas City. I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with homeless individuals every week for the last 14 years. We built up enough resources and assembled a volunteer crew with a meal truck that started delivering meals and other essentials on a weekly basis throughout downtown Kansas City. Three years ago, we also decided to start up a weekly church service under a bridge in downtown Kansas City for homeless individuals. That’s something I would consider to be a huge success, reaching a lot of people. We’re serving meals twice a week as part of our charity and we’re providing a full, non-denominational church service once a week as well.
C2FO: How has the giving back work changed your approach to business? How would you say the two are related?
Joe Ratterman: You know, I believe that we should give out of our blessings, so I think that hard-core belief of mine made its way into BATS while I was the CEO. During my tenure, I instituted a couple of benefits to the organization and its employees.
First, we gave all employees two days beyond their standard vacation or PTO and said, “If you have causes that you care about and want to play a ‘roll up your sleeves’ part yourself, we’ll give you two extra days every year to go do something with those organizations.” That encouraged people to figure out what they care about and find ways to help those organizations with the skills they had.
Second, we instituted a very generous charitable matching program in the company. We told the employees that any valid charity, the company would match up to $15,000 per employee per year. We also had our office manager put together volunteer day opportunities throughout the year for those that didn’t have something they were already putting their time into. For example, go to Harvesters and pack backpacks for kids, or work together on a Habitat for Humanity project. There was a number of things they would do to try to draw people in. It was something I believe in strongly, and it was the leading voice of the company at our regular weekly meetings and one-on-ones with the staff. Through my actions and the benefits we introduced in the company, I really wanted the employees to see that example and learn from it.
C2FO: What is a mistake that you’ve made? What would you have done differently?
Joe Ratterman: We had a big company event at BATS that didn’t go well that got a lot of negative press, which I considered one of the biggest speed bumps along the growth of the company. We had been a very successful company. Leading up to this event, I think we stopped being humble. This event forced us to remember humility. I think that’s where I would be more cautious in the future or advise young leaders, that if you’re part of a company that is succeeding, every time you take on an initiative or start a project, be careful not be lulled into the trap of believing that you’re infallible.
C2FO: Looking ahead, what is next for your career? What is next for you?
Joe Ratterman: Since I retired from the operational role of CEO, I have more time to step up my efforts with Angel Flight Central, where my wife and I have been volunteering as pilots for nine years now. I learned how to fly over the period I was a CEO, and took that as a real profession. I’ve added in a part-time contract charter pilot job. So, between the charter pilot job, which I’m doing today, three board spots, and charities, I’ve got what I consider a pretty full plate that’s not making me work 80 hours a week. It’s a balanced life where I’ve got plenty of time with the family and other life priorities. I may also take on more projects such as large community events with a charitable element.
C2FO: Lastly, is there anything you wish you had more time for?
Joe Ratterman: At this stage, I’ve got to say no. I’ve been very cognizant of time as a limited commodity. Since the early 2000s, I’ve tried to take definitive steps at each point that I thought I needed to, to make time for the things I consider to be most important. If I feel like there is something important, I can carve out time for it. Right now, a good portion of my time goes to Angel Flight Central and helping on the streets with the Worship Wagon project. I’m happy being 52 years old. I don’t wish I was 30-something anymore. Maybe not as nimble or as fast, but probably a little bit wiser. That first decision point I told you about, when I left Reuters, was a point where I was starting to wish I had spent more time with my family. I saw the danger signs and took action. Maybe I took those steps a couple years later than I could have, but since then, I’ve been cognizant of what’s important and time is something you just can’t get back, so I treat it with the highest priority.
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