Mark Endras has always been a coder at heart. The co-founder of online car auction marketplace TradeRev, his minor was in computer science, and Java was his language of choice.
“I love programming, but I’m told to stay out of it these days,” he says. “Although I am always trying to prod my way in and see what they’re building.”
Endras may have helped design the original code for his business, which facilitates real-time dealer-to-dealer auctions, but that was back in 2008. Now that it has become a successful company, he has had to expand his role to take care of the business end – controlling sales and operations.
Now, though, he’s preparing to refocus purely on product research and development. He’s becoming the chief innovation officer at U.S. car and salvage auction company Kar Auction Services, which just purchased TradeRev outright.
Kar had already bought a 50 per cent stake in TradeRev in 2014 for $30 million. Its 2017 purchase of the remaining equity for $50 million in cash and $75 million in performance-related payouts over the next four years brings the company into a far bigger family – and alters his role entirely.
“I love building stuff. That’s what drives me,” says Endras. “Kar saw that strength and said that they wanted to start an innovation lab in their organization.” They’re bringing him in to run it.
As a chief innovation officer, he’s a rarer breed than you might think. ITBusiness.ca sister site IT World Canada’s 2017 Canadian CIO Census revealed that chief information officers and chief digital officers only existed in 10-15 per cent of organizations.
Companies with an eye on growth in a quickly-changing industry will be more open to the idea of innovation than most, and those that grow through acquisition will be interested in putting new talent to use.
“The car industry is going through a lot of changes. The whole industry is reinventing itself,” says Endras, explaining that the innovation lab will be an engine to drive the business. “The lab will apply these innovations to the greater car organization to move the business forward.”
He expects to focus heavily on artificial intelligence and its subset, machine learning, as tools that will bring new value to the business.
The new role will see him travelling between Toronto, Kar’s brand new offices in Indiana, and Chicago, the site of another Kar acquisition. In April, the aggressively acquisitive firm bought out CarCo Technologies, which does business as Drivin. It’s a data analytics company that will bring new data mining and decision support capabilities to Kar’s auto dealer–focused support tools.
Endras will be building out the Chicago team. He already has experience building out internal innovation teams in organizations. At TradeRev, he built and oversaw a data lab where the company would innovate using data gathered from its online auctions and push new data models into production on a weekly basis.
“Initially we will have a few projects that we know will be used in multiple businesses for Kar and they will be integrated into the production system,” he says.
Defining a chief innovation officer
One of the most important things for a chief innovation officer running a research and development team inside an organization is a growth mindset, says Endras.
“It’s about an open-mindedness to ideas. Really thinking out of the box,” he says. A good innovation chief will apply the same agile processes for coming up with new ideas as they do to executing them.
“We’re innovating heavily on design,” he adds. “We are a big proponent of strong user experience, and ensuring that things are easy to use.”
Because TradeRev was born in the cloud, Endras is used to cloud-native development processes. He built out a solid continuous improvement pipeline at the company in which developers and operations staff worked as part of a single team. “When code gets pushed, it gets tested. That’s automated, along with deployment,” he says.
As an innovator, adept at building microservices in Go and managing data on Google and Amazon cloud environments, he’s used to embracing new technologies. Now, once he has handled the integration of the two companies’ core components, he gets to pull together an entire team putting new technologies to use and driving a growing business. His new job may take him away from home more often, but for a guy who always enjoyed looking under the hood and finding areas for improvement, it seems like a job that was hand-crafted for him.