Q&A with Cliff Pemble

CEO, Garmin
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Cliff Pemble

Cliff Pemble

In 1989, Cliff Pemble got a 10 p.m. call that would change his life. Pemble, then a software engineer at King Radio in Olathe, Kan., was already in bed when his former boss, Gary Burrell, called to see if he might be interested in joining a startup that Burrell and Min Kao, Pemble’s project supervisor at King Radio, had launched. The next morning, Pemble and Burrell met at McDonald’s for breakfast.

“We got into his Mazda 323 station wagon, ordered some items and went through the drive-through,” Pemble says. “Then he drove me to a building nearby and said, ‘This is where we want to set up our offices.’ ”

Pemble was 24 years old. He had a good job at King Radio (now AlliedSignal) developing Earth- and satellite-based navigation systems for general aviation.

And yet, he was intrigued.

“Looking back at how he described what he wanted for the company was incredibly inspiring,” Pemble says. “That he could see it so clearly with his eyes and the way he described it to me — it was real to him. It already existed.”

Thirty years after becoming employee number six at Garmin, Pemble, who is now CEO, still views Burrell and Kao as the driving forces behind the company’s astronomical growth. When Pemble joined, Garmin had one marine product, the GPS 100, and a handful of workers. Today, Garmin has about 13,000 employees in 60 offices around the world, including about 3,500 in the Olathe headquarters. Last year, Garmin had revenues of $3.34 billion; its marine business had sales of $441.6 million, up 18 percent over the prior year. This year’s forecast is for a 10 percent gain in marine sales.

Despite Garmin’s global scale, Pemble sees the company’s culture remaining close to the one that Burrell (who died in June) and Kao (who remains executive chairman) established in the early years. The two leaders ran the company for most of its history, with Pemble, an established insider, taking over the CEO position from Kao in 2013. Pemble has strived to keep the original culture intact.

“Everybody has war stories of company cultures,” Pemble says. “Our founders wanted their company to be different. They never led by intimidation, but led by example. They practiced something we call servant leadership, which is placing the needs of others above themselves.”

Burrell, Pemble says, greeted employees by name and often worked beside engineers on technical challenges. “We sometimes wondered if he ever slept,” Pemble says. “He was always thinking and drawing on a note pad or experimenting on a lab table. It’s just the way he was wired. That sense of curiosity was infectious and created excitement.”

That sense of excitement, Pemble says, continues to drive Garmin into new product categories. “Whenever it’s present,” he says, “it motivates everyone inside the company.”

In 30 years, Garmin has grown from a startup with a few employees to a $3.3 billion global electronics giant. Pemble says the culture that its founders created has guided its growth.

In 30 years, Garmin has grown from a startup with a few employees to a $3.3 billion global electronics giant. Pemble says the culture that its founders created has guided its growth.

Was the job interview at the McDonald’s drive-through in Olathe a true story?

Totally true. Gary was a really down-to-earth person, so it made sense that we’d meet that way. Even when the company flourished, he never lost his foundation values and his principles — that’s how he lived his life.

What did you think when he pitched the new startup?

I was young, so it was a bit overwhelming. I didn’t understand how that vision could get mechanized because I’d never seen it happen. But it was so clear to him that it was inspiring to me. I joined the company.

What were the early days at Garmin like?

Garmin was a startup in every sense of the word. We came to work and sat on kitchen chairs and had card tables for desks. We transitioned through a series of office spaces as we grew. We resembled every small company that begins as a startup. We had a very narrow focus to get a foothold in the market.

Did you start out in the aviation sector?

Aviation was a target, but interestingly enough, our GPS 100 for the marine market was our first product. We introduced it at the IMTEC show in Chicago. It was an awesome show for our debut in the fall of 1990.

Was it a handheld?

It was a kind of chameleon. It had batteries and could be operated as a handheld. It was designed so it could be slid into a tray on the helm console of a boat, but the dimensions were such that it could be adopted for a panel on an aircraft. We were able to create a mounting system, so it was one of the first GPS products commercially available for small aircraft. We thought of it as a crossover, but the main target was to get a product to market, create revenues and profits, and then move to other areas.

Why did you focus on marine initially?

There are lots of boats, and people have the same needs in marine as anyone else: They need to know where they are and how to get where they’re going. There are all of those basic factors. Despite the obvious differences, the dynamics of the marine market and what the customer needs are not that much unlike aviation. The marine market was one that we felt we could relate to, and we did.

Were most of the early marine products handhelds?

No, we wanted to create all different product form factors and utilities for people. Handheld crossovers were the first targets, but we quickly moved into fixed-mount chart plotters on the marine side, and on aviation, we went into products specifically designed to be installed on the panels of an aircraft. And, of course, we branched into other areas from there. Miniaturized GPS translated into the first wearables, as well as radar, communications and sounder technology — all kinds of product lines that we built piece by piece to be a full-line supplier.

Pemble: “We rely heavily on the interests of our associates to develop new product categories.”

Pemble: “We rely heavily on the interests of our associates to develop new product categories.”

Did you have a dedicated marine team back then?

We were a little bit of everything, but in the last 10 years, we really got disciplined about having a segment approach to our business. For the most part today, we have dedicated resources across our five segments. We still try to leverage technology platforms between segments, but each segment has its own dedicated resources and develops technologies independently so it can better serve its own market.

From the beginning, Garmin was vertically integrated. Why?

We were strategically focused on capturing as much of the value chain in our business as possible. It wasn’t simply out of a motivation to be more profitable. It was also to allow us to provide a better product and be more flexible in our business. This has allowed us to develop additional competencies that we wouldn’t necessarily have developed. The end result is that we can be more agile and quickly adapt products, or change our manufacturing flow or mix of products. It also allows us to create jobs and be more profitable in our business.

What are the other segments besides marine?

Aviation, we have an obvious interest in that. We’ve developed from a company that offered kind of a targeted product in the cockpit to one that supplies all the products as glass cockpits of sophisticated business jets. We’ve developed a lot of capability and maturity in the company to serve a market like aviation.

Along the way, we saw opportunities in automotive to provide GPS in mapping technologies, initially targeting portable applications. A lot of times people say that’s how we know Garmin. Today, we still offer consumer products via Best Buy or Amazon, but we’re also a tier-one supplier to automakers for both software and hardware applications on the vehicles.

We’ve really grown a lot over the years. We created some of the first products for the wearable market, initially targeting runners. We’ve expanded into cycling and products that target health and wellness, including products for kids to make them aware of how to be healthy and active.

In outdoors, we’ve gone from being a dedicated GPS provider to having products for tracking working dogs, for example. We have communications that work in remote areas that have no cellphone service. The technology is called inReach. Of course, there’s a wearable component in our outdoor segment as well, called Adventure Watches. They’re products not just for running but might also do paddleboarding or trail running. We tend to follow our passions, and that helps create diversity in the company.

How so?

We rely heavily on the interests of our associates, and there are many markets that we’ve gotten into that just happened to be a product our associates wanted to use for themselves. One great example is the dog-tracking area. We had people who had hunting dogs that we call working dogs. They’re usually dogs that are very expensive and require a lot of training and care to be useful in a hunting scenario. When they get lost, it’s a big challenge — whether it’s losing a pet and family member, to the time and expense it takes to develop a working animal like that. It has created a whole new product category for Garmin.

With eight global production facilities, Garmin’s home is still Olathe, Kan. It recently completed a $200 million expansion for distribution and manufacturing.

With eight global production facilities, Garmin’s home is still Olathe, Kan. It recently completed a $200 million expansion for distribution and manufacturing.

Did the same process lead to your GPS watches for fitness?

That’s how we first got into wearables. Some people in the company were runners and felt like there were GPS applications for running, so we started with the smallest devices we made at the time to figure out how to get them on wrists. From there, we worked on making a watch. Today, these are true watches that have created a whole category of what we call smart wearables.

How big of a role has Garmin’s corporate culture played in keeping you there for 30 years?

It was that and the spirit of innovation. Being CEO was the last thing on my mind when I joined the company. I had just turned 24 years old and was eager to learn. I was really excited about technology, and GPS was this crazy interesting system that had so much to offer in terms of challenges for a technical person. That initial excitement got me hooked, and over the years, as we developed the company, we branched into all these different areas.

I can say that our culture is unique and really goes back to our founders. It still influences how we run the company today. We have a phrase called “servant leadership” that came from them. It means placing the needs of others — employees, customers and other stakeholders — above themselves. They really led by example with that practice, and that helped build strong relationships within the company with our employees, as well as with outside partners. When we faced challenges, we had those relationships and that trust to draw on to get us through tough times.

Every day when I come to work, there’s always something interesting to talk or dream about. I have to tell you that it’s disappointing that 30 years have gone by and I don’t know where the time went. I wish there were 30, 60 or even 90 more.

Is it difficult to maintain the corporate culture now that the company is so big?

It’s always hard. Every company fights the mediocracy influence, and we’re no different in that regard. We continue to challenge ourselves and our teammates to focus on customers and create products. We call them superior products that are essential to our customers’ lives or lifestyles. That idea motivates us and keeps us on the edge to create better products for our customers.

Did you ever think Garmin would grow as large as it has?

I don’t think anyone could be that good at strategic planning. But we’ve always taken the approach that we would follow the opportunities, and were always eager to grow the company. We started to realize the potential of GPS not just in marine and aviation, but in other places, as well. We were very eager to find ways to serve those markets and grow the company.

Garmin founders Gary Burrell and Min Kao in 2000.

Garmin founders Gary Burrell and Min Kao in 2000.

With marine, you’ve seen double-digit growth during the past five years. Why?

Marine is going through an interesting period where new technologies are creating a lot of opportunity, for new boats being built and equipped with the latest and greatest things as well as people with existing boats wanting to update them. GPS is a fundamental that has been around for a while, but the charting, connectivity, sounder systems, solid-state radars — all of these things are coming together to excite boaters. With this new equipment, they can do more and be more confident on the water.

Tell us about Garmin’s new $200 million facility.

We made the commitment in 2016 to dramatically expand our production facilities and distribution in Olathe. Our ultimate motivations were that we were production-limited in our aviation business, as well as distribution, so the expansion lets us serve the market better. We were also running out of space to hire new people, especially new-product development engineers. This gives us significant additional room for new employees. It’s a multiyear project that has been very complicated. We’re in the process of lighting up the distribution center, and production is already going. We’re now renovating the former distribution facility into offices.

How many facilities do you have around the world?

We have a pretty big global footprint. We have two factories in the U.S.A. which manufacture aviation products; three facilities in Taiwan that focus on consumer, including marine, outdoor fitness and automotive; and a facility in China that focuses on auto OEM products. We’ve recently acquired Tacx, which makes indoor cycling training equipment. Its factory is in the Netherlands.

What do you see for Garmin’s future?

In the last three years we’ve achieved the goal of becoming global leader in the consumer marine electronics market. We want to leverage that and continue to expand and serve the market for new products and technologies. I also see opportunities for our other business segments. There are many possibilities to grow.

So you obviously have no regrets about your career choice.

Everything Garmin does are things I like to do. I grew up in a boating family and learned to fly early in my career. The only thing I don’t know how to do is golf, though we have lots of people here who promised me someday they’d teach me. My experience here has also influenced my children to take up careers in fields like aviation and electronics. It’s just really exciting to work here. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.

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