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First person: Strumming a geospatial tune!

Prof. Josef Strobl
Ola Rollen
CEO, Hexagon AB

I have always felt that the best way to teach someone to swim is to throw the person in the water, and in the early days of my career, that”s exactly what I did to myself.

I was born in Sweden and grew up in the capital city of Stockholm. Very early on, I wanted to be a musician and I played in a rock band for five years. We got a record contract, but after the band fell apart, I decided not to pursue music. I then became a ski instructor in the French Alps, or, rather, I was dumped there since the company I worked for went bankrupt. I didn”t speak much French, and I did not know how to get by in life. I did not have any income, but I managed to survive for more than a season. I eventually learnt some French and could communicate with people.

These two experiences — music and skiing — taught me not to be shy. Standing on stage and playing to thousands of people helped me later in life to articulate and communicate to the audience in large conferences. I did not know it then, but I have used these skills effectively in my professional career.

Eventually, I realised I needed to do something with my life and I started studying law to become a solicitor. During a coffee break in the university, I saw a few people having fun while studying, and I realised they were studying finance. Soon after, I switched to finance and economics. As I started learning about business, I found it fascinating. When I graduated in 1989, everyone wanted to become a banker. So, I went for a job interview at one of the prominent banks in Scandinavia. They asked me, “Ola, how are you going to make a gazillion dollars for this bank?”

My family has always been entrepreneurial. My father owned a small company, and I know the value of a deliverable to a customer. I did not see the banking business doing that. It is all about greed and making money without much contribution. So, during the interview I said, “No, I am not going to make a lot of money. As a matter of fact, I don”t want to work for you at all.” I then joined a pulp and paper company as a trainee and later joined a steel company.

My first brush with technology was in 1999, when I joined Sandvik as the CEO of its material technology division. Sandvik is a large Swedish engineering company. A head hunter then called and said, “You should meet the principle shareholder of a small company called Hexagon.” I said, “No, I have just joined this big company and it is great for my career. Why would I want to move to a smaller company?”

I eventually met with the owner of this obscure company called Hexagon and he sat me down in his office in Stockholm and said, “Well, I bought this company and it is a disaster. And I don”t think you can screw it up further. Do you want to have a go at it? You can do whatever you want.” I was crazy enough to say, “Yeah, I will have a go at it.” That was towards the end of 1999, and I joined the company in early 2000.

At that point in time, Hexagon was active in more than 25 industries. We had day-care centres, we manufactured hydraulics and mobile phone antennas, we imported tuna fish and many other things, but nothing was a success. After a while, I started having doubts about my decision of joining Hexagon, leaving a prospective career at Sandvik. Without giving up, I sat down during the summer of 2000 and told myself that I needed to do something extraordinary. Then, I remembered I had looked at a company called Brown & Sharpe in 1998. It was based in North America and was up for sale in 2000. By the end of that year, we decided to acquire Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company and rebranded it Hexagon Metrology. That was the cornerstone for a new business we created for Hexagon. Between 2000-01 and 2011-12, we disposed of all the businesses Hexagon had acquired earlier and created a global leader in design, measurement and visualisation technologies.

Hexagon Metrology is all about measuring tiny things. How different is measuring the distance between two cogs in a cog wheel and measuring the distance between two peaks in a mountain range? We learnt that though the scales are different, both are guided by the same basic mathematical algorithm. As we grew into an engineering company servicing automobile and aerospace manufacturers, we started looking at surveying, geodesy, geomatics and so forth. We realised we had competence in that area too. As a matter of fact, there are synergies between the two. So, by 2005, we acquired Leica Geosystems, and by 2007, we realised we needed GPS as well. Leica Geosystems was dependent on a Canadian company called NovAtel. We had to buy NovAtel, otherwise they could have ended up as a competitor. So, we added NovAtel to the portfolio and continued to grow.

By 2008-09, we started to realise that we needed to serve our customers better and needed to protect our business from low-cost competition. We also realised that all the measurements ended up in other products like GIS systems, CAD models, etc. So, we asked, “What if we were to integrate into the software space?” That”s when we started looking at suitable companies and realised that Intergraph was a good bet, as they could provide us a platform in the GIS space, and they could also help us in the mechanical engineering world with their Process, Power & Marine (PP&M) products. So, in the summer of 2010, we acquired Intergraph.

It is a very logical business decision. We saw an opportunity in creating something different in this industry. Until the late 1990s and early 2000s, the world was very hardware- centric. Let us use computers as an analogy. IBM told a young Bill Gates it saw no value in an operating system. But soon, software took over and suddenly Microsoft and SAP giants dominated the industry.

I met my would-be wife when both of us were very young, and we have been very happy since. I think it is great advantage if you meet someone at a young age as you share a lot in common. It is a very strong relationship and I can discuss anything and everything with her and be myself. I feel sorry for people who do not have that kind of bond with another individual.

We have three kids together. We have a 21-year-old daughter who wants to be a journalist and is studying in London. We have a 19-year old son, now a student at Wharton Business School in Philadelphia, USA. At one point, my wife said, “It”s either a kid or a dog.” We opted for a child, now eight years old and quite younger than his siblings, but we have a dog as well! When we first moved to England, there was a rumour going around that my kids” dad worked for the Pentagon. This was during the days when the second Iraqi war broke out. I was feeling a bit like James Bond when I heard that because everyone at their school was pointing at me and saying, “He works for the Pentagon! He is a secret agent.” And then my kid said, “No, it is not the Pentagon. It is Hexagon.” I was a superstar for a while, but that was short-lived!

I continue to sing and play guitar, albeit at home, because it is fun and takes quite different skills from those used in business and intellectual pursuits. It is more of an emotion.

But I like business as much as I like music. Business is fun too. Also, it is measurable. You can gauge if you are developing or if you are falling. So, there is a competitive element as well. What”s also good about business is that it forces you to meet new people. You get to travel around the world, meet interesting and exciting people, and that is very important in life. It is the human connection that matters.

But Apple showed us that both hardware and software are equally important. What would a mobile phone be without hardware? What do you do with a nice piece of hardware if you don”t have apps and good software solutions? When you wish to sell solutions, you need both. That”s the direction geospatial industry is moving toward. We need to develop apps because all customers are not alike. One size doesn”t fit all. They want to feel that they are special, and we develop systems for them. Maybe one can use the same hardware in different systems, but the software solutions should be altered so they fit the target customer. That is a big change for this industry. We have lot of ideas and we will continue to do disruptive things.

In the geospatial space, there are sensor companies and there are mapping companies, and they collaborate via interfaces. But, if an environment is horizontal and one turns it vertical, it presents a very different picture. We want to create vertical solutions for specific industries where the customer can have an entire workflow solution, and not just one detail or a solution that creates boundaries between various technologies. A simplified workflow for a specific industry is our target.

One needs to have a vision, but that vision should not be just about technology. It has to be linked to the business prospect, and we are very pragmatic about that. If we develop something that costs millions of dollars, somebody has to pay for it. Therefore, you need a target and the target should not be defined as technology, it should be defined as a purpose. Someone would want to use it. And I think that is the difference Hexagon is bringing to most of the industries it is engaged with right now.