A strong believer of open communication and people-centric approach, Steven W. Berglund, President & CEO, Trimble has transformed the way the company works. In a rare, candid first person narrative, Berglund tells Geospatial World about his ‘chance encounter’ with geospatial, his working style, and his vision for the geospatial industry.
I was brought up from a very early age as a Swedish American. I attribute the inherent self-reflective elements of my character to my Swedish lineage. Swedes believe in ‘lagom’ [a Swedish word with no direct English equivalent, meaning "just the right amount" with an undertone of appropriateness]. Living in Stockholm for four years, the ‘lagom’ concept was reinforced in me, and it is a belief I have applied both professionally and personally.
Growing up, I was always interested in science and knew that was the field I was going to choose as my profession. The choice I faced was deciding exactly which science I would pursue — chemical, mechanical or electrical engineering. I ended up choosing chemical engineering and completed my MBA. While working as an engineer I joined Spectra Precision in 1985, and I rose to become the CEO. The company was bought and sold a couple of times, before being acquired by Trimble.
One could say my involvement with geospatial technology was purely coincidental. Going back to the concept of ‘lagom’, I never tried to master every aspect of geospatial. But my perspective has always been to understand how the technology is being applied to the use case. I approach a problem not from technological perspective but from the problem solving perspective.
In some way, my expression has more elements of European style of management than the US style. Some of that is inherent and some of that is learnt. But again, if you look at the make-up of Trimble’s management, there are a lot of other nationalities within the management group. You don’t simply have European or American characters. Instead, we are striving to find a unique style and culture, and for me this makes Trimble special. If I display self-reflective or introspective characteristics, I think it is really the engineer in me trying to find objectives. My introspective attitude has a lot to do with the management culture of Trimble.
I think it is the fear of failure, fear of mediocrity and the pursuit of perfection that motivates me. And one has to be mature enough to realise this. Just like anyone else, there are phases of uneasiness and self-criticism in my life. I think I can be a great philosopher.
Defining the market
Before Spectra Precision's acquisition, Charlie Trimble and I had a number of discussions looking for some mechanisms to bring the two companies together from technological and distribution point of view. I guess I solved the problem by going to Trimble rather than the other way around.
Spectra Precision was purely a laser company and Trimble a GPS company. From my perspective, it is dangerous defining a market in terms of trends and technology. I was fundamentally sceptical about defining Trimble as a GPS company. Therefore, over a period of time we evolved the definition to say that we are a solution provider company to construction, agriculture industry etc. This gave us a more strategic space. We started defining ourselves in terms of vertical markets and provided components for the end user customer supplies. This enabled us to address a larger market and fill the void.
We have been lucky because the financial model of the company has been strong. We have generated sufficiently strong financial returns and we spend meaningful percentage of our turnover on R&D every year. This is our commitment to the future. This model did not exist 15 years ago; it has been created and is rich enough now that we are able to invest, acquire companies and pursue our goals in each of these markets. We do have quarterly pressures but we never sacrifice our long-term goals. We do not believe in annual budgets. At Trimble, there are two time periods that matter. We just believe in asking two questions — where we will be in the next three years and what will we do this afternoon to make that three-year goal a reality? I have never felt the pressures that the US public companies and CEOs are expected to feel. I have been lucky in this respect.
Another phenomenon of Trimble is that in the last 14–15 years there has been a significant progression but it is more like starting a thousand little steps. There have been very few big steps, with the exception of the Spectra transaction in 2000.
The invisible force
My definition of organisational elegance is to have profound effect while remaining invisible. I am an important part of Trimble but I have always resisted the photo of the CEO on the cover of Fortune magazine. Trimble as a company also projects this characteristic. A company has to be humble in terms of going to the marketplace to learn as opposed to teach. Teaching is definitely part of it but I think the fundamental perception should be that we have come to the market place to learn first. I think we take a certain amount of pride in being a private company which emphasises more on action and results.
Also, it is important to not assume that your past success is part of your future success. Human psychology is to return to the comfort zone, and my role is to push people outside their comfort zone and in some sense make them uncomfortable one way or the other. It is wonderful to be successful, but then one should ask the question how we can do better the next time. This is part of the typical Trimble vocabulary. One has to achieve this daily balance. It is important for the company to project itself with some confidence in the marketplace, but it should also balance this confidence with a dose of humility. One has to be humble and powerful simultaneously. Companies need to evolve continually. A long lasting culture of values, aggressiveness, discipline, risk taking etc should be built around it.
In my experience, Trimble is one of the most humble organisations which is continually asking the question “are we doing the right thing?” I don’t think there is magic in the company — it is employee-centric, communication intensive; and that has always been the objective.
In terms of establishing a new market culture, there is a need to be radically dramatic workwise. On one hand, one should be aggressive but on the other, one should also take care of their success, as it is a very dangerous thing. To achieve future success one has to do what it takes to achieve that success now; and I think that is a very dangerous assumption as the challenges in the next 10 years might be different from the challenges now.
Technical innovation is a kind of an organisational model in which we are trying to perfect ourselves. A few years ago, we created a position at the corporate level for innovation, and we hired an outsider who had worked for other high-tech companies. His role was to create a collaborative technical community within Trimble while trying to minimise the levels of structure. This involved building a community with a sense that if somebody has an idea or has a problem, he should be able to pick up the telephone and call somebody on the other side of the world who has some expertise in that area. Keeping the communication channels open is one element of our innovation model.
I think a company should adopt a goal-driven and process-enabled approach. Historically, Trimble has not put the process at the centre; we have used it as a tool. We do have six-sigma master blackbelts walking around the company but I think the way to process-enabled procedure is through consultation and communication. Messy and complex processes can be resolved through communication. The way to compensate for the ambiguity and complexity of the process is through constant effective communication.
As a company, we put a great deal of emphasis on collaboration which revolves around dialogues. And we do not intend to be a company that relies heavily on emails. I wish I could eliminate email. The entire management team of Trimble relies on dialogues, whereby one can talk about their problem until it is resolved.
We are taking steps to intensify our innovation culture and technical conferences. We always had technical fellows, and now we have distinguished ‘A’ category engineers who are innovating in the company. In terms of quarterly dialogues, we have an intense cabinet system built around quarterly reviews. It is less a matter of process than a matter of creating a public culture and enforcing that culture; and finally attempting to involve large number of individuals within the company and the innovation process. So I would say most of the innovation in Trimble is coming out, hopefully, from association in the market place as opposed to great minds sitting in a room thinking great thoughts and distributing those thoughts to the organisations. Mostly it is democratised approach.
Vision for the geospatial industry
In a practical way I don’t know if Trimble has ever committed that there is a geospatial industry per se. But there is certainly a geospatial connection. If you start looking at construction, agriculture, mining or any other market forces, they are looking for answers. Construction will demand an answer, so will agriculture, and there maybe some common elements. But I am not sure if there is geospatial entity that is going to define the answers for each of those.
Technology is evolving around sources of geospatial data, as in location and position and information coming from various sources. But I think the market forces are such that they are well defined, easily developed boundaries around geospatial community. When it comes to mapping or architecture, there is some amount of discipline but when it comes to used case in construction, agriculture etc, I make sure that there is some kind of centrality there. I think our role is to pursue the user and act as a counterback to the geospatial community and play some kind of translator or interpreter between the two.