Steven W. Berglund
Trimble CEO Steven W. Berglund is not perturbed by the ongoing global slowdown because, in his words, he is in the business of selling capability not capacity. It is during difficult times that the true value proposition of an enabling technology like geospatial comes out, feels Berglund
Given the slowdown in the last three-four years, as a business leader what are your views about the economic environment?
The global economy can remain very uncertain for the next five years or longer; Europe is not going to instantly improve and the European crisis may continue to drag for some time. So it’s not just a one- or two-year cycle [of slowdown] but much longer. However, from Trimble’s perspective, I think this is the most technologically dynamic period in the company’s 34-year history. There are more opportunities in different areas of the geospatial market. The ingredients are there to have a relatively profound effect in the next 5 to 10 years.
It is a difficult period for goods manufacturers because people are not adding capacity. But we can walk into scenarios where there is an existing fleet of machines or instruments, and we can sell productivity — additional capabilities and in a difficult market. I believe there is an inherent excitement about the possibilities of growing as a company and the subsequent impacts we can have. We should be able to do well as a company in a more truncated economic environment because we are selling supportive technology; we are selling capability and not capacity.
Why is this technologically the most dynamic time for Trimble? Trimble has anyways been a very strong technology company.
It is the broad and fundamental nature of the changes that make today’s times technologically the most dynamic times. If we look at Trimble’s history, real-time kinematic became available in the mid-1990s. It was exciting and a time for challenge because we used the technology to change the nature of play. Sensors in real-time were there 15 to 20 years ago, robotics came about 20 years ago, laser scanning 10-15 years ago and advancements in reflector technology around 15 years ago.
There have been inventions along the way but it has been stable from the sensor standpoint. Now we are seeing sensor integration — integrated sensory vehicles with GLONASS, GPS, Beidou and Galileo potentially all will have their constellations pretty soon. Even space-based capabilities are getting interesting. Augmentation signals are evolving, so we are constructing better and more robust solutions. Look at big data, data storage and its effect — no market has that kind of awareness. So customers are putting in physical infrastructure in order to come up with large and complex solutions to store data. You can think of applications that you couldn’t even contemplate 5 or 10 years ago. That’s the potential for storing a large mass of data and its connectivity and accessibility. We can also look at visualisation and modelling aspects. We acquired Google’s SketchUp not simply because we wanted to help the architects to doodle; the idea is that SketchUp is central to the 3D modelling concept.
For Trimble, there are more things going on than in the last 34 years.
Google has never sold a technology to anyone. So what made you go for it?
We had been in touch with Google for some time, to see if we could collaborate in building up data, and they were interested to see if they could commercialise the demand. So there were discussions and along the way, Google made the decision that they wanted to narrow their focus and SketchUp was not part of that focus moving forward. It was part of a natural progression for our companies to sit down and talk. Trimble has been a preferred partner of SketchUp and that led to the acquisition.
What role and position you foresee for Trimble in the larger geospatial ecosystem?
There are a couple of dimensions to our role and focus in the geospatial ecosystem. In terms of a base technology provider, we see ourselves going forward as a leader in GNSS. In laser and inertial navigation systems, Trimble is again a leader. From capability and base technology standpoint, we see ourselves as a leader in this industry and we want to see that continuing. In another dimension, we see ourselves as a solutions provider — we add value beyond the base technology and three-dimensional positioning. And on a slighter basis, we see ourselves giving the fundamental position data an added value to provide context. We envision becoming a provider of ERP systems or systems for the executives and field workers.
In addition, we see ourselves as not only continuing as a leader in terms of base technologies, but also in another way, on an industry by industry basis — taking and collecting a more comprehensive view of the work process — empowering field workers and providing for solutions which conversely involve more geospatial reference beyond the XYZ in an axis. By adding an information context to the XYZ, we can enable industries.
There should not be a barrier between the field and office. So, it’s more about enabling and integrating the field worker with the enterprise.
You talk about democratising GIS. What are your views on crowd sourcing data?
Trimble had one encounter with what you call crowd sourcing. In Mexico, we invited people to use their cellphones and take pictures, log the positions and upload into a database. So in some sense, you are creating democratic GIS. Of course, there wasn’t really any data integrity.
When it’s about enterprises, I think enhancing thousands of field workers, giving them a list of 10 things and asking them to document it if they notice any of those and send it to the database is not crowd sourcing.
The days of sourcing data only from a designated few are passé. But quality data coming from a large number of sources also needs to be sorted and validated. It’s a very complex and difficult subject. If I was in a city planning office and I wanted to know where all my potholes were, or non-functional traffic signals were or where my broken traffic signs were, crowd-sourcing could help by taking a picture and sending it back to the office. There will be a lot of pressure on both — democratisation of data collection and providing more access. It’s a confusing environment and many organisations will need time to figure it out.
How do you differentiate between qualitative democratisation of data and crowd sourcing?
If I were an enterprise, I would want qualified datasets for my mission-critical activities where I need absolute integrity of data. But there is no reason why there cannot be more qualitative data augments. So the answer has to be given by the enterprise. I think for certain applications where I need absolute integrity of data, I need to know from where it comes, I need to understand various aspects of data from the original source. So, if a large multinational construction company wants to use data, it has to be pure, with integrity and quality.
But then I may also encourage my employees to look for other elements of the process and log them. If they have an accuracy of within 5 metres, it is probably good enough. If they can characterise it to perfection that might be okay as long as I have something that trips me into taking a remedial action. So I don’t think there is a clean answer. But I don’t think it will turn out to be enterprises lowering their quality standards.
If you had to pick up one most promising industry where Trimble is going to make a difference, what would that be?
Construction, real estate, energy, utility and environment are our core areas. We create full-length solutions for the industry, not just in the construction phase but also in the maintenance phase.
Agriculture is another industry we are focusing on. It is a vital element in every society and it’s not becoming an easier problem. But much of that can be solved with precision measurement and control. For fertilising or bordering the field, you need to focus on precision because it is no longer about planting in a box. Your care revolves around that knowledge of where the seed is planted and where the plant is going to grow, why water the ground outside the system, whether fertiliser is falling onto the ground and polluting the nearby river. In 1999 when I came to Trimble, agriculture was less than a $10-million business. Now, it is more than hundreds of millions of dollars.
A few months ago, we introduced a handheld device that could help determine if a plant was healthy and how much fertiliser it needed. We are selling this device in the developed markets and also thinking about Africa and India in terms of small-scale farms. A handheld device can connect to big data — the ability to take a picture to determine the colour of the plant and send it back to the central location, from where it goes into the database. Soon, a real-time answer comes back to the farmer, advising him about how much fertiliser or insecticide he should put on that plant. So there is huge potential in agriculture but the real estate industry is our favourite.
Every technology goes through this process, where, from being an enabling technology, it becomes a part of productivity. How do you see geospatial industry faring on that ground?
Geospatial technology applies to a number of different industries. At Trimble, we have attempted to define the universe as a construction and agriculture universe, and I think that’s where geospatial capability can have a relatively profound effect.
I think it is still early days for most. Even in the construction industry, where we have been a participant for more than 15-20 years, it’s still a very early stage. More and more contractors are saying they need to use technology to stay competitive. Our roles change from industry to industry in terms of what a geospatial professional’s role would be in that industry.
As the CEO of a large geospatial company providing end-to-end solutions, what according to you is the value proposition of this industry?
Value is not price. The lowest price is not necessarily the highest value proposition. So what do we sell beyond price? It starts with quality and reliability. It also relates to the view that we see ourselves as a solutions company. A product company is always focused on something that is in a box, shipping and hoping that the phone never rings. But for us, if the customer has an issue, we need to look into it. We have a 10-year relationship with a company, not one-off transactions. The value proposition lies in not treating the XYZ position as a plain commodity. Putting that XYZ knowledge into your organisation, making it relevant for your use in terms of what other source of value it can create for the customer is the real task. I believe it’s a matter of looking at the user’s needs, establishing a contact and then deciding how we take this capability in trying to solve his problems.
As the leader of a $2-billion company, what do you think is the awareness about geospatial technology among other industries?
The easy answer would be ‘not much’. At the CEO level, there is limited understanding. However, there is probably a lot of appreciation for the impact the technology has had on their organisation.
When contractors are asked to design a new building or a bridge, the fundamental process of design is to reach back to the prior start point with closest approximation. Would a contractor or a farmer talk about geospatially enabled technology? Probably not. The vocabulary may not be there but I think there is a growing appreciation for the technology — of the accuracy and positions.
I do not think it is likely anytime soon that geospatial technology will be featured in a paragraph by CEOs around the world. But they understand that there is something called geospatial-centric solution. There is a growing appreciation that technology is the key point of differentiations.