How early GPS gadget maker Garmin mapped out success against the likes of Apple and Google
For all the time, effort, and money companies plow into the endless hunt for innovation, many of their best ideas come from within. A Procter & Gamble chemist in the 19th century figured a bar of soap that floated in the tub would enliven the bathing experience, and Ivory Soap was born. In the 1970s, a 3M employee, craving a better way to mark pages in his hymnal, modified an uncommercialized adhesive invented a few years earlier by a colleague; Post-it Notes became an iconic 3M success story. And at Garmin, a suburban Kansas City maker of navigational devices for boats, planes, and cars, a group of running-obsessed employees applied their know-how to their hobby—a move that revitalized the company when it badly needed a win.
It was the early 2000s, and Garmin had grown from its niche of making consumer devices utilizing the government’s global positioning system, or GPS, technology. Together with rival TomTom, Garmin dominated the market for in-car navigational devices, game-changing gadgets that marked the beginning of the end for foldable maps. GPS for personal fitness wasn’t popular before the Garmin jogging klatch began noodling. “They said, ‘We do all these GPS things. Why don’t we have a GPS product for runners?’ ” recalls Cliff Pemble, Garmin’s CEO and a 31-year company veteran.
In 2003, Garmin offered its first fitness wearable, the Forerunner 101. What began as an employee side project has come to define the company nearly two decades on—especially after a lethal technology combination of the iPhone and Google Maps laid waste to Garmin’s core automotive business. Today, Garmin is a rare example of a company far from Silicon Valley that not only took a punch from the tech behemoths but has thrived in competition with them. Watches and other wearables made up about a third of Garmin’s $3.8 billion in revenue last year. It sports a $15 billion valuation, making it a minnow compared with rivals Apple, Alphabet, and Samsung—but a substantial player in its own right.
How Garmin withstood the onslaught is a case study of a company sticking to what it knows best—in its case, products pegged to one key technology, GPS devices—and proof that not all innovation comes from a sun-kissed strip of land in Northern California. Indeed, Garmin’s aw-shucks Midwestern nature and its stick-to-itiveness in the face of adversity go a long way in explaining its staying power. It’s hard to imagine the company’s mega-cap rivals acknowledging, for example, that they more or less lucked into what would become a killer app. “What we probably underestimated was the importance of the wearables,” says Pemble. “We were dabbling with it way back when. But nobody could foresee that it would become the category that it is today.”
The big tech companies remain an existential threat for Garmin, of course. Apple and Samsung are the two biggest players in smartwatches, and Alphabet’s Google is in the process of buying rival Fitbit. “Selling the watch to the masses requires a different product and a whole different mindset than what [Garmin is] doing today,” says Stephen Baker, an analyst with market researcher NPD Group. “There aren’t a lot of instances where companies have been able or even tried to make those kinds of leaps.”
Garmin didn’t set out to conquer mass markets, focusing instead from the beginning on niche products for enthusiasts like boaters, pilots, and off-roaders. Its founders, Gary Burrell and Min Kao, were engineers at Allied Signal who started the company in 1989, shortly after GPS became available for civilian use. (The muscular-sounding Garmin is simply a mashup of the duo’s given names.) Affordable navigation systems were a revelation for hobbyists, giving them access to the same technology previously reserved for users of sophisticated military equipment.
The company released its first product, the unglamorously named GPS 100, in 1991. It targeted small boats and planes, and it was so popular that by the end of the year, Garmin was profitable. Seven years later it would introduce the product that didn’t just put Garmin on the map, it put digital maps in people’s cars. In-car navigation “was a category that we pioneered,” says Pemble, who is 54 and was Garmin’s sixth employee. “That gave us rocket fuel. It made Garmin a consumer brand.”
Along the way, Garmin played to its Midwestern strengths of stressing a corporate culture based on hard work and humility. “They knew how to get the best out of people,” says Josef Reed, a former systems engineer often tasked with briefing senior management. “They’d give praise and critiques at the same time.” Says Stephanie Mountain, a former Garmin marketing analyst: “They were constantly pushing people to their limits.”
The company had permission to push, in part, because it was so tight-knit. Burrell, a devout Christian who died last year at age 81, referred to himself as a “servant leader,” and his presence was felt throughout the company. “He literally knew my wife and kids’ names,” says Rick Evans, who worked for Garmin from 2000 to 2016. “And he knew that about everybody.”
Such tightness would come in handy when times got tough in the late 2000s. The company was soaring in 2007, when it had some 40 different in-car GPS models for cars, trucks, and motorcycles. The automotive segment had become a $2.3 billion business, more than doubling its revenue from the previous year and representing nearly 74% of overall sales. Then came the iPhone, which Apple released in the middle of that year with Google Maps loaded on all phones. The first version of the iPhone lacked a GPS chip, relying instead on more rudimentary technology to pinpoint locations. But within a year, Apple incorporated GPS, making its phone a multifaceted replacement for Garmin’s stand-alone devices.
Garmin’s business took an almost immediate hit, and its problems were exacerbated by the financial crisis. In 2008, the stock price collapsed, falling below $16 a share from highs of more than $120 in 2007. As Wall Street had feared, revenue declined by $500 million in 2009, to $3 billion. Though Garmin remained solidly profitable—it earned $704 million that year—investors were rattled. “Back then, [investors] would come in and say, ‘They’re going to get put out of business,’ ” says Ron Epstein, a Bank of America analyst who has covered Garmin for 15 years.
Kao, who remains Garmin’s executive chairman and was CEO at the time, kept calm and focused investments on the nonautomotive parts of the company’s business. Over the next decade, for example, Garmin bought more than 25 companies around the world, mostly distributors of navigation equipment that broadened its geographic reach. It also bought access to weather information as well as contactless payments technology it would embed in its wearable devices. Pemble, the CEO, says Garmin never lost sight of the need to grow. “The most efficient thing to try is to double down on growth and opportunity,” he says. “Saving money and cutting expenses never really works.”
Garmin’s product innovation was hardly flawless. In 2008 it debuted the Nüvifone, its own GPS-enabled smartphone that eventually used Google’s Android mobile operating system. Expensive for its day at $300 retail, the phone had a touch screen that wasn’t very responsive and often confused swiping and tapping. Its camera was low-quality and didn’t include video. And Garmin charged users $6 to check the weather, traffic, and local events—things Apple and other phonemakers offered for free. The company exited the smartphone business after two and a half years.
Garmin proved to be at its best when it plodded along at product development, the antithesis of Silicon Valley’s mantra of moving fast and breaking things. It helped that the company made products for regulated industries, particularly aviation, where precision is more important than time-to-market. “I had worked for Apple and seen how quickly they could move,” says Matt Ronge, a former Garmin software engineer. “Seeing the pace at which things moved at Garmin was very different.”
Nowhere was the company’s slow progress more apparent than in fitness watches, which gradually became favorites of hard-core athletes eager to use GPS to pinpoint the accuracy of their events. “Having the GPS is so important,” says Ray Maker, a runner and fitness gadget blogger, who was an early convert to Garmin’s Forerunner line. “Your heart and legs don’t really know what pace you’re doing.” He says Garmin’s strength is its multiple features, which may also be intimidating for casual athletes.
Garmin’s fitness segment, which extends beyond watches and into devices like a baseball bat–swing sensor and indoor smart bike trainers, was the company’s top revenue generator last year. That helped the company surpass its 2008 revenue mark of $3.5 billion for the first time, sending its shares soaring as well. While the automotive segment has shriveled relative to its fitness offerings, its aviation line has become one of its fastest growers.
Will Power, an analyst with brokerage Robert W. Baird, credits Garmin’s “blocking and tackling” for its staying power. “They build really strong defensive positions in areas that, by and large, have less competition.”
In a way, Garmin never stopped being a niche player, albeit a multibillion-dollar one. “What we like about Garmin is the way they position deep expertise around the customer group they’re serving,” says Edzard Overbeek, CEO of HERE Technologies, a mapping company that provides location data to Garmin. “The team that is responsible for their cycling watch are professional cyclers. The aviation team are pilots. The secret sauce is understanding what the expert user wants.”
A company can go only so far catering to enthusiasts, of course, and at the CES gadgets show in January, Garmin showed off its mass-market aspirations around fitness products—displaying more than 30 watches and wearables ranging from a $70 kids’ fitness tracker to a $2,500 Marq Driver watch that boasts a stylish look and multiple motor-sport functions. In all, Garmin offers about 90 wearable products made for runners, swimmers, boaters, pilots, and people who just want to track their steps.
“The biggest challenge is getting that mass market to understand we have the perfect watch for them,” says Susan Lyman, the company’s top marketing executive. “It kills me when I see people walking their first 5K or running with nothing on their wrist.”
Going after every segment inevitably means challenging the beasts of Silicon Valley, the same companies that knocked Garmin off its perch a decade ago. The Apple Watch, mocked as a less-than-innovative offering when it debuted in 2014, now commands 38% of the smartwatch market. Fitbit, soon to be part of Google, has 7.5% share. All of Garmin’s watches combined add up to just under 6%.
Garmin, ever the good Midwesterner, plays down the necessity of beating the unbeatable competitor. “We’re not trying to out-Apple Apple,” says Pemble. “We’re trying to be Garmin. We only focus on what we can control. So we prepare our business and structure our business in a way that best suits it for the next crisis.” After all, you don’t need a fancy navigational device to know that crisis eventually will arrive.
A version of this article appears in the April 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Garmin Goes the Distance.”
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