Transformation and Change: Interview with Trimble CEO and President Steve Berglund

by Gavin Schrock, PLS

Once upon a time there was this company that made GPS boxes, and then ...

Yes, there have been changes at Trimble. The changes could be expressed in terms of the size of the company, market performance, types of products, and expanding markets; these are visible to core end-user constituencies such as surveying. There has also been a tremendous amount of transformation at Trimble and in the markets the company serves. Such transformation may be less visible, but in some ways it’s more dramatic than the visible changes.

As CEO of Trimble since 1999 (a year before its acquisition of Spectra Precision Group, where he had also served as CEO), Steve Berglund has been at Trimble’s helm during the most transformational period since the company was founded in 1978. In his keynote speech at the Trimble Dimensions 2012 conference in November (their largest conference to date), Berglund intimated that even he has been surprised at just how much of a transformation has taken place, noting the company model had undergone substantial changes as recently as 2007. To illustrate this transformation in his keynote, Berglund showed a list of the company’s more than 60 acquisitions, noting that each made strategic business sense—each sought to fulfill the needs of their client markets that are undergoing their own transformation to data-rich environments.

Berglund took time from his hectic conference schedule to share some of his thoughts on change and transformation in Trimble and in our industry. I had been told by several Trimble employees that the soft-spoken Berglund does not so much push his ideas on people directly as he leads them to see his point of view. Indeed, the interview jumped off the canned Q&A track to a broader conversation with a very interesting fellow and his insights into aspects of a company we don’t readily see from the outside.

PSM: We’ve all experienced a lot of changes, not all positive. In light of the economic challenges of recent years, do you think Trimble would have done anything different had the economic downturn not happened?

SB: I don’t think so. Of course it might have been easier, particularly during 2008 and 2009 through the end of 2010; there has been uncertainty in specific realms, especially in elements of the construction industry, some parts of which have not fully recovered. But strategically, in terms of direction, I don’t know that we would have done anything different. During the entire period, we have had the relative luxury of comparatively strong financial results. We have not had to cut and paste strategies to suit the circumstances of the moment; we have been able to keep an eye on the long game.

PSM: During the same period there seems to have been what some characterize as a boom in the geospatial world or, at the very least, a dramatic increase in the amount of positioning going on.

SB: By our definitional view of the future that there are orders-of-magnitude increases in measuring going on, I guess the question is: Who is doing it, to what accuracy, to what purpose, and who controls the data? For a lot of applications there will be varying standards, ranging from certified centimeter [precision] guaranteed by [a qualified person] to something that looks a bit more like “crowd sourcing” for a lot of purposes.

And I think that, by definition, just about every piece of data will have some kind of georeferenced tag associated with it. This might not even involve a GIS or surveying professional; it may be as simple as where even a cell [phone] signal can be generating some piece of information and here is the lat/long or whatever associated with it, so … the amount of measurements taking place and the amount of georeferenced information existing in the world will be greater by orders of magnitude than they are today.

But again—and this is very important relative to survey-grade versus “good enough”—there are a whole lot of things that need to be sorted out and complexity to be resolved. It might not seem like a boom in measuring  to our industry, equipment manufacturers, and perhaps the surveying industry, but the fact that there is all of this other measuring going on does impact and provide opportunities for all of us.

PSM: You mentioned things that would need to be sorted out. There are some in our industry who say that attaining higher precisions is becoming much easier and less expensive and that our work will become more of a matter of gauging “positional relevancy” and making sure this is in the right hands. Is that what you had in mind?

SB: Certainly there are some instances where there may not be a rational reason to attain a centimeter, but it is inevitable; centimeters do become addictive. In concept, there is a new role that needs to be defined; it may have less to do with the [acts] of measurement and more to do with the data quality assurance; this includes the positional component. There is a managerial role that needs to be filled. There are lots of different sensors, and lots of different sources of geospatial information, so [the considerations of] what is required and what are the [appropriate] applications pose a management problem that is emerging if not already here.

Part of our missionary work relative to the surveying professionals and geospatial types is to [encourage] you to sit back and reflect on what kind of role you will seek in the future. It could be staying in a comfort zone of data collection with an emphasis on precision, or there is this whole emerging category that could also include sorting out complex situations where there are so many sources of [geospatial information] and so many applications, as well as making sure the right data gets into the right hands at the right time.

Again, there is this proliferation of measurement [-capable] devices, from dedicated handsets to cell phones, and it is unlikely that anyone will be able to control all of this. There will be a certain level of geospatial democratization occurring, whether this is called “crowd sourcing” or something else; even low-precision data can be valuable information at some level. Surveyors can have a really valuable role not only in the certified and assured measurements but also in sorting out the positional relevancy of the other geospatial information.

PSM: There is a general feeling that, in many other countries, there is less of a wall between surveying and GIS, and indeed many of the GIS’s are overseen by surveyors for their expertise in positioning and data “forensics” and assurance. Are there examples in your other markets of how such considerations of data and positional assurance are being applied?

SB: One place where we are relatively well exposed is on the construction site where there are situations like machine control operations, which are data rich, and in some ways doing the work where there would have traditionally been discrete applications of measurement, like by surveyors setting stakes at a specific place and at a specific time. The machine can perfom self-staking, so here is a situation where potentially every piece of moving equipment is working from and generating pieces of information in real-time. The challenge to the contactor who employs defined measurement tasks and professionals at those discrete points is to maintain that same level of continuity and assurance throughout the whole process.

How to do that and manage all of that data at the same time? The first choice should be to turn to the direction of the surveying or geospatial professional and say, “You are the expert in 3D positional data; please help me sort out all of this and make that information productive for me.”  Another opportunity!
PSM: These points in the process of positional liability—they are spread out over the whole data cycle, from pre-design survey to the 3D model, inspection, and as-builts. How does a contractor maintain that kind of control?

SB: We are centering much if not all of our strategy in the engineering and construction space on the concept of the “constructible model.” It’s a rich model that goes beyond the traditional aspects of 3D to the sort of 5D concepts that include scheduling and budget, so fundamentally things have changed/transformed in our markets like construction, agriculture, surveying, and so on. Buried deep in all of this, keeping with the example of construction, is the opportunity for the contractor to avoid rework that is often positional in nature. There is this massive opportunity here to “get it right” by being able to make sense of all of this real-time data and check how well the work is adhering to the design, schedule, and budget in real-time.

Our acquisition of SketchUp is one example of how we are contributing to this concept of the “constructible model.” Visualization is such a powerful planning and feedback mechanism; to be able to do this so rapidly and richly throughout the whole construction process was what we had in mind. To be able to contemplate the trajectory of the project from the very first SketchUp model through to the end of construction—this is something we will definitely be developing further.

PSM: This “transform” con-cept …?

SB: In 1999 when I first took over as CEO, the term “transformation” was in our annual report. Perhaps we weren’t really sure at the time exactly what that would look like, but I believe that every Trimble employee, in addition to being committed to having a strong company, believes that we are on a transformational mission. Our vertical markets, surveying included, certainly are transforming, and we are committed to continuing to provide the equipment and solutions that enable such transformations.

PSM: To illustrate just what a transformation might look like—because I still have trouble grasping the concept beyond what might sound like a buzz word on the surface—could you give us an example of the coolest thing or product that you have seen in the past year that enables such transformations?

SB: This might be out of the surveying and construction realms, but it is an example about sensors that can enrich the data and in some ways completely transform. A couple of months ago, we announced an agricultural product, a little handheld sensor that you can point at a plant and be able to tell its nitrogen health.  It is inexpensive, around $400. We can sell a lot of them in big farm country [the U.S. Midwest and other agriculturally rich parts of the world]. But if you start to think of Africa or India where small-scale subsistence farming is prevalent and the economic realities are even stronger there in that the highest-cost item to the small farmer is fertilizer, then you can start to conceptualize a farmer of 20 acres who can point a handheld at his plants and be able to determine just how much fertilizer may be needed.

You could take it further in concept that maybe such data could be transmitted wirelessly a thousand miles away to some database, and then here is an answer to just how much of what type of fertilizer [is needed, its] availability, markets… I’m getting a little carried away into future ideas, but in terms of this subject of transformation, such things truly become transformational. These are the same kinds of things we are doing in developing and improving equipment, sensors, and solutions for surveying, construction, and our other markets.

View Video of Berglund's Dimensions keynote address here

Gavin Schrock, PLS is a surveyor, technology writer, and operator of an RTN. He’s also associate editor of this magazine.

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