Zebra Technologies (ZBRA) isn’t a dating app for zoo lovers — it’s a company camouflaged like a crocodile in the cattails of commerce. And the Zebra CEO is one of the most successful high-tech corporate leaders to stay out of the limelight.
The company’s headquarters isn’t in Silicon Valley or New York. It’s in the quiet village of Lincolnshire, Ill. From there, Zebra serves thousands of business customers in more than 100 countries. While its clients are corporate, Zebra touches millions of lives each day. It makes barcode scanners and other product tracking devices used by giant companies like Target (TGT).
“One might say we are hiding in plain sight,” says Anders Gustafsson, a 61-year-old Swede, who has been the company’s CEO since September 2007 and presiding over an epic run that turned investors into millionaires.
Zebra CEO: Bring Uniqueness To Your Job
At first, Gustafsson, who has a Harvard MBA, looks to fit the CEO mold. But a closer look shows his uniqueness.
He also holds an electrical engineering master’s degree from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. And he instilled a corporate culture he imported partly from his hometown of Gothenburg. Gothenburg is Sweden’s second-largest city and birthplace of Volvo. Swedes have a tradition of cooperation and consensus, he says.
Gustafsson stresses his role is part of a larger team. Until now, Gustafsson hadn’t been profiled by a major publication. Wikipedia has yet to post an article about him. But he’s grown the company into an S&P 500 powerhouse. The stock is up more than 1,200% since he took over in September 2007 vs. 193% for the S&P 500. It’s the 12th best stock in the S&P 500 in the past five years — a gain that would have made you a millionaire.
CEOs at large corporations typically last five years. He almost tripled that and is going strong. Over his 14 years as Zebra CEO, the company has marched into the nooks and crannies of day-to-day lives with its ruggedized mobile computers. Zebra’s handhelds look like cell phones. But they’re much more. Goods ordered on the Internet are likely delivered by people carrying them.
Box store clerks direct customers to the exact aisle, or let them know if an item is out of stock. Clothing stores sort barcoded jeans back into piles by size. Food is tracked from farm to store where groceries are scanned. Airline luggage tags, ski passes, and drivers’ licenses are printed by Zebra equipment.
Zebra CEO: Put Your Products To Work
Gustafsson’s team approach isn’t just a slogan, either. He used the word “we” 46 times as he told Investor’s Business Daily his secrets of Zebra’s success, which he says are mostly cultural. Gustafsson calls the culture “Zebra Nation.” The company welcomes the “authentic selves” of employees with “minimal politics,” he said.
The Zebra CEO says he’s proud the company has risen to the challenges brought on by the pandemic. And it continues to focus in a logistical world turned on its head. To that end, company asks employees to “Be here now.” That means don’t get distracted by text messages in meetings. At Zebra, it’s unacceptable to whine and finger point about problems. Rather, employees are expected to do what they can to make things better.
“We anticipate needs to drive greater efficiencies,” Gustafsson said.
Always Look For Improvement
The world is so saturated with barcodes it might seem like Zebra’s growth will stagnate. But that’s not true, says Gustafsson. The company is moving swiftly into software and machine vision as well as robotics.
A convenience store in the boondocks might sell a case of cola each hour. Zebra’s technology detects when sales are down and sends a computer-generated message to the store clerk. That clerk might discover that “somebody spilled something on the floor and left a puddle,” said Jeff Schmitz, Zebra’s chief human resources and marketing officer.
The two have worked together at three different companies over 20 years. They became weekend golfing companions when Gustafsson took up the game in his 50s. Schmitz sees Gustafsson as patiently competitive in a frustrating sport, and with a hunger to improve.
Gustafsson asks for feedback when he makes a bad shot, where others want to stew, Schmitz says. “He wants to get better, he wants a good score, he wants to beat me,” he said.
“On the job he lets things germinate, he lets ideas percolate and get off the ground rather than crushing ideas early,” Schmitz said. He wants to know how people are perceiving his decisions. “He’s always triangulating, getting data.”
Golf is Gustafsson’s pastime other than spending time with friends and Donna, his wife of 28 years. He has no children; he has two sisters with families and his mother in Sweden.
Zebra CEO: Focus On The Work, Not The Kudos
Why does the Zebra CEO intentionally fly under the radar? Gustafsson says the company has no use for “prime time promotions.” The right people have no choice but to know about Zebra, he says.
In 2014, Zebra found a goldmine of free publicity that persists to this day. It partnered with the NFL to place radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips with the diameter of a nickel under the shoulder pads of players. Soon the ball and everything that moves on a football field were tagged with RFID devices.
Zebra’s sports tracking system detects speed — categorized in various zones including acceleration and deceleration, distance, and proximity between players and the ball. Teams still study game film, but now with the information gleaned from Zebra’s system, they can investigate, for instance, if a running back or wide receiver is tiring due to activity. Play calls and substitutions are adjusted accordingly.
While the work with the NFL is a small part of Zebra’s business, the strategy of partnering with the globally recognized league delivered big brand awareness. But it also serves a shining example of the company’s capabilities. It also helps employees explain the company at neighborhood parties. If Zebra can track 22 players running at 20 mph, surely it can track a package from pallet to doorstep in real time, or make sure the right blood type is delivered to hospital patients.
Trust Your Gut Like The Zebra CEO
Gustafsson seeks new leadership perspectives and filters them with his intuition. Lately, he focused on diversity and inclusion. He’s collaborating with Frans Johansson, CEO of The Medici Group and author of “The Medici Effect.”
“Anders is outstanding at getting his leaders aligned towards a common goal,” Johansson said. “He leads with curiosity, and is willing to question and learn.”
Gustafsson’s greatest leadership success, Schmitz says, came after the 2014: The $3.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Solutions’ Enterprise Business that Gustafsson spearheaded. “It was an enormous risk, an enormous risk,” Schmitz said.
Zebra had 2,500 employees at the time, while Motorola Solutions Enterprise’s business had 4,500. Zebra swallowed an elephant. And Gustafsson spent his energy instilling five core values to mold a new culture: Innovation, integrity, accountability, agility and teamwork.
Smart, successful acquisitions have become a specialty of Gustafsson’s, who took over when Zebra was little more than a maker of industrial printers. Annual revenue in 2007 was $868 million. The company’s revenue for the 12 months ending June 30 was $5.16 billion, a roughly 15% annualized increase.
Evolve Your Leadership
Gustafsson says his leadership style has evolved. And he wants employees to take calculated risks that push them outside their comfort zone.
His most important rule of life: “Put yourself in a position to take some bold but measured risks and see them pay off. We are a community of change makers, innovators and doers,” he said.
Zebra CEO Anders Gustafsson’s Keys
- CEO of Zebra Technologies since September 2007, turning it into an S&P 500 company worth more than $26 billion.
- Overcame: Finding ways to expand the company’s footprint beyond just barcodes.
- Lesson: “I have learned that even during tough times, companies must advance their long-term strategy and there is a payoff to sticking with it.”
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