Garmin helps people all over the world travel home (and beyond)
Story by Amber Fraley
Global tech-giant Garmin, Ltd., maker of GPS systems, is about to get even bigger. The company is a few months into a two-year expansion at its headquarters in Olathe, Kansas, that will add 720,000 square feet of manufacturing and distribution, with the potential to add an additional 2,700 jobs.
“We are really bursting at the seams,” says Ted Gartner, Garmin’s director of corporate communications. “It will be nice to have a little more elbow room once this expansion is finally completed.” Garmin has dual headquarters in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, and Olathe, but its roots are all Kansas (it was founded in Lenexa). The expansion will nearly double the size of Garmin’s Olathe campus, which already boasts a footprint of a million square feet and approximately 3,000 employees. “The expansion is as good of an indicator of a healthy company as anything, and we’re really excited about it,” says Gartner. “Mainly because it shows that our executives see a bright future for our company.”
Garmin is one of the original leaders in GPS technology. These days, it divides its tech products into the outdoor, fitness, marine, aviation, and auto categories. While all of the categories are performing well, one is particularly hot at the moment. “Without a doubt, our fastest-growing segment right now is the wearables category,” says Gartner.
Wearables are defined as smart watches and any GPS equipment worn on the body.
“Wearables are big throughout the industry, and though there are a few big players such as Apple and a few others, Garmin has taken a unique approach where our smart watches and wearables are purpose-built,” says Gartner.
Garmin manufactures a variety of wearables specially tailored to fit the needs of runners, hikers, pilots, swimmers, boaters and even golfers. Depending on the activity, Garmin’s wearables have the ability to track the distance a person covers, measure heart rate, or even program a flight path for a personal aircraft.
“Wearables didn’t even exist ten years ago,” says Gartner. “I’d like to think Garmin can take partial credit for growing that part of the industry.”
But it’s one of Garmin’s original categories of development, general aviation, that has its home firmly in Olathe. “It continues to be a healthy business for us,” says Gartner. “Anything from Garmin that goes in an airplane is made on our Olathe campus. Obviously, Kansas has a rich heritage of general aviation, so a lot of the products that are manufactured here in Olathe have a very short voyage down to Wichita, where they’re put in avionics cockpits for Cessna, or Piper, or Beechcraft, or any one of the general aviation manufacturers down there.”
The Olathe facility is also where the largest part of Garmin’s research and development takes place. Garmin, Gartner explains, is a vertically integrated company. “What that means is we control everything in-house. We have our own engineering staff, we have our own manufacturing facilities and our own support staff. When so many companies are outsourcing their product support lines to India or overseas, when people call Garmin for assistance, typically they’re going to land [at the call center] right here in Olathe, Kansas, and talk to someone who’s a Kansan, which is pretty unique.”
Vertical integration, says Gartner, also allows Garmin to have control of their product from the time it’s manufactured, to technical support once it’s sold to the end customer. “For example, we know if we get a big order in, we can tell our factories to stop everything and start building a particular product for a large order. Or if we detect some issue from customers calling with similar problems, our product support staff can alert our engineers, who are located just minutes away, and we’re able to troubleshoot those issues very quickly.”
Being centrally located in a state with a high-quality highway system is also a plus for Garmin. “All of our products that are sold in North America go through our Olathe warehouse. We’ve got great distribution here with I-35 North-South and I-70-East-West. It makes for a great place to distribute our products.”
Kansans in the Heart
Garmin was co-founded by Dr. Min Kao and Gary Burrell, who met while working together at the King Radio Corporation in Olathe in the 1980s. The name “Garmin” is a mash-up of their first names, Gary and Min.
“These two gentlemen saw the potential in GPS not just for the military, but for consumer applications, so they branched out on their own and formed Garmin,” says Ted Gartner, director of corporate communications at Garmin.
Burrell was born in Stillwell, Kansas, and earned a degree in electrical engineering from Wichita State University. He went on to earn his master’s in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Kao is originally from Taiwan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from National Taiwan University. He earned his master’s and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee. They formed Garmin in Lenexa and then shortly thereafter moved it to Olathe.
“If they’re not both Kansans by birth,” says Gartner, “they’re certainly Kansans in heart.”