Clint Betts

Rob, thank you so much for coming on the show. It means a lot. You're the CEO of Trimble Navigations. Can you tell us about Trimble, how it got started and how you came to be the CEO?

Rob Painter

Let's go back to a year called 1978 because that's when Charlie Trimble founded the company in a garage in Silicon Valley. The story of the valley and innovation is the story of Trimble. Before getting to 1978, you got to go to 1977. In 1977, Charlie was working at Hewlett Packard. Charlie was interested in a positioning technology called LORAN. Later, Charlie was interested in a technology you might've heard of called GPS. He took that to the company, they weren't interested, and now you have the origin story of Trimble as commercial applications of GPS in its very, very early days. So the origin story of Trimble is deep in positioning and sensing technologies. I think of that as the “where” in the technology stack when precision matters, you want Trimble in industrial applications. Over the years, we've added software content to that. We think about the context in which that positioning technology is used, and that increasingly took us to develop solutions.

So once you start thinking about solutions, you're adding by almost definition software to that hardware. That to us gets the “what” in the technology stack. And more and more we look at the “why,” what problems are our customers trying to solve? So we're bringing products and services that connect the physical and the digital worlds. We have a history and field technologies. We have a current presence in reality and software capabilities. In fact, the majority of the company today is software. And we're applying these to large markets such as construction, agriculture and transportation, connecting work in the field with the office, connecting the physical and digital worlds, connecting the hardware and software of Trimble. So today, 46 years later, we're a publicly listed company. We're in the S&P 500 and these days we're headquartered in the great state of Colorado, but we're doing business in over 150 different countries. So quite a progression and ride over the last 46 years.

Clint Betts

That's incredible. Tell us, I'm interested in how it's used, bridging the actual world, the physical world with the digital world, in particular around agriculture. That might be a good example for you to just explain how technology bridges those two things.

Rob Painter

So with that origin story and positioning technologies and GPS namely, we were in a survey business and we're still in survey today. It was a very, very important market for us. And we started thinking about our survey technology and the positioning technology and saying, well, what if you could put that on the tractor on a farm? What would high precision GPS mean? Well, you know what it means? It means that you can put the seed in the exact right place. So think within one to two centimeter level of accuracy. When you're putting the seed in the exact right place, you optimize yield. If you plant too close together, you're fighting for nutrients and you don't get as much yield. If you plant too far apart by definition you're not getting the optimal yield.

Yield means revenue for a farmer. GPS guidance has really become almost a de facto standard of how farming is done. So we literally invented the precision agriculture market, did the same thing in heavy construction industries, putting that high precision GPS on dozers, motor graders, and excavators. So you have the high precision GPS, we control the hydraulics and then we have a digital model. So if we're talking about the work in the physical world, it's guided by a digital model. It's guided by a digital prescription. That digital prescription could tell you where to put the seed on a farm, that digital prescription could tell you what's the weaker part of the soil or the stronger part of the soil, and then let's variably rate apply accordingly. And what you do when you do that is you're optimizing the placement of the fertilizer or the herbicide, the pesticide, and when you optimize that, you're actually bringing down the amount that's applied.
You're saving the farmers money. So you're simultaneously helping the top line and the bottom line. Put that into a bigger context. We're going to need 69% more calories to feed the world's growing population by the year 2050, and we're going to need to do so on the same amount of arable land with a lot of climate change happening. How are we going to do that? Technology, my friend. That's how we're going to do it.

Clint Betts

So what you're doing is critical on that front.

Rob Painter

Well, we say that the “why” of Trimble is feed the world, move the world, build the world. The mission of Trimble is to transform the way the world works. We don't say make the world work a little bit better. We have a mission of transformation because we're serving industries that are in need of digital transformation. That's the compelling why and the purpose within agriculture. You look at construction, it's a market where 80% of projects are late and 40% are over budget. The cost of that lack of productivity is about 1.6 trillion a year. That's the GDP of Canada. Technology can help improve that. We looked at the world we have in transportation. We've all been living through supply chain challenges these last few years in North America. One of the biggest issues is simply that of driver turnover. Take a guess, Clint. What percent of drivers leave trucking companies every year? Think about a workforce. What percent attrition do you think they have every year?

Clint Betts

Man, 20% would be high.

Rob Painter

It would be high. It's 86%.

Clint Betts

What?

Rob Painter

A stunning number. So think about losing your entire workforce every single year, and one of the reasons that they lose the workforce like that is it's a tough job. And when you can help drivers get paid and have better routes, more efficient routes, you can drive driver retention up. We save drivers an average of 20 minutes a day. We don't have a driver shortage in North America. 20 minutes, technology can be applied to help this.

Clint Betts

How does artificial intelligence play a role in how you're thinking and developing your technologies and your solutions? I'm sure when you hear artificial intelligence like a lot of people who have been in software for a long time, be like, this is nothing new. Large language models are a thing, but the rapid development of it is new and it is being talked about so publicly in every sector of the economy and every part of the world is new. How are you thinking about it at Trimble and even just generally, how's it going to change things?

Rob Painter

I've listened to a number of your guests on your podcast talk about artificial intelligence. Here's what I'd want to add to it: I think there's a garbage in, garbage out topic. The ability to have domain specific data we think is critical to the quality of the output of artificial intelligence.

So if you take one of the large language models and there's a number of them now, they're more or less scraping the internet to create those LLMs. So in theory, or maybe in principle, maybe in reality, it's the same data set that everybody potentially has access to. Now if you think about applying it into the markets we're serving, agriculture, transportation, construction, we think the knowledge of the specific vertical market matters. So to give you some data points behind that, in construction, we manage a Trimble over a trillion dollars of projects through our systems.

We have tens of millions of users of our software, and hundreds of thousands of instruments and machines in the real world, the physical world, utilize our technology today. And transportation, over $60 billion of freight moves through our systems today. In agriculture, over 180 million acres of farmland are managed through Trimble technology. There's a profound awareness we have about the work happening in the physical and the digital world in the office, in the field, within the domains that we're serving, we deeply understand the markets that we serve. That data set I think is unique and special. And you're right that AI and ML have been around for a long time. We're no different. We've been working with these things for a long time. Maybe we missed a branding opportunity to be talking about this for a lot of years. I'll give you that one.

I'd say there's a lot that's been happening. I think to your point, there's opportunities for this work to accelerate. I also think about anchoring in the problems that we're trying to solve, the customer problems. So it's not AI for AI's sake. Well, what problems are we trying to solve? So let's go back to that agriculture example. We have a technology that's called selective spraying, and what that enables you to do is see the difference between the weed and the crop, and so you only would spot spray the weed. Your ability to do that can reduce the herbicide usage by 80 to 90%. That's a profoundly positive impact.

And so what's the problem you're trying to solve? Hey, you're trying to have a positive environmental impact in the work and you're trying to save money because farm income is a big deal, that yield minus the input cost equals the profit. We can save money and allow farmers to invest back into their business. Transportation safety is an issue. We have driver facing cameras and these driver facing cameras have AI algorithms that can detect fatigue, driver fatigue, and so where we deploy this around the world, we literally, the KPI is saving lives. That's a pretty good KPI to have.

Clint Betts

That's a cool KPI.

Rob Painter

Through the application of that technology. In a construction market, the construction companies run on very thin margins. So when you can help make them more efficient and when you can help them win more work, that's what the technology's enabling. We have an AI service within our construction ERP system that automates invoice processing, eliminates the double entry, and you think, okay, how big a deal is that really? Well, the sum of that double entry saves literally hundreds of thousands of hours collectively across our customer universe that can be put into more efficient and effective uses. So the applications to me are really profound. We really try to ask ourselves what problem are we trying to solve? Because ultimately the value proposition of Trimble across the markets we serve comes in the form of better, faster, safer, cheaper, greener. That's the thing that our customers are trying to solve. Not cool AI stuff for the sake of cool AI stuff.

Clint Betts

How do you decide with all the industries you're in and everything you're working on every day, how do you personally as the CEO decide where to spend your time each day?

Rob Painter

I love this question. I love asking other CEOs and leaders that I meet about how they spend their time. I think that we are paid by the shareholders to be capital allocators. Capital allocation is time, people, and money and where am I spending my time? I do think about that every once in a while I'll go back and log the calendar, okay, where did I actually spend the time? Because I have an aspirational view of where to spend the time, it's not always true that I'm spending that time and reality to the aspiration. If I had to roughly think about it, I'd like to think about 50% working on the business, 50% working in the business. As you can appreciate the role in, well, any job, but I'd say this role is very dynamic. On any given day, week, month, quarter, year, there's a different topic and depending on the nature of that topic, you need to allocate your time accordingly.

We all lived through COVID, let's say early 2020. Well guess where we were allocating the time was how are we going to actually manage the team and the business through this crisis? We then not too long after, had a trade war and we had to manage, okay, how are we going to go with our supply chain? You had to put more time into that. We've been living in a supply chain constrained and then inflationary environment. That then creates a dynamic that you have to manage through. And so leadership is very, I'd say situational, very dynamic. I'd say at my best, I'm thinking about working on the business and working in the business. Some good advice I got along the way was to ask myself, what are the things that only I can do or only I can work on or that I can uniquely do? At my best I'm spending more time on that.

Clint Betts

How do you define culture in your company? Just as a follow-up to that, how much time are you spending thinking about culture, how to develop it, and in particular, you're such a big company, you've got offices in different locations. I just wonder how you maintain culture throughout the entire company?

Rob Painter

Yeah, so we have an operating system. We call it an operating system at Trimble, just like you'd have an operating system on your phone or on your computer. Our operating system is threefold, it's strategy, people, and execution. And I like to say it's not good enough to get one of the two right, or one of the three right, or two of the three right. You got to be simultaneously good at all of these because you could have the best strategy in the world.

You could have an amazing culture and group of people, but if you can't execute your way out of a box, it's not going to last long and play through the other scenarios. You could have an amazing strategy, you know how to execute, but you just completely run over your people. That's not going to end well because hey, we're a technology company at the end of the day, it's a people business.

People are the IP. So it's very important that we have a positive culture and people want to be here and thrive and grow. We could have an amazing culture and we could really know how to get stuff done, but if our strategy stinks, you're eventually going to peter out on that one. And so we think deeply about having the connection points. To me, I learned a long time ago this sort of hierarchy of strategy structure and systems and organizational structures fit to serve the strategy and the underlying systems, whether that's computer systems or incentive systems, those need to fit the structure to serve that strategy. There's a superordinate structure here. When I think about culture and how that plays, there's like the iceberg analogy around culture. There's the set of behaviors that you'll see above the surface, but below the surface that really gets to the underlying values and expectations.

It's the unsaid stuff. And when we have a mission of transforming the way the world works and connecting the physical digital hardware software office field that requires us to have a culture that knows how to play across boundaries, I like to say that the organizational model of the 20th century look like swim lanes and the organizational model of the twenty-first century looks like playing water polo, like learning how to play left, right, up, down and moving out of a siloed, let's say, view of the world.

It was a construct that existed and was created for a reason not too long after the Industrial Revolution. I think these days it's an outdated construct, so we look to have a culture that knows how to play well together. We've been an acquisitive company over time. We've done over 120 deals over the last 20 years. So there's a lot of cultures that we have brought together under Trimble and we really try to anchor on mission and purpose, recognize and reward the behaviors that are consistent with the culture and with our values. We describe our values as belong, grow, innovate, and when we say belong, we say be yourself and thrive together. When we say grow, we say be humble and intentional, and when we say innovate, what we mean is to be curious and solve problems.

Clint Betts

How do you think as a leader of a company and you're leading the team and you're setting the vision, you're setting your values, how do you flip that personally? What does self-leadership mean to you? How do you integrate that into your own personal life every day?

Rob Painter

When I think about, I'll say self-leadership, I'll use the word humility and one of the books — I don't read a lot of business books arguably I read no business books anymore — but one I think qualifies as a business book was Atomic Habits, and I love this idea of the 1% better every day. How can I show up and be just a better version of myself every day, a better leader every day. We need this company to be a little bit better every day. I make mistakes, I fail, I mess up. I need to own them and set that tone. You know what I mean? I think there's a look in the mirror aspect to this, is how do I show up as a better version of myself every day? I've got to do the work.

I still have a lot of, I think growth potential as a human, as a father, as a husband, as a business leader, I am really drawn to that idea of just a little bit better every day and the compound effect of that is profound.

Clint Betts

What role do you think empathy plays in leadership?

Rob Painter

Well, I'll tell you, I think I've learned that it plays a very large role and I've come to appreciate that more in the last few years, and I'll tell you why and put it in a Trimble context. We have 13,000 people that work at our company, again doing business in over 150 countries. We have colleagues that live in over 45 countries.

What I've come to understand and appreciate is that you have 13,000 unique stories through having 13,000 people, and I think we as humans almost have a default reaction to think that the world operates through the same lens that we do, which is to say, I'm here in a conversation with you. There's this invisible filter that's processed how I grew up and my lived experience and life that plays into how I show up in this conversation. What I might expect in a given conversation with you and what I've come to appreciate certainly, especially I'd say in 2020 between the pandemic and social unrest, was to learn to be more open to understanding other people's lived experience, what they bring to the table or the filters that they bring to the table to just be more curious.

I think curiosity unlocks empathy and I think that empathy is more and more important. I mean, let's face it, we have mental health crises both here in the US and around the world within our communities. Not surprising they're also within our workplaces. There's a lot of stress that seems to be out there in the world. I think social media probably exacerbates that stress that we feel, and you need to be able to see that and work with that as a leader, ultimately you want as a leader to make things and people better. I think if you lack that empathy, you're unlikely to be able to get the most out of an organization.

Clint Betts

It's interesting, you mentioned like 2020, the social unrest, the pandemic, all these various things that popped up there and it seems like as CEOs and as leaders, you're having to think more and more about things outside of your control, things that are happening outside of your company. I wonder as you look at the current macro environment, both economically and just, we're in an election year in the United States, in a lot of other countries as well, it could be a very intense year. How do you think about just the general state of the world as CEO, and how much time are you spending on outside stuff versus what's happening inside your company?

Rob Painter

I'd say I spend more and more thinking about outside things these days. I think it's mostly good. Maybe sometimes we overthink some of these topics, but hey, take elections. I saw something the other day that said, I think there's 40 plus democracies having elections this year that represent something like 60% of global GDP. I mean, that's a stunning number. So I said something in a company message the other day. We're reflecting on this and what's our role as a business and what's my role as a leader and commenting on some of these topics. My view is I don't think my role is to have a comment on leader A versus leader B. What I spend more time thinking about are what are the issues that matter to us as a business? Hey, we're a multinational company. We're dependent on free trade.

We're dependent on the flow of capital and the flow of the best talent around the world. So issues like trade barriers are very important to us because that's putting obstacles in front of us being able to grow the world and to be able to help bring efficiencies to these vital industries that we serve. Our ability, and I think our inability actually to unlock sensible immigration reform is making it harder for us to do business, to get the right talent to work on the topics and the opportunities that we have as a business. So we'll comment and work on the topics that impact our business and that are meaningful to us. We think about that on one axis. On the other axis, I think about where we have a relevant voice and where we can play.

I'd say, where it seems like that we have a place to show up as a company.
Other times you want to show up through organizations that you're a part of and those organizations can have advocacy. So we certainly pay a lot of attention to that, I'd say what's happening in the global economy, what's happening in global politics, geopolitics, they're very, very relevant. Whether it's as you try to predict and forecast economies to trying to understand how to map out supply chains, these things become vital considerations to us as a business.

Clint Betts

I can't thank you enough for joining us. Seriously, it means the world to have somebody with your experience and your company to talk to our audience and our community. I want to be respectful of your time, so we ask every guest the same question at the end of each interview, and that is at CEO.com, we believe the chances one gives is just as important as the chances one takes. And I wonder when you hear that, who gave you a chance to get you to where you are today?

Rob Painter

Yeah, I've got a few thoughts on that. I'm from West Virginia originally, and the first job I had after college was at Kraft General Foods in New York, so the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, West Virginian showed up in New York, and my boss, David Stern gave me a shot at that. And I'll never forget that. The CEO of a company called Cenveo that I worked at 20 years ago gave me a shot to have my first general manager job, his name's Paul Riley. Probably a job I didn't deserve to have a shot at, really. Just took a wild chance on me. My predecessor here at Trimble, Steve Berglund, gave me immense opportunities along the way, and I wouldn't be in this seat without him. I've worked at Trimble for over 18 years and have had a chance to work in a wide variety of roles over that time, and so individuals like that have been absolutely instrumental in that.

I also think that there's something to acknowledge, which is that of privilege. It's like I won the genetic lottery and look what country I was born in, you were born in, we were born on third base, so let's not think that we were born on first because we got a running start by virtue of just the circumstances in which we grew up. So growing up in this country, growing up in a very functional family, very loving family, I'm already multiple steps ahead. And there's this documentary on Netflix and it's about leadership and it profiles a number of different coaches.

I think it was four different coaches like Serena Williams, her coach, a football coach in Europe, Dawn Staley who coaches South Carolina's women's basketball team, and they had one on Doc Rivers after he had been at Boston Celtics and they had won the title. Anyway, he talks about working at the Celtics and you walk in the Boston Garden, you look up and you see the rafters, and in the rafters are all the titles that they've won. The expectation in that place is that you win titles because of the history of that place, and there's a pressure that comes with that. And what he said in that documentary, he said, "The pressure is privilege."

I think that's such a profound statement to think about and I think about the role that I'm in, I think about the company I work for. I think about the place where I live. I'm looking out my window at the Rocky Mountains. I'm lucky to be here. I'm glad to be here and that's what I'd want to leave you with.

Clint Betts

Rob, thank you so much. Seriously, really appreciate you coming on.

Rob Painter

No problem. Happy to do it. All the best to you.

Clint Betts

Likewise.