Greg Brown, CEO, Motorola Solutions
Motorola Solutions CEO seems to thrive on being underrated, beating odds
Greg Brown says he "underestimated how deep the problems were" at Motorola when he took over as CEO in 2008, replacing Ed Zander. (E. Jason Wambsgans / June 13, 2012)
The year was 1998 and Brown, a division president at Ameritech in Chicago, was weighing an offer from Motorola against one from Micromuse, a publicly traded software company in San Francisco. Motorola was the larger and more well-known corporation, and one that Brown had admired for years, but the corporate vice president role he would be taking wasn't senior enough for his liking. Micromuse wanted him as chief executive.
More than three years later, Brown heard about a sector president opening at Motorola. This time, he wanted the job, even if it meant giving up the CEO title at Micromuse, because he was energized about the scale and growth opportunities for the group he would be heading. It was the segment that would eventually become public safety, making communications equipment for emergency responders and other government agencies.
But Brown was in the minority of people who thought joining Motorola was a smart move.
"I would say 75 percent or more of my friends or the people I knew told me I was out of my mind -- nuts," Brown said. " 'Why would you go to that company? It's an American icon that's dying. It's got a whole set of piece parts that are not integrated. It's old culture. It's engineering-centric. It's not progressive.' And that's when Motorola was not in the extreme trouble that it was (later). And I just view it differently."
Today, Brown, 51, is finally at the helm of a Motorola that is the most closely aligned with his interests and strengths. As CEO of Motorola Solutions, he leads the part that for years was largely ignored by investors, the technology press and financial analysts, most of whom focused on the more glamorous and consumer-focused mobile phone division. The segments of Motorola that sold communications equipment and software to public safety agencies and industrial customers -- logistics companies, retailers and the like -- were quietly and steadily profitable. They also held more appeal for Brown, whose career arc through companies such as IBM and Ameritech has focused on business-to-business technology.
"I think that B2B is more personal," Brown said. "It's complex. There are more nuances selling into a large organization: financially, strategically, technically."
In January 2011, Motorola spun off the mobile devices and cable set-top box segments into an independent company called Motorola Mobility Holdings, which is being acquired by Google. The remaining B2B-centric businesses were renamed Motorola Solutions. The company reported profit of $1.15 billion on $8.2 billion in revenue for 2011, and its stock ended the year more than 16 percent higher. Its communications equipment has been used at the Olympics for decades, and it also made the two-way radios carried by rescue workers who helped extricate the group of trapped Chilean miners in 2010.
The company's strong financial performance in its first year as an independent company vindicated Brown and the board of directors' drastic decision, announced in March 2008, to break up Motorola so the fortunes of mobile devices could be separated from those of the B2B divisions.
Not only did this strategy commit the company to a highly complex and time-consuming process, but it also required hiring a co-CEO to prepare mobile devices for separation and lead the newly independent company after the split.
"Greg was the sole CEO and agreed to bring on a co-CEO," said Michael Annes, the executive tasked with leading the separation process who is now Motorola Solutions' senior vice president of business development and ventures. "He did that not because he thought it would be easy, but because he thought it would be the right thing to do to unlock the very hidden and not appreciated value in the enterprise business. ... Greg saw it could be unlocked and fought for it for three years."
Brown's career history reveals an executive who seems to thrive on being underrated. The youngest of five children growing up in North Brunswick and Highland Park, N.J., he gained an interest in technology after seeing his older brothers take jobs at AT&T and IBM. Richard, one of Brown's older brothers, overlapped with him at Ameritech and later became CEO of Electronic Data Systems, the technology firm founded by Ross Perot.
Brown said he was met with skepticism when he applied for an IBM internship during his undergraduate years at Rutgers University.
"When I was interviewing for the internship, they said, 'Based on the competitive pool of candidates, you don't make the cut. And you have no experience at all, zero,' " Brown recalled. "I used to pump gas. So they said, 'You pumped gas and you go to Rutgers. That's it. And there are other people that are much more qualified.' "
Brown impressed the recruiter by describing how he spent summers painting house numbers on curbs in exchange for voluntary donations. He had convinced the local police chief to give him a license to solicit door-to-door, explaining that emergency responders could more easily find houses if numbers were painted on the curbs. Brown painted 125 curbs a day.
"The average house gave me a buck," Brown said. "This is when minimum wage was like $3.25. I would make hundreds and thousands of dollars. Unbelievable, painting curbs. So I told that story to the guy from IBM. He said, 'You're hired. I'll give you a shot. That's an interesting story.' He said he'd never heard of anybody who painted curbs. I said, 'Let me just say, there's money in curbs.' I still believe it today."
Brown expected to work at IBM after graduating from Rutgers with a degree in economics but was instead persuaded by an AT&T executive to take a job at the telecommunications giant. Looking for a challenge, Brown asked to be posted in a poorly performing market. In June 1982, he drove a U-Haul to Detroit and stayed for five years, selling AT&T's computing systems to business customers.