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5 Feb 20

Neil Cawse, CEO Geotab: “If Geotab is not right for you, we’ll tell you”

We’re meeting Neil Cawse right after his speech at Geotab Connect 2020 in San Diego, where the CEO reported strong growth – two million subscribers – and new ambitions – sustainability is the new pillar of Geotab’s ecosystem. In person, Cawse is modest and relaxed, but also ambitious and visionary – exactly the values that propelled his family business to the world’s leading IoT and transportation telematics company.

“To get from zero to 500,000 subscriptions has taken us much longer than to get from 500,000 to one million. And it’s taken us much less time to get from one million to two million,” says Cawse, commenting on the exponential growth of the global fleet of vehicles subscribed to Geotab’s telematics solutions. Next: three million. Although perhaps not quite this year: “We’re forecasting around another 600,000 net activations in 2020.”

And where are they going to come from?
N. Cawse: “They’re going to come from all over. I would have expected that growth for us would come out of our new markets in Europe and Latin America. But the honest truth is that all markets seem very strong for us. The US market has been the dominant market for us for a long time. And we’re seeing very interesting growth in Latin America and in Europe.”

On stage in San Diego, you said you didn’t believe we would have autonomous vehicles in 10 years’ time, because those last five percent of autonomy are the most difficult to achieve. So, when will we have fully autonomous vehicles?
N. Cawse: “That very much depends on your definition of ‘autonomous’. Today, we have Teslas that can drive autonomously on the highway, just staying in their lane. That’s a very low level of autonomous driving. We expect autonomy ultimately to reach a different level: where vehicles can be expected to take care of our safety, and I don’t have to worry about the road, can sit back and do my work while the vehicle takes me places, I think that is a very long time off. To get to full vehicle autonomy, it will be the last 5% that will be the most difficult to achieve. It will be in the order of 10 years before we’re in that space.”

“However, I do think there will be niche opportunities for autonomous vehicles before then. For example, on a university campus, you can have a low-speed autonomous vehicle that drives at 40 km an hour, with enough sensors to be safe. That’s a very good use case. And there may be opportunities on certain truck routes, where there could be long stretches of the highway where the trucks are driving on themselves.”

“But it’s very important that we’re realistic and pragmatic. We could be investing in all the wrong things if we’re not honest with ourselves. Everybody would love to see autonomous vehicles around tomorrow. I certainly would! But we have to be honest about what we’re going to get out of autonomous vehicles.”

“The level of reliability we get out of driving ourselves is about six-nines of complete reliability. The best we can get out of autonomous vehicles today is about two-nines of reliability. As we sit in a car with some level of autonomy, we think: We’re almost there! But we fail to understand that to get from 99.99% to 99.999999% reliability is going to be 10 or 100 times more work than getting to the first two-nines. That is the unfortunate reality.”

Geotab launched Sustainability as the sixth pillar of its ecosystem. We’re in 2020. Aren’t you quite late?
N. Cawse: “The honest truth is that we have been a green product right from the beginning. Geotab as a company is very forward-thinking on the environment. Our policies are very green. We manage our CO2 footprint. We have an EV programme. We incentivise our staff to think about the environment. And our product has always been a brilliant tool for helping companies move towards sustainability. The difference with making Sustainability a separate, sixth pillar, is that we have to elevate it to a first-class pillar. We all need to be aware of it. That’s why we’ve moved it to the forefront.”

So, Sustainability could become your most important pillar over time?
“I think so. Sustainability – managing our environmental impact – is the major challenge of our time. I believe measuring is a very important first step: making sure we understand the environmental impact of ourselves, of our companies. Step number two is to put strategies into place to mitigate that impact. I think that from a transportation point of view, obviously one of the best strategies you can follow is to adopt electric vehicles.”

“That’s why we’re putting such a big effort into addressing the problems with EVs in commercial fleets, using our technology. We figure out which vehicles can be changed to EVs. The last thing you want is a horror story like you hear here in LA, where the city or the police department bought a whole lot of EVs, and a year later, none of them were being used, because everybody had range anxiety and they were never charged. We want to help companies avoid those stories and accelerate the adoption of EVs in their fleets. That’s the bit that we can do to help the environment.”

Geotab works with a large number of partners, and you’ve always used an open platform to do that. Why?
N. Cawse: “There are various models for how you build a business. One model is to try and do everything yourself. To try and be all things to all people. Some of our competitors follow that model. They listen to what the customers want and then build it themselves or buy a company that provides that service. They then integrate that into their own platform and sell that to the customer.”

“We think that this will never work in the long run. The role of the ecosystem is to allow customers choice, allow massive amounts of variety, and allow all areas that you know one company can address, to flourish. So, even though we make less money – by having an ecosystem, by selling through a channel – it is far better for the customer at the end of the day. And I think in the long run it’s always better for Geotab to have a very healthy and vibrant ecosystem.”

One question related to you. How would you describe yourself as a CEO?
 N. Cawse: “Shy. I have a background as an engineer, so I tend to be very analytical. I try not to be emotional. I try to build up the facts. And as a person, I believe in doing the right thing. Irrespective of whether it’s necessarily good for ourselves or not, if we choose to do the right things, in our company and in our lives, ultimately, the world will be better off for everyone.”

“So, we take very long-term views. When a customer asks us whether they can use our product for something, we’ll be very honest. If our product is not right for them, we’ll tell them. We will never ever prioritise profit over doing the right thing. I believe that’s one of the reasons why we’re such a trusted company and why we have such a host of partners that trust us and work with us.”

You mentioned that vision for the future requires an idea of what that future will be. What’s your own idea?
N. Cawse: “We’re at an interesting point. On the one hand, we see that the rates of poverty are dropping all over the world. Metrics like access to fresh water, infant mortality, and education are all improving. Access to information via cell-phones is at its highest level ever. The general wealth in the world is increasing.”

“On the other hand, there are problems in the world. We see it in the environment and with climate change. Then there’s the problem of understanding which information is valid, and which is fake news. Some people are able to manipulate the minds of the masses via online platforms. There are some challenges there. There are certain regions of the world, like sub-Saharan Africa, that need a lot of help.”

“But I think that in general, the world is moving in the right direction. It’s easy to be just doom and gloom because of what we hear in the news, but we have to acknowledge that we have done certain things well. You can’t fix things if you don’t acknowledge that some things have gone right in the past.”

“So, what do we need to do well now? We need to look at the environment more closely. We need to separate fact from fiction. People must understand where information comes from, who interprets it and why they do this in a certain way. Then, the world, given correct facts, will make the right decision.”

Geotab is a creative environment, full of clever people. How many ideas do you throw away each year?
N. Cawse: “I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of very smart people to work for us at Geotab, with a lot of very clever ideas. The problem with clever ideas is to know how to choose the ones that are the most practical and real. That’s a very difficult thing to do.”

“When you start the journey to build an idea into a product, you first need to look at what the world is going to look like in four or five years, when your idea has become a reality and it’s on the market. You have to be extremely practical about the implications of your idea. That’s really the big challenge. There are ideas that we come across every single day, where we have to say: That will be a great idea in the future, but today we need some more fundamental things to happen first to lay the groundwork for that next great idea.”

What’s your advice to fleet decision makers having issues with finding the right way forward?
N. Cawse: “People tend to be constantly in a rush. I take time for reading and research: for about an hour a day, I read about what interests me. Reddit is a really useful app for that – it’s a user-generated content application that provides you with information, based on your profile and interests. So, take the time to enrich yourself with information.”

Why did you start Geotab?
N. Cawse: “Believe it or not, I started Geotab originally to help my family get into Canada (laughs). But really, the company was started in South Africa. If you’re an engineer, you want to look at the world’s problems, and then look at the new technology that is being invented to solve problems that couldn’t be solved before. With Geotab, we seized on the new big technology of the day, and that was GPS.”

“It was (then US president) Bill Clinton who released GPS technology for non-military use all over the world. That was a game-changing event. Today we take GPS for granted, but it opened up all sorts of new opportunities: to make vehicles safer, to manage and monitor vehicles and other assets like ships and planes. It was very exciting to put that market need and that business opportunity together.”

Final question. As a native of South Africa but a citizen of Toronto, what gave you the most pleasure: South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup, or the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA Championship?
N. Cawse: “Good question (laughs). I believe you live your life in decades. My earlier years feel like very distant memories now. I think it’s really the last 10 years of your life that define who you are. That’s why for me Canada is my new home. I have so much more contact with Canada’s people and culture than those of South Africa. I’ll never forget my childhood, but for me anyway: Raptors it is – and Canada. Go, Canada!”

Authored by: Steven Schoefs
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