Xplore Technologies, based in Austin, Tex., is a $78 million manufacturer of rugged tablets, and as its CEO and president, Mark Holleran, puts it, “Rugged tablets are all we do, and we’ve been doing it for more than 20 years.” The high-tech company has six core rugged tablet platforms, and offers hundreds of options and custom-engineered configurations to serve the mobility needs of customers in the manufacturing, utility, public safety, military, energy, field service, distribution and government sectors.
Holleran, who’s been with Xplore since 2003, has managed the day-to-day operations of the company since 2006, including marketing, operations, engineering and finance. In all, he has more than 30 years of leadership and computer industry experience, having served previously as CEO of WaveSat Wireless and country manager for Cabletron Systems.
IW recently caught up to Holleran, and asked him to share his views on the current state of the U.S. high-tech industry.
IW: From your perspective, what is the single biggest challenge facing U.S. manufacturers?
Mark Holleran: U.S. manufacturers are under immense pressure to manage their production, shipping and overall labor costs right now, while at the same time, they are being forced to adapt to a perfect storm of fluctuating market conditions, increasing competition and evolving customer demands.
I think their single biggest challenge is trying to balance the need for greater efficiency, and therefore greater digitalization, in their business processes with the need to maximize existing systems for as long as possible to minimize waste. They must figure out a way to transition to more technologically-driven operations—automation, IoT, Big Data, etc.—without creating any costly disruptions in their inventory, production, shipping, or other supply chain operations along the way.
IW: Explain why Xplore engineers and extensively tests its products here in the U.S., as opposed to other tablet providers who do all their engineering and testing overseas?
Holleran: Xplore has engineering teams located in Austin, TX, with decades of experience designing rugged tablets. However, you’ll most frequently find our engineers on-site at customer locations, whether that’s in North America, which is the largest market for rugged tablets, or internationally. By putting “feet in the field” as we call it, we are able to gain an in-depth understanding of our customers’ needs and identify specialized design requirements. In turn, we’re more efficient and effective in developing solutions that solve their business challenges.
Our R&D doesn’t stop after a new product is launched or customer deployment is complete, of course. We are constantly engaging with our customers to refine their solution, provide support, and identify new technology requirements that need to be worked into our roadmap and theirs.
IW: Describe your product development process.
Holleran: Every one of our products was designed for, and with, customers. We understand that the only way they will achieve the ROI they need—whether it is a business process improvement, data accessibility or financial gain—is by working closely with them to architect a complete, and customized, solution. Sometimes that means adding something as simple as a True Serial or HDMI-in I/O port or integrating a more complex piece of antenna technology for connectivity in remote areas.
Xplore’s experienced engineering team invests a great deal of attention to the detail of each tablet and accessory, making hundreds of small engineering decisions that ultimately protect our customers’ investments for years—such as the use of an internal magnesium chassis frame that won’t twist under duress or the use of damage-resistant spring-loaded “pogo” style pins that maintain electrical connections even in a moving truck.
We also collaborate with Intel, Microsoft and several other global partners to integrate the best components available at each point in time along our product roadmap.
IW: You’ve been at Xplore for more than a dozen years and in the high-tech industry for more than 30 years. What would say have been the most significant changes you’ve seen in the industry during that time?
Holleran: Well, we like to say that the only constant in business in change, and I think that holds true to the high-tech industry as well. Computing power, performance, security, mobility: If you look at where we were 20 or 30 years ago compared to today, it is almost unbelievable at how rapidly we’ve advanced to the intricately connected, Internet-powered technology ecosystem that exists today.
That being said, I think the most significant change has been to the way the industry as a whole is starting to think about product design and market opportunities. We are beginning to see a more widespread acknowledgement, at least among those serving the industrial and field service sectors, that we cannot innovate just to solve today’s immediate problems. We must find a way to anticipate the business challenges that customers will face one year, three years, even five years down the road. Then we must find a way to deliver solutions to those problems today.
For example, 20 or so years ago, most mobile computer manufacturers were focused on addressing the complete inefficiency of paper-based business processes. Fast forward a few years, and many started to see the gap between cell phones, video cameras, and desktop computers, and wanted to address the inefficiencies these disparate technologies were creating for businesses of all sizes, in all industries, worldwide. However, not everyone was focused on consolidating all computing and communications capabilities into a single, truly mobile form factor that would not fail due to environmental hazards, rough handling, or insufficient scalability. Nor were there many manufacturers focused on engineering flexible, future-proof computer platforms. They were rushing through R&D to be the first to market with a better mobile “mousetrap”; they wanted to take advantage of a hot market opportunity.
Then the Apple era began, and the excitement of something new led many businesses to start buying the shiniest mobile device they could find, for the lowest possible price, without considering the functionality or performance tradeoffs. While this opened the door for many consumer device manufacturers to target business users, I think we’re seeing that door now being slammed shut again as customers realize—the hard way, unfortunately—that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to mobility. We’re seeing a trend away from off-the-shelf buys and back to purpose-built solutions that emphasize performance and are capable of supporting very specialized workflows.
IW: How has your management style evolved over the years?
Holleran: Early on in my career, I recognized that the most impressive leaders are those who empower their teams, which is an approach I’ve applied to my own management style. I believe that a good team is greater than the sum of its parts, and that if you surround yourself with hardworking individuals that bring different ideas and opinions – but are united by a common goal – you can accomplish almost anything. At Xplore, we certainly celebrate our top performers, but also believe that an individual win is a win for the entire team.
IW: What would you say has been your most satisfying accomplishment while at Xplore?
Holleran: Xplore has been at the forefront of the rugged tablet market since our first tablet was brought to market in 1996, and we have achieved a lot of industry “firsts.” Even more, while other PC technologies have come and gone, our rugged tablet technologies have gained increasing relevance to multiple industries. That is because our engineering strength and commitment to being a partner to our customers has given us the insights we need to achieve our mutual goals.
We have been able to thrive through several economic fluctuations and tech industry bubbles because every one of our employees, from executives to engineers, is focused on manufacturing future-proof solutions.
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