How the CEO of a $5 Billion Company Built a Plan for Success

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Our travels for The CEO Series have brought us to companies of all sizes and scopes, and for this episode, we went to one that is just massive. Zebra Technologies is one of the most dynamic B2B technology companies in the world. They digitize and automate workflows for companies, have roughly 10, 000 employees and do about $5 billion in revenue. I had the chance to sit down with CEO Bill Burns to find out how he leads such a huge operation.

Below are some highlights of our insightful conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full video above.

Global reach

“You see our company Zebra in everyday life. We’re a digital solution provider that enables businesses to intelligently connect data, assets, and people. You see us in a point-of-sale checkout at a supermarket, when a postal worker is delivering a parcel to your house, and in so many other places. Companies use our mobile devices to scan the package, get signatures, and things like that. All the largest retailers around the world — 86 percent of the Fortune 500 companies — are our customers today. We think of it as retail, transportation, logistics, manufacturing and warehousing, health care and government.”

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The NFL Connection

“As a company, we support the NFL. We use the same types of tags that would be used in retail or transportation logistics to track parcels or inventory to track every cleat, every shoulder pad, every helmet worn by a player. The NFL’s initial use case was for fan engagement and to enhance the broadcast. And then the latest use cases are really around protecting the health and safety of the players.”

The CEO’s Journey

“I started my career in sales, in a large telco sales into folks like Verizon and others. And then I took a role leading Europe, the Middle East, and Africa from a sales side and expanded into marketing and services and other areas. And then I joined Zebra about nine years ago to lead the acquisition piece. Zebra was a billion-dollar specialty printing business. They bought two and a half billion dollars in revenue from Motorola to the enterprise business and so kind of overnight a $1 billion business became a $3.5 billion business.”

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Leadership responsibility

“There’s three legs of the stool, right? That’s how I view the business: our customers, our employees and our investors. Ultimately we’re in business to continue to grow and to make money. But you’ve got to do the right things first. You’ve got to be able to reward and attract and retain the best employees around the world. If you do that, then you’ll serve your customers best. If you serve your customers best, you’ll grow your topline revenue and your profitability and your stock will go up and you’ll take care of your investors.”

Leading through tough times

“I think that demand for our services skyrocketed during COVID, and then in 2023, demand reset back to 2019 levels. So we were put in a position where we had to do the normal things that most businesses would do. Look at your real estate and your travel costs and all those things internally. We also did things like voluntary retirement programs. We thought about creating new opportunities for people within the organization. It worked out great, but it’s always hard to get smaller. It’s always a lot more fun to grow. But you’ve got to make those tough business decisions at times.”

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Career advice to future leaders

“No one else cares as much about your career as you do, but also be patient because it doesn’t happen overnight. And if you’re at a great company and you have opportunities there, there’s nowhere else that you’re more respected than inside that company. They know you are ready, so be patient.”

Check out more profiles of innovative and impactful leaders by visiting The CEO Series archives.

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