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Navigating the Path of Least Resistance to Future Growth

NNG is a local success story, the personal navigation startup that went big. Still a successful company, it has been confronted by many of the challenges facing just about everyone involved in the automotive industry, and has seen layoffs. The Budapest Business Journal spoke exclusively with Chris Greentree, the American CEO who has been charged with charting NNG’s next chapter.

Chris Greentree

We caught up with Greentree via a video call just days before he arrived in Hungary (he took up post on September 1). He says he has seen the business plans for 2020 and 2021, but does not intend to make immediate changes. Rather, the initial aim will be to take a forensic look at what the company is doing now and how it goes about it.

“I take a fact based, data driven approach to running a business,” says the new CEO. “My big drive for the first few months is to understand how we will finish this year, and how we are positioned to achieve the targets for next year.”

Only then will he look to make changes. “For me, what is key is that the whole organization is working to the same set of targets and goals,” he says. Everyone must share – and understand – a clearly articulated vision and mission. Greentree says management transparency is key, and the “say/do ratio” must be right.

“The workforce will need to trust management; the owners will need to trust the business. I want to increase the targets set for next year, but I need to do so from a diagnostic point of view of where we are now. So, if not in 2021, certainly in 2022.”

Early Adopter

He is a mechanical engineer by training, but is also a self-confessed techie (“I am a technology early adopter, I always have the latest thing”), who stated to learn programming in BASIC when he was eight or nine, and consumes tech news religiously.

He also likes to get his hands dirty. “I am grease monkey at heart. I used to say I couldn’t get my fingernails clean until I went to college because that was the first time I didn’t have my hands in an engine any free time I had.”

Greentree comes to NNG from Elektrobit, a Germany-based global supplier of embedded and connected software products and services for the automotive industry, a direct competitor in many ways. But he also had a 20-year career at Honeywell, most recently as general manager of its Automotive Software division.

It was while at Honeywell that he got his MBA, but he says just as important were his bosses at the time. “I was part of one of the best product marketing machines, after GE, because many Honeywell executives came from GE and were building on the Jack Welch playbook. I learned more from them than I could ever have learned in doing my MBA.”

What he leaned above all else was the importance of being able to recognize what value any development adds to the business. Put another way, the most important thing is not how well something is made (though, naturally, it should be well made), or how clever or how well designed, but whether people want it.

Lucrative Market

Clearly, Greentree would not be taking on the role if he did not think NNG was a good company with potential to develop further. “The navigation market is extremely competitive, but still very lucrative. There is a bright future for NNG built on that cornerstone,” he says.

The trick will be to make sure the company identifies future trends, as it has in the past when it moved from personal, hand-held navigation to in-car software. “We need to make sure NNG does not get stuck in a trough behind the waves,” the new CEO says.

Built-in navigation systems are now all but standard (Greentree says it was NNG that persuaded some automakers to include it even in many basic models). NNG is already at the forefront of cybersecurity in connected cars, and with good reason. The next stage is to “link the living rooms”: home; office; and car and, crucially, to make it “completely frictionless.” Or, to use an analogy from his engineering background, to find the most efficient way, the path of least resistance.

“We will not create every piece of that, but our focus should be to find the sweet spot for NNG in the solution stack enabling this. I want to talk to users. I want to know, how does NNG find those functions that we can do better than our competitors?” Interestingly, some of this is driven (if you will pardon the pun) by the fact that the carmakers’ own business is changing.

“Auto manufacturers are moving from a model of making money by selling metal to making money by selling the customer experience. What we need to do is build platforms that allow different solutions to come together, and I am very excited about those opportunities. The space has many players, but there is still a lot of blue ocean out there.”

Brand Awareness

Would it help if NNG branding were included in the infotainment systems it powers? Greentree says it might potentially but, ultimately, he isn’t particularly concerned if car owners know his technology is inside their vehicle; far more important, far more valuable, is that the OEMs and Tier One suppliers know, if only to widen the potential number of requests for quotes (RFQs) from them.

“In the B2B space, the best thing you can do is to speak clearly to your market about the successful solutions you are part of. I am happy to be a white label company as long as I can tell the industry what we are doing.”

Does the arrival of an American CEO based in Switzerland signal a beginning of a break with NNG’s Hungarian roots? No.

“It will always be a Hungarian company and always be in Hungary, but it is a global market and it needs a global footprint so it can be ‘local’ where ‘locality’ is needed.”