The Avionics Market Was There For The Taking. So Garmin Did.

In the world of mass production things, 25,000 is not a very big number. It’s about an hour’s worth of iPhone production and an eyeblink in the trillions of metal oxide transistors that make gadgets like that possible. Ford makes that many F-150s in about 10 days and Tesla does a few more than that of its popular electric cars. But in the still pond of aviation, where we’re just barely past bashing airplanes together with rubber hammers and pry bars, 25,000 is a stupendously huge number.

So it was altogether integrated fitting that Garmin last week announced it had delivered 25,000 flight decks which, if laid end to end, would easily reach across town to where BendixKing used to have its headquarters. I just made that up, but it seems plausible and even if it isn’t, that’s a lot of avionics over 19 years and it doesn’t include the mega-selling GNS boxes. “Integrated” means the G1000 and its evolutionary progeny, the G3000 and G5000, which find and their way into turboprops bizjets. They don’t quite own the latter market, but you can imagine them getting there.

I have had the good fortune of watching all this unfold in real time over the past … let’s see, 30 years. By tech standards, that is a glacial pace when you consider that when Garmin was founded in 1989, Windows 3 had just arrived and the Intel 80386 chip was the hot system to run it. The Macintosh classic, with its single clunky disc drive, 0 was the competition. What cellphone did you have then? You didn’t. They were a few years over the horizon.

There are several remarkable aspects of this story, but the defining one—it’s really more of a question—is why so few companies emerged to persistently compete with Garmin. BendixKing was ideally positioned not to be overrun by an upstart. In 1990, it dominated the OEM market with the Silver Crown system. You expected to see it in new aircraft and buyers perusing used aircraft ads in Trade-A-Plane breezed past offerings if they didn’t mention Silver Crown. Garmin’s capture of the market was gradual and it started with portable GPS.

Gary Burrell had been an engineer at King Radio and before that at Allied Signal and along with Taiwanese-born Min Kao, he launched Garmin in 1989. Kao was an expert in the Kalman filtering technology that makes modern, accurate GPS navigation possible. The inaugural product was the ProNav 100, with ProNav being the original name of the company. Because of trademark issues, they changed it to Garmin, a portmanteau of their first names. The product became the GPS 100. I still have mine. It’s a brick with sentimental value.

For a time there in the mid-1990s, it looked like GPS would be a vital and highly competitive market. It was the golden age of the GPS portable. In a 1996 report, I wrote this: “Although glutted and confusing, one thing is certain about the portable GPS market: If you don’t like the current models, wait around a couple of weeks, something else will come along shortly. With any luck, it might even better or at least cheaper than the current crop.” Besides Garmin, Lowrance, IIMorrow, Magellan and Trimble were all flogging GPS, although Garmin always seemed to be a step ahead.

When panel mount GPS came into view around 1994, Garmin still had competition from IIMorrow, Northstar, BendixKing, Trimble and Magellan. Remember Narco? Of course you don’t, but it was out there pitching a panel mount called the StarNav and even pre-dated Garmin’s entry into the market with the GNS line. From out of the blue, a GPS survey company called Ashtech popped up with a stunning color navigator called the AV-12. That was in 1995, three years before Garmin introduced the GNS 430 and later the 530. Avidyne beat Garmin to the market with big glass in the Cirrus and so did ARNAV, which pioneered the first large moving map display in the original SR20. Although it was crude by modern standards, it was out there first. ARNAV is gone, but Avidyne still represents credible competition for Garmin, at least in the aftermarket.

Yet on its way to multiple thousands of integrated panels, not to mention many multiple thousands of discrete panel navigators, indicators and, lately, electronic flight instruments, Garmin steamrolled sometimes over the lot of them, with products not necessarily better than the competition. For a time during the 1990s, I taught a traveling GPS training show for AOPA and my favorite, easiest-to-teach box was the Trimble TNL 2000. It was easier to use than Garmin’s GPS 155.

So why did Garmin succeed so brilliantly where the others stumbled? In my view, several reasons all wrapped up in one word: will. Garmin always had a single-minded focus on new product introductions. Trimble did two dedicated portables, IIMorrow (later UPSAT) did a couple as did Magellan. Lowrance was more prolific, but none of them managed either the cadence of introductions or the features Garmin rolled out in no fewer than 15 portables. When the first color portables appeared from Garmin in 2004, it was pretty much game over for the rest.

From the beginning, Garmin was a technical/engineering-focused company always on the hunt for young talent. I forget who told me this—might have been someone at Garmin—but the company was famous for hiring what they called “20-20s.” Twenty years old at $20,000 a year. Whether that’s true or not, Garmin always had technical projects simmering while BendixKing never seemed to. When Garmin arrived with portables capable enough to display real time aircraft attitude, it was a tour de force no other company matched and it wouldn’t be matched until iPads starting using the inexpensive portable AHRS.

Garmin has been relentless in its marketing, with persistent, in-house prepared promotion, customer and technical support and a laser-like focus on the OEM business. That explains why the vast majority of new aircraft are equipped with Garmin glass. Don’t want a full-blown G1000? OK, fine, how about a G3X Touch, then? Still too much? Whatsamatter with the aera 760 or GI 275 gyros with GTN navigators? You simply can’t escape a Garmin solution that works. As one of their salespeople told me once, “We won’t stop until we get all of your money.” Grim truth, maybe, but of such stuff is success made.

Garmin also did something wise about diversification. Trimble and Ashtech, for instance, were GPS survey companies and they diversified—halfheartedly—into aviation, which was already well served and a small market. Garmin went the other way, leveraging its aviation-derived expertise into the marine, outdoor and fitness segments, the latter two of which were driven by an energetic demographic bubble. It paid off. According to Garmin’s annual report, aviation accounts for $712 million of its $4.9 billion revenues, with a profit of $192 million. Not too long ago, aviation had the highest percentage profit margin, but now the outdoor market, at nearly twice the revenue of revenue, shows a higher margin, at least for 2021. I don’t know if these are standalone business units responsible for Their own internal capital, but if you’re trying to develop new products, it’s much better to be in a highly profitable company than in one that isn’t.

The first time I visited Garmin, maybe around 1991 or 1992, the company was housed in one of those office strips of the sort small medical practices have. Now, Garmin HQ is two feet short of being the tallest skyscraper in Olathe, Kansas. I’m pretty sure if you stacked up a few days worth of G1000 production, you could easily reach the top.

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