GWPrime

The Godfather of GIS

It all began at a plant nursery. A nursery owned by a family of Dutch immigrants in the United States. Money was tight, but life-lessons were plenty. Dinner table conversations usually revolved around cash flows, customer service and bill payments. What a young Jack Dangermond did not know at the time was that the wisdom imparted by people who loved nurturing business would trump the education of any management school.

At the age of 16, Dangermond was managing landscape crews at the nursery owned by his parents. Working in a team taught Dangermond that if you take care of your employees, they would do the same for you. Watering wilting plants made him understand that if you don’t take care of problems the moment you see them, your profits will go down pretty quickly. Taking care of patrons prepared him for making products that a customer would need and want.

Jack & Laura Dangermond were named in Business Insider’s Top 100 Visionaries in 2016

At the age of 16, Dangermond was managing landscape crews at the nursery owned by his parents. Working in a team taught Dangermond that if you take care of your employees, they would do the same for you. Watering wilting plants made him understand that if you don’t take care of problems the moment you see them, your profits will go down pretty quickly. Taking care of patrons prepared him for making products that a customer would need and want.

Photo taken at Esri headquarters in Redlands, California in March 1977, during the visit to the start of the ‘Environmental Impact Assessment of the Gusare Socuy Carboniferous Project.’ (Sitting left to right) Laura Dangermond, Jack Dangermond, Flor H Méndez and Rosario Giusti; (Standing) Jesus Garrillo and Ramon A. Perez

Today, Dangermond is a billionaire, and his company, Esri, America’s best-kept software secret. Esri’s mapping tools are used by more than 350,000 organizations across the globe, generating over $1.5 billion in revenue — even though it is not a household name like Google or Microsoft. Esri has 41 offices across the planet, run by more than 9,500 employees from 67 countries. And in the 47 years of its existence, Esri has never missed a quarter, never had any layoffs and never had any downsizing.

How Esri came into being 47 years ago is almost as incredible as the company’s rise to become the world leader in GIS technology. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland got so fouled with industrial waste that it caught fire. The next few months saw a rise in environment awareness in the United States, followed by a flurry of environmental laws. For the first time, environment was at the forefront of government ethics.

The Redlands nursery once operated by Jack Dangermond’s parents

We are in this evolving geospatial industry because of the smart people here who are interested in crafting and creating tools that actually work

These were the happenings that spurred Dangermond, then a young landscape architect at Harvard at the time, into action. Working at the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis — an experimental lab dedicated to automating geography, cartography, and doing spatial analysis — for $4.40/hour had instilled a deep passion for maps into Dangermond anyway.

With the winner of ‘Making a Difference’ award Allan Schmidt (Right), former director of Harvard Computer Graphics Lab

But, making maps was no mean feat, even for Dangermond. “My first attempt to make a computer map took 30 submissions. And this happened over a month or so. I was like why the hell can’t I make a map! I was desperate to get a map out of that machine,” he recalls.

Jack and Laura Dangermond were both working in a lab for computer graphics in spatial analysis in Harvard University when they started Esri

But, Dangermond and his wife Laura recognized the need to bring rational thinking to the field of geography. So, the couple moved to Redlands, California, and created a platform to ground the discussions around environmental conservation. Thus was born Environmental Systems Research Institute, known by us all today as Esri.

Talking about Laura makes him smile. “Laura and I met when we were 16, at high school,” he says. “From the very beginning we were partners. We would work together at university, help each other and when we started the company we already had a strong philosophy of staying together and trying to look after the business together. So, it’s a great partnership.”

Receiving the Royal Geographical Societies Patron’s Medal from Society President Michael Palin

Esri’s foundation was based on the belief that geography could be the base for integrating different kinds of sciences. In the end, it could be used for all sorts of decision making. Starting off as a consulting company that made maps and ran analytics, Esri kept improving its software and methods for a decade before it released its first commercial GIS product known as Arc/Info in 1982, marking the company’s evolution into a software solution provider.

Wall Street doesn’t matter to us. Quarterly revenues do not matter to us. What matters to us is seeing neat stuff done by our users

“Early in our work, only people with money were able to afford this technology. They ranged from big cities to big federal agencies to oil companies and forest companies and so on,” Dangermond remembers.

2016 Esri User Conference

Then came the 1990s. Faster and cheaper computers arrived, the commercial earth observation industry opened up, and new data capture techniques like the GPS spurred rapid growth of the GIS industry. And Esri was quick to take full advantage of it.

Esri re-engineered Arc/Info to develop a modular and scalable GIS platform that would work both on the desktop and across the enterprise. The result was ArcGIS. In short, five successive rounds of re-development of the core platform through the years, this horizontal technology, which largely focused on project work in the beginning, is today adopted by individuals, departments and by large enterprises alike.

Receiving the Jane Goodall Global Leadership Award in 2011

With a strong focus on research and innovation, driven by a bunch of passionate and committed professionals, Esri grew from strength to strength, mostly organically. “We are in this evolving geospatial industry because of the smart people here who are interested in crafting and creating tools that actually work. In that respect, our motivations are different from a typical public company that is into this business,” Dangermond says.

We are wired as an organization that serves its customers and by serving them, we get paid and get the opportunity to use the funds to innovate and drive the technology

After more than 40 years of its founding, Esri continues to be a privately owned company, with majority shares held by the Dangermonds. It’s rooted in the philosophy that private ownership means no stockholders forcing short-term decisions at the expense of long-term objectives. Customer relationship forms the core of Esri. “We do not try to make money or be a great company from financial point of view. Wall Street doesn’t matter to us. Quarterly revenues do not matter to us. What matters to us is seeing neat stuff done by our users,” Dangermond stresses.

Left to right: Telle Whitney, Deborah Freund, Laura and Jack Dangermond. Whitney and the Dangermonds received honorary degrees at Claremont Graduate University’s 85th annual commencement ceremony. May 2012

Committed to the technology it believes has the potential to transform the world, Esri spends about a quarter of its revenue on research and development. This is at least double of what most technology companies spend on R&D. “We are wired as an organization that serves its customers and by serving them, we get paid and get the opportunity to use the funds to innovate and drive the technology which in turn is provided to them,” underlines Dangermond.

Esri supports many global communities that are using GIS to increase spatial literacy, protect the environment, assist with disaster response, and support humanitarian affairs, with the aim of making the world a better place. The company has long supported the widespread use of GIS in classroom and research labs around the world.

Jack Dangermond with Sam Pitroda, the Father of the Indian Telecom Revolution, at 2013 Esri International User Conference

“We have a program where we donate our software to all kinds of NGOs. There are about 11,000 NGOs that are in conversation and humanitarian work all over the world. We support them with software and also training to help them basically be equal participants in the society along with the business sector and government sector.”

An ardent technologist and an innovator, at 70, Dangermond still nurtures the passion of his young Harvard years. He and Laura have numerous prestigious awards under their cap. They were recently named in the Business Insider’s top 100 business visionaries.

Jack and Laura Dangermond received the Audubon Medal, in 2015. Others (left to right) Honoree Spender Beebe, actress Kate Flannery, President and CEO of Audubon Society David Yarnold

Constantly creating value for the world, Esri is counted amongst the elite list of companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and General Motors. “With this next generation change of technology, there are hundreds of millions and ultimately billions of people who will be affected with this notion that they can apply geographics science to make the world a better place,” says Dangermond. And with his life and mission, Jack Dangermond has proved it.

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