interviewed by fellow T-bird, Anna Shen
Vice President, Smart Machines at Samsung
Thunderbird Executive Education program graduate: “Leadership in the Global Enterprise"
John Absmeier calls himself a “gearhead, geek and a jarhead” who loves all things tech. Named by Automotive News as a “40 under 40,” he has been dubbed the one to watch in his industry.
Last December, he joined Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center, as VP of Smart Machines, which is part of Samsung Electronics. It is an exciting time; John is building a division focused on drones, robots and the automotive sector. He is also helping advise and run two of Samsung's corporate venture funds that invest in new enterprises, whether early stage companies or those near an IPO.
John Absmeier shared about his career, what he learned at Thunderbird, and how he has used those learnings in his career.
Q. Can you tell me about your path?
A. My passion for cars or for that matter, machines of all kinds began at age 14 when my mother gave me a broken down car. I fixed it up, and then traded it up for two VW beetles. In 1984, I got my first computer — an IBM PC Jr. Before that, I had a Texas Instruments educational device for kids, called “Speak and Math.” I used it so much that constant battery replacement was needed. However, my parents, tired of buying batteries, refused to get more. I was not deterred; I decided to create my own power supply and I tested it on my brother's “Speak and Spell.” It caught on fire.
My tinkering continued through high school, and after graduation, I became a certified auto mechanic and joined the US Marines. Later, I went to study mechanical engineering at Purdue University. I also worked at Delco Electronics, a subsidiary of General Motors, as a co-op student during school. While at Delco, I worked in several different areas including integrated circuit manufacturing, human factors and mechanical engineering.
Later, I won a fellowship from Delphi and attended UC Berkeley where I ended up with two master’s degrees, one in mechanical engineering and another in technology management. I continued working at Delphi after my master’s program at UC Berkeley, working on electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as fuel cells. I moved to New York to work on tech initiatives in the fuel cell space. After a few years in New York, I relocated to Silicon Valley to run operations for a start-up company owned by Delphi called MobileAria, which was one of the world’s first mobile telematics and connectivity companies. After getting that venture up and running, we sold the business to Wireless Matrix.
Eventually, Delphi tapped me to build and develop a hybrid and electric business in China. My wife and I worked and lived in China for six years. Later, I took over the operations for Delphi Electronic Controls in Asia. In 2012, I returned to the U.S. to build Delphi’s technology center in Silicon Valley and worked on smart car technologies including autonomous driving. In 2013, I led a team of engineers that started working on a self-driving car system. We created a car that drove itself from San Francisco to New York in March 2015. After almost 19 years at Delphi, I got an offer at Samsung and started late last year.
Q. What are you working on now at Samsung?
A. I joined Samsung to help build a smart machines division. This is an initiative that is part of the Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center based in Silicon Valley. We are focused on three areas — drones, robots and the automotive sector. The goal is to incubate and create new business by leveraging open innovation and by building a top-notch team of talent.
We create partnerships as well as engage star players, including those in other countries, for example in Israel and Korea. The other way we innovate is to invest. Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center manages two strategic venture funds with over $1 billion under management — these funds include Samsung Ventures America, and Samsung Catalyst Fund, which is focused on early stage funding.
Q. What have your moments of insight been so far?
A. Samsung is working to transform its culture to become a modern international tech company which has been an exciting journey to take part in. Also, coming from the traditional auto industry, it is exciting to see the speed of action and how that momentum builds in a company like Samsung
The crazy aha is the breadth of their products -- from insurance to catering and landscaping to industrial shipping to mobile phones.
Samsung is trying to change the corporate culture from Korean to multinational, by having the right talent, empowering people to lead and evaluating processes and policies to ensure they are not biased regionally. That involves and requires international senior leadership.
The environment is structured, focused, and fast, unbelievably fast. It works well but as you try to expand and go global and become larger than a $200 billion dollar business, the question is how to change the corporate culture?
Q. How have you applied what you learned at Thunderbird to your job?
A. The most valuable takeaway is in understanding how to work with people with diverse backgrounds and cultures. Everybody has similar goals in terms of being successful and making their business thrive, but everybody thinks about a business issue in different ways. The question is how do I think outside my normal comfort zone, and work with others from a different culture that bring a different perspective? How do I leverage that different perspective to further my goals?
For example, on a daily basis I deal with team members from other countries: Korea, America, Spain, France, and China. Some cultural nuances are obvious and some are subtle, for example, the way a staff member answers a question in front of others. In some countries they have to save face, or they think it is “not my place” to answer that. Those are the top-down cultures. Thunderbird taught me a way of deciphering this.