It’s rare to find someone who has been with the same company for over 30 years, much less focused on the same mission. But that’s part of what makes Gene Hofer so special. Ever since he joined Zebra in 1987, he has been laser focused on making sure Zebra customers have all the supplies they need to keep their printer, sensor, barcode scanner and RFID-dependent applications working optimally.
In fact, when Zebra was making history with its initial public offering in August 1991, he and his team in the Supplies Research and Development (R&D)/Innovation Lab were making their own mark on history, developing industry-first thermal printing labeling solutions that have set the stage for decades of innovation and progress within your own businesses. Read on to find out what Gene has been working on in the lab these last three decades and how it’s impacting your work today:
Your Edge Blog Team: Zebra has such an extensive supplies portfolio, and there are always cool new things coming to market. Can you reveal what you’ve been working on most recently?
Gene: In the Supplies R&D/Innovation Lab at Zebra’s headquarters in Lincolnshire, Illinois, our work is based in materials science. We are constantly considering how we can improve our supplies offerings – or perhaps introduce new iterations of common supplies such as labels – to solve new challenges that customers face. Right now, our projects range from RFID labels/tags, wristbands, and linerless printing solutions to environmental indicators, inks/coatings, core supplies and much more.
Your Edge Blog Team: Do you remember what you were working on at the time of the IPO?
Gene: My team and I were developing the industry’s first UL-recognized on-demand thermal transfer label printing solutions. This was a big deal both for our customers and Zebra, but just the tip of the iceberg as far as supplies innovation goes.
Your Edge Blog Team: How so?
Gene: Zebra’s vision at the time was growth, international expansion and improving the customer experience. And many of our core solutions our customers were adopting at the time – printers, barcode scanners, etc. – were reliant on the supplies we were developing. I know others on the Supplies team have talked about this before on the Your Edge blog: labeling, scanning and item tracking applications are only as good as the supplies you’re using to execute them. If you’re using the wrong type of label, ribbon or printhead, the performance of your printer and quality of your label are going to suffer – and those both have big implications on business performance. So, we knew that the more we could improve our supplies, the better the overall customer experience would be with our hardware portfolio. In turn, they could do what they needed to do from a labeling perspective – or eventually an RFID or temperature sensing perspective – to better support their customers.
Your Edge Blog Team: Your team obviously had a lot to celebrate at the time of the IPO given that we were the first in the industry to offer UL-recognized on-demand thermal transfer label printing solutions. What other big milestones stick with you?
Gene: This is before the IPO, but I remember the time we had our first million-dollar month, and we had a celebration in the cafeteria surrounded by master rolls of labels because we had nowhere else to put them.
Your Edge Blog Team: That sounds like it would be a fun photo to track down.
Gene: I agree. Though I have a feeling if we started digging, we would find all kinds of funny photos. In fact, the people and culture are why I’ve stayed with Zebra for all these years, along with the opportunity to learn new technologies and science.
Your Edge Blog Team: What attracted you to Zebra in the first place?
Gene: I was introduced to Zebra by Clive Hohberger, who was Vice President of Technology at the time, and he told me the story of two guys starting Zebra on a kitchen table, which I thought was really cool. They were just getting started in the Supplies space. We have since gone from one press/one operator in the Chicago area to seven worldwide locations with over 500 associates each bringing their unique life experiences to the Zebra journey.
Your Edge Blog Team: What’s your best memory as a member of Zebra Nation?
Gene: I’m sure I could pick hundreds of memories, but I will give you three: meeting my wife Cathy at Zebra in 1989 (hope I got the year right), my working and personal relationship with Zebra co-founder Gary Cless, and the acquisition of Temptime several years back.
Your Edge Blog Team: If you could put one Zebra-related thing in a time capsule today to be opened 30 years from now, what would it be?
Gene: I would put some of our environmental sensors in the capsule. It will be interesting to see how they evolve and grow while supporting Zebra’s vision in the asset tracking and supplies space.
Your Edge Blog Team: What do you think your team will be doing or Zebra as a company will be focused on 30 years from now?
Gene: Sorry, predicting the future is not my strength, but I can confirm that the current Zebra is the best Zebra I have experienced. I expect our inclusion and diversity initiatives will help lead us successfully to 2050. (Yikes! I feel like that’s a date you see in sci-fi movies. It’s hard to believe we’re talking about it in real-life terms.)
Your Edge Blog Team: We know you like to push the limits at work, but what about in your personal life?
Gene: Well, in the last three years I’ve hiked Angels Landing in Zion, Utah, and gone paragliding in Golden Colorado. So, I guess you could say I live on the edge a bit.