As One of the Last “Original” Zebras, Tom Zwier Will Be the First to Tell You a Lot Has Changed Since Zebra Went Public 30 Years Ago. But He’s Proud a Few Things Never Did.

Find out why he has stuck with “The Herd” for so long and the one thing he would put in a time capsule if he could.

by Your Edge Blog Team
August 13, 2021

There are seven people at Zebra who can say they “were there when” the company made its initial public offering (IPO) on August 15, 1991. Tom Zwier is one of them.

He may not remember exactly where he was that day or what project he was working on, but the mechanical engineer remembers the feeling he had. The work they were doing was important – game changing even for people everywhere, not just the customers he was supporting day in and day out. It’s a feeling he still has today. It’s part of the reason why he has stuck with The Herd all these years. Keep reading to find out what it was like to work alongside Zebra’s founders and why he was a bit shocked to see their “far-fetched” vision for the company come true…

Your Edge Blog Team: How did you find Zebra? Or did we find you?

Tom: I was looking for a new job and had a headhunter scheduling interviews for me. None of those companies excited me in any way. I happened to see a small ad in a local newspaper for Data Specialties Incorporated (DSI) in Northbrook, Illinois, so I scheduled an interview. I immediately felt at ease during the interview. The man that interviewed me was personable, friendly, and rather laid back. The place was quite small and had a family atmosphere. The electro-mechanical products were quite interesting to me. And the company’s suburban location was exactly where I wanted to work.

Your Edge Blog Team: How did you end up working with our Custom Application Group (CAG) in Lincolnshire, Illinois?

Tom: I have always been in mechanical engineering in some form. I was hired to work in the Manufacturing Engineering group of DSI in 1981. I was transferred to New Product Engineering soon after to assist with the development of the first barcode printer we developed. I continued to work in New Product Engineering for many years and was eventually asked to help start a Manufacturing Engineering department, now called Sustaining Engineering. Once that got going, I went back to New Product Engineering for a while. I was then asked to join a new group created for Zebra to add RFID capability to our printers. Once we had RFID going, the group was disbanded and I went back to New Products for a bit before being asked to work in the CAG. After a few years in CAG, I went back to New Products to support the development of a new RFID print engine and the ZT600 Series industrial printers. Last September, I was reassigned to CAG again and am now responsible for mechanical customizations of Zebra products for customers.

Your Edge Blog Team: Wow, it sounds like you’ve had the opportunity to contribute to Zebra’s growth – and our customers’ success – in some big ways. Do you remember what you were working on for Zebra at the time of the IPO (August 15, 1991)?

Tom: No specific recollections, but Zebra was constantly creating new and better printers, as we continue to do today.

Your Edge Blog Team: What was the vision for the company at the time, as you recall it?

Tom: The company’s founders Ed Kaplan and Gary Cless often talked about Zebra becoming the next IBM. As a company that had 89 employees in a tiny building in Northbrook, Illinois, I have to admit that seemed a bit far-fetched at the time.

Your Edge Blog Team: What other milestones do you remember Zebra reaching at that time?

Tom: One thing I remember about those days is that every quarter, without fail, our sales figures had double-digit increases, many times over 20%.

Your Edge Blog Team: Why have you chosen to stay with Zebra so long?

Tom: Zebra has always surrounded me with wonderful co-workers and has always treated me well.  I have always been happy and proud to work here and have no desire to work anyplace else.  But it also works both ways.  To borrow an analogy from the pro sports world, I feel like the draft choice that is fortunate enough to finish his career with the team that drafted him, humbled and proud.

Your Edge Blog Team: What’s your best memory as a Zebra?

Tom: Working shoulder to shoulder with Ed Kaplan and Gary Cless as we developed the first barcode printer.

Your Edge Blog Team: If you could put one Zebra-related item in a time capsule today to be opened 30 years from now, what would it be?

Tom: I would have to say a “Zebra” printer, our first barcode printer. It’s the machine that got this whole ball rolling, that helped DSI transform into Zebra Technologies, so it would be a good addition.

Your Edge Blog Team: What do you think will define Zebra 30 years from now? What kind of company do you envision Zebra evolving into?

Tom: To tell you the truth, I never envisioned Zebra becoming the company it is today. From barely $12 million in sales per year to billions is absolutely amazing. From 89 employees in one location to 8,800 worldwide is beyond belief.  From what, $12 per share to over $500? And we keep getting bigger and stronger every year.

I am so very proud to be one of the last original “Zebras”, to have contributed to the company’s successes, and to be associated with everyone here. It’s been one heck of a ride!

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Editor’s Note:

You can read more about the vision set forth by Zebra’s founders (and how DSI came to be Zebra) in this blog post

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Your Edge Blog Team
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