When Motorola Inc. first came courting Greg Brown, he wasn't interested.
The year was 1998 and Brown, a division president at Ameritech in Chicago, was weighing an offer from Motorola against one from Micromuse, a publicly traded software company in San Francisco. Motorola was the larger and more well-known corporation, and one that Brown had admired for years, but the corporate vice president role he would be taking wasn't senior enough for his liking. Micromuse wanted him as chief executive.
More than three years later, Brown heard about a sector president opening at Motorola. This time, he wanted the job, even if it meant giving up the CEO title at Micromuse, because he was energized about the scale and growth opportunities for the group he would be heading. It was the segment that would eventually become public safety, making communications equipment for emergency responders and other government agencies.
But Brown was in the minority of people who thought joining Motorola was a smart move.
"I would say 75 percent or more of my friends or the people I knew told me I was out of my mind -- nuts," Brown said. " 'Why would you go to that company? It's an American icon that's dying. It's got a whole set of piece parts that are not integrated. It's old culture. It's engineering-centric. It's not progressive.' And that's when Motorola was not in the extreme trouble that it was (later). And I just view it differently."
Today, Brown, 51, is finally at the helm of a Motorola that is the most closely aligned with his interests and strengths. As CEO of Motorola Solutions, he leads the part that for years was largely ignored by investors, the technology press and financial analysts, most of whom focused on the more glamorous and consumer-focused mobile phone division. The segments of Motorola that sold communications equipment and software to public safety agencies and industrial customers -- logistics companies, retailers and the like -- were quietly and steadily profitable. They also held more appeal for Brown, whose career arc through companies such as IBM and Ameritech has focused on business-to-business technology.
"I think that B2B is more personal," Brown said. "It's complex. There are more nuances selling into a large organization: financially, strategically, technically."
In January 2011, Motorola spun off the mobile devices and cable set-top box segments into an independent company called Motorola Mobility Holdings, which is being acquired by Google. The remaining B2B-centric businesses were renamed Motorola Solutions. The company reported profit of $1.15 billion on $8.2 billion in revenue for 2011, and its stock ended the year more than 16 percent higher. Its communications equipment has been used at the Olympics for decades, and it also made the two-way radios carried by rescue workers who helped extricate the group of trapped Chilean miners in 2010.
The company's strong financial performance in its first year as an independent company vindicated Brown and the board of directors' drastic decision, announced in March 2008, to break up Motorola so the fortunes of mobile devices could be separated from those of the B2B divisions.
Not only did this strategy commit the company to a highly complex and time-consuming process, but it also required hiring a co-CEO to prepare mobile devices for separation and lead the newly independent company after the split.
"Greg was the sole CEO and agreed to bring on a co-CEO," said Michael Annes, the executive tasked with leading the separation process who is now Motorola Solutions' senior vice president of business development and ventures. "He did that not because he thought it would be easy, but because he thought it would be the right thing to do to unlock the very hidden and not appreciated value in the enterprise business. ... Greg saw it could be unlocked and fought for it for three years."
Brown's career history reveals an executive who seems to thrive on being underrated. The youngest of five children growing up in North Brunswick and Highland Park, N.J., he gained an interest in technology after seeing his older brothers take jobs at AT&T and IBM. Richard, one of Brown's older brothers, overlapped with him at Ameritech and later became CEO of Electronic Data Systems, the technology firm founded by Ross Perot.
Brown said he was met with skepticism when he applied for an IBM internship during his undergraduate years at Rutgers University.
"When I was interviewing for the internship, they said, 'Based on the competitive pool of candidates, you don't make the cut. And you have no experience at all, zero,' " Brown recalled. "I used to pump gas. So they said, 'You pumped gas and you go to Rutgers. That's it. And there are other people that are much more qualified.' "
Brown impressed the recruiter by describing how he spent summers painting house numbers on curbs in exchange for voluntary donations. He had convinced the local police chief to give him a license to solicit door-to-door, explaining that emergency responders could more easily find houses if numbers were painted on the curbs. Brown painted 125 curbs a day.
"The average house gave me a buck," Brown said. "This is when minimum wage was like $3.25. I would make hundreds and thousands of dollars. Unbelievable, painting curbs. So I told that story to the guy from IBM. He said, 'You're hired. I'll give you a shot. That's an interesting story.' He said he'd never heard of anybody who painted curbs. I said, 'Let me just say, there's money in curbs.' I still believe it today."
Brown expected to work at IBM after graduating from Rutgers with a degree in economics but was instead persuaded by an AT&T executive to take a job at the telecommunications giant. Looking for a challenge, Brown asked to be posted in a poorly performing market. In June 1982, he drove a U-Haul to Detroit and stayed for five years, selling AT&T's computing systems to business customers.
At that time, Brown recalled, IBM was the dominant PC company, and he was working for AT&T, a new player in PCs, in the company's worst-performing Midwestern city. But he ended up leading a team that won a contract selling more than 10,000 computers to General Motors and Electronic Data Systems. That achievement earned him companywide visibility as he was tapped to give seminars to AT&T sales teams around the country on how to beat IBM in PCs.
The big sale also earned Brown attention outside of AT&T. He was recruited to join Ameritech and spent 12 years there. His tenure at the telecom firm brought him to Milwaukee and then Chicago, where he put down roots. When he accepted Micromuse's offer to become CEO, he commuted to San Francisco from Chicago.
Leading a public company was a crucial learning experience and one that came with a few surprises. During one of his earliest days at Micromuse, Brown tried to organize a senior staff meeting, only to discover that everyone but the general counsel was located in London, where the company was founded.
About a week after that, he got a visit from the chief financial officer.
"The CFO says, 'This is a great company, we're thrilled to have you, blah blah blah, but I think we're going to miss this quarter,'" Brown recalled. "So I'm coming into a brand new company. ... Here I am, the rookie CEO on the job and we're going to miss the quarter. That's when I said: What in the hell am I doing? And what did I sign up for?"
Micromuse did end up making the financial goals for the quarter. Moreover, under Brown's leadership, the company's annual revenue grew from $28 million when he started in 1998 to more than $200 million when he left for Motorola.
Plenty of difficulties
Brown's executive acumen faced even greater tests at the Schaumburg technology company. Motorola once dominated the cellphone industry with the Razr, but its mobile devices business was on life support by the time Brown replaced Ed Zander as CEO in 2008.
"I underestimated how deep the problems were," said Brown, who lost 30 pounds in a month because of stress. "And when I got the CEO job and had full responsibility and did a deeper dive, they were extreme. The division was hemorrhaging cash. ... Morale was low. Margins were thin. Market share was diving. And the identity of Motorola was largely driven by the mobile devices division, so the brand was getting stained. The stock was diving. Taking over at that point in time was very hard because everybody was upset: employees, investors, customers, the board, Carl Icahn. So this was the ultimate baptism by fire."
The way out of the morass was slashing costs, breaking up the company and hiring Sanjay Jha, a Qualcomm executive, to be co-CEO and run mobile devices. Sharing the CEO title was difficult, especially as the executives wrestled with how to divide such assets as Motorola's brand and extensive patent portfolio.
As an added complication, the global economic meltdown delayed the separation process, which stretched through 2010.
"I think (being a co-CEO) was difficult for Greg," Jha told the Tribune in a 2011 interview. "It was difficult for me. But I would say under the circumstances, Greg and I did the right things and we made the right decisions in running Motorola the way that we did."
Brown's colleagues say his leadership style is pragmatic, analytical and free of ego, which is a combination of traits that helped make the co-CEO structure palatable and guide Motorola through the protracted separation process. Annes recalled that Brown trusted him to make direct contact with board Chairman David Dorman about split-related matters.
"I didn't have to go through Greg or Sanjay to speak with Dave Dorman," Annes said. "If I had an issue I wanted to talk about with Dave, I was strongly encouraged to talk to him directly. (Greg) didn't try to filter or influence my conversations."
Since Motorola Solutions and Motorola Mobility became independent, Brown and Jha have spoken only a couple of times. Brown, who remains loyal to the brand he shares with his former co-CEO, carries a Motorola Mobility Droid Razr smartphone. At Motorola Solutions, he has focused on defining his company's mission and image around providing indispensable, cutting-edge technology to its government and industrial customers. He's also been able to shape Motorola Solutions' culture, leaving behind much of the negativity that dogged the old Motorola.
One major sore point was that Motorola's bonus plan was averaged across divisions, meaning that the money-losing mobile devices unit dragged down compensation for all other employees.
"For a long time, people used to describe Motorola as competing tribes," Annes said. "We were competing for capital, for the attention of management, whatever it was. Now I think everybody views themselves as pulling in the same direction and wanting the same result because it's a smaller company."
Annes said Brown walks the hallways, poking his head into executives' offices to ask them what they're working on, then listening intently.
Freed from the distractions of turning around and separating Motorola, Brown has also increased his involvement in local and national policy discussions. He's on the Obama administration's Skills for America's Future board and the President's Management Advisory Board. In Chicago, he serves on multiple boards and has helped Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recruit corporations to the city.
Brown also maintains strong ties to his home state of New Jersey. He sits on Rutgers' board of trustees and board of overseers, and is heading the search for the school's next president. Last year, in an effort to convince New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to seek the Republican nomination for president, he and his wife, Anna, hosted a dinner at their home so that the governor and his family could meet Chicago business leaders.
"The governor was on holiday with his family, so Greg convinced the governor to come to his home with his entire family in the middle of vacation to have dinner with a good number of us," said United Continental Chairman Glenn Tilton. "We all appreciated the opportunity. ...That's classic Greg and Anna Brown."
Brown, who said he and Christie are friends because "we're both Jersey boys," downplayed his powers of persuasion, saying that he had simply suggested that the governor "ought to swing by" if he was in Chicago. But he did acknowledge a heightened interest in politics since becoming CEO of Motorola, a position that has vaulted him into an influential circle of business and civic leaders.
"Over the last year or so, he has developed a clear sense of how to articulate the strategy of the company, be cognizant of shareholders' interests and (do) very thoughtful work around capital allocation and how to effectively grow the firm," said Judy Lewent, a longtime director at Motorola who is now on the board of Motorola Solutions.
"In addition, he's really been able now to pursue some of his other interests in terms of ... being a real citizen of the community, locally in Chicago but also on the national and global level, and participate thoughtfully in policy discussions that are relevant to our industry."
Running for office himself, however, holds little appeal for Brown.
"I'm very happy in the role I'm in," he said. "I think I have the best job in the world."
- - -
Greg Brown, CEO of Motorola Solutions
Family: Married to Anna Brown for 28 years. They met during his junior year of high school, when she was a cheerleader and he played on the basketball team. They have two children: Megan, 25, and Troy, 24. Troy played basketball year-round during his school years, and Brown made 214 of his son's 215 games between eighth grade and senior year. The reason for missing that one game? A meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Residence: Barrington Hills
Nicknames: Colleagues call him Greg, and friends call him "Brownie," a nickname he has had since childhood.
Philanthropy: Brown and his wife are chairing the American Cancer Society's Discovery Ball this year; the April event is one of the city's largest charity galas. United Continental Chairman Glenn Tilton, a previous chairman, "made me an offer I couldn't refuse" during a function at Brown's house last year. "He said, 'Brown, you've got to do this.'"
Pro sports: Brown has been a Chicago Bulls season ticket holder for seven years. He shares his first-row floor seats with restaurateurs Larry and Mark Levy. Brown has become friends with some of the players, including former point guard Kirk Hinrich, now with the Atlanta Hawks, who attended the December wedding of Brown's daughter.
On Chicago: "Chicago is awesome. It's got the culture, the pace, the diversity (and) the scale of a big city, but it's clean, safe and there's a great public-private partnership that's gone on for many years here. It's unique. I love it here."
Twitter @VelocityWongCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times