As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post CO VID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Bronson.
Steven is the chief executive officer (CEO) and president of Interlink Electronics, a Calif.-based global manufacturer of human machine interface (HMI) sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. Steven has over 35 years of business and entrepreneurial experience. His successful background in investment banking, operations, and management has led him to acquire meaningful stakes in several promising technology companies and assume CEO roles to lead their transition towards profitability. Since successfully returning Interlink’s business to profitability, Steven has focused on strategic matters, mission-critical decisions, and the identification of potential acquisitions and business partnership opportunities. In addition, Steven is president and CEO of Qualstar Corporation, a high-quality tape library manufacturer, and its subsidiary N2Power, a manufacturer of high-efficiency power supplies for diverse electronics industries.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career in investment banking, first, as a trader and then, as a founder of two investment firms. During this time, I learned about several important aspects of what it takes to grow a strong, healthy company; everything from raising capital to executing mergers and strategic acquisitions. I became familiar with all the ways of getting companies in touch with the right people and resources to help take their brand to the next level.
During the mid-to-late ’90s, I was involved with my first technology turnaround story. It was a middle-market public company that had raised capital and gone public, but then had some hardships. I was brought in to assess where the problems were originating. As it turned out, the company had two co-founders who weren’t aligned on what a successful outcome was. One founder wanted the company to fund his retirement, and the other wanted to grow and possibly be acquired by a larger company. That’s a fundamental conflict that couldn’t be resolved. The founder who wanted to retire asked me to find a buyer for his share of the company. I recruited a small group of investors, and myself, to buy out the founder. I served as interim president for one year and the company was later sold off for a large profit.
After that experience, I realized that all of my previous jobs had led me here; I liked what I was doing.
In 2010, I became involved with Interlink Electronics. It was going through a time of turmoil. I was replacing the previous CEO, who had been brought in to sell off pieces of the company. Interlink Electronics has been in operation for 35 years and had a wealth of intellectual property in the sensors industry. But the former CEO was directed by the board to sell off product groups. It was a very transactional relationship. I saw long-term value in the core technology and customer base. Automation and connected devices rely on one key component to make them all work together, and that is a sensor. I knew that the company was worth much more than the sum of its parts. I approached the board of Interlink and offered to increase my ownership in the company and spearhead a change control of leadership.
When I took control of Interlink, it was losing money and there was no plan. After I stepped in, I changed the management team and the board of directors. Then, I implemented a long-term strategic plan. After the first full year, the company broke even. The approach in turning Interlink into a profitable, successful company was to hold on to all of that intellectual property the company had amassed over the years and continue with more research and development. We developed more products and solutions that could become commercialized and used across all kinds of different IoT applications.
Fast-forward to 2013, as I was building and growing Interlink, I was also a passive investor in Qualstar, a digital storage solutions provider. One of the board members of Qualstar had taken over as CEO, but the company was burning through cash — it had just lost $10M. I took control of the company to implement a turnaround strategy and started in with the heavy lifting of rebuilding a company with significant losses. It took a year to clean up Qualstar’s legacy commitments, but by the second year, Qualstar had turned into a profitable company.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
In the early days of my securities career, I worked on a trading desk. One morning, I was late to work. My lateness caused me to take a financial hit on my trading P&L. This experience taught me an important lesson about being on time! To this day, I am very punctual — in fact, anyone who knows me will tell you that I show up early to everything. It goes back to that lesson.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I tend to read more business publications rather than books. But most recently I read the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris and it has really changed my approach to work and home life. I’m a big believer in trying to find balance in life. Because I am constantly striving toward well-being, the holistic approach described in the book appealed to me. Some of the topics were refreshing.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Interlink had a very narrow, legacy view on the technology and IP it owned. When I came on board, my purpose was to broaden the technology and create a shared vision for everyone who worked there. My vision for Interlink was to develop and commercialize innovative solutions that make people’s lives easier, make work more accurate, and make environments safer. Whether our sensors were going into self-driving cars, machines on the line in manufacturing plants, life-saving medical devices, or consumer electronics, that vision was the same. Once the purpose was established, the next step was to make sure we had the right people in place. That required making some hard decisions about who should stay and help us realize that vision and purpose, and letting other people go. Aligning the team with our purpose has been instrumental in Interlink’s turnaround. The people are the ones who buy into the purpose and help the leader execute on that, every day.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The principle I always find myself coming back to is to take the high road in the decision process. As a leader, if you do what’s right, you will succeed. It may not happen right away. You may meet some resistance along the way. Lead by action and example. If your team sees that you are willing to do things that aren’t always the typical job of a CEO, they will respect and follow you.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Normally, I travel quite a bit — about 50 percent of my time is spent flying somewhere. We have operations in China, Singapore, and other global locations that require me to visit and check in with teams. The upside of this pandemic and the shelter-in-place order is that my traveling went to zero. I have greatly enjoyed the family bonding and quality time with my wife and our three kids. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I want to adjust my amount of travel time when this is over, because I’ve realized what I have missed and I’m not willing to go back to that now.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a leader, the biggest challenge is that we are in uncharted territory. When you are someone in a position of leadership, you are expected to have all of the answers, and we don’t have them right now. The closest thing we can compare this to is the flu epidemic of 100 years ago. None of us know what to expect next, or how long this could go on. We have no choice but to accept that, no matter how much we want everything to be “normal,” it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
A challenge we are all facing right now, as a nation, is a lack of unity and leadership. We are at a time in our country where we really need it. People need to be coming together for the greater good and taking care of each other. Because Interlink is a global company, I have the perspective of seeing how other countries and leaders are handling this crisis. For example, Singapore, where our R&D center is located, has already dealt with SARS in the past, so their preparedness and mitigation approaches were very different. Here, in the U.S., every state, and even every city, is handling it differently. This makes it very confusing for all of us. It’s a big challenge for leaders of global companies.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
In our headquarters here in California, I am aware that some employees are nervous to come into the office. They make a beeline for their offices, shut their doors, and don’t want to interact with anyone. Others feel more confident that their coworkers are being responsible outside of the office and it’s safe to interact with them. We’re seeing in real-time how humans all react differently. Some may have loved ones on the frontlines as healthcare workers. Others may have someone who is elderly or immuno-compromised at home. We have to be sensitive to that and find a way for them to work that lines up with their situation. I’ve encouraged everyone who is feeling nervous to work from home. As a leader, every situation is going to be different. You meet each individual where they’re at and try to find something that works for them. A blanket corporate policy can’t really cover everyone’s situation. It’s got to be about the person’s comfort level.
As a father of three, I share with my children that, hopefully, this is the only time in their lives that they will ever have to deal with this. I also want them to realize that they’re lucky — we live in a community where they can get outside, go on walks, take bike rides. I want them to appreciate what we have and not take it for granted. I’ve also tried to reiterate that this will get better, eventually.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the post-Covid economy will look like. But we can, of course, try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet, at the same time, the post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-Covid economy?
I see an opportunity in the post-COVID business world in two key areas. One is recruitment or team-building. With so many companies having to lay off their workers, this is a chance for other companies who are looking to fill key roles to bring in talent that otherwise would not be available. The other area of opportunity lies in strategic partnerships or acquisitions. A company that is doing well in this climate may be able to pick up a company that is struggling and fill a need in its product line or operational model that may not have been possible before. This all goes back to my time in finance and trading — a down market is an excellent time to be a contrarian and go in the opposite direction of the herd.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think there will be lasting changes in how we work, travel, and live. There are a lot of companies out there who never thought they’d allow people to work from home, and now, they’re not only doing it, but will continue to do it even after this is over. It’s possible that what we think of as “normal” may change forever. Most of us are still coming to terms with that. Most of us have a short memory. But in finance, we can look at events like this as part of different economic cycles. Think back to the dot-com bubble and the massive crash of tech companies. Just two years later, that was yesterday’s news. Look at the 2007/2008 mortgage crisis and the recovery there.
I do believe this pandemic is different, though, because there is a global level of effort required to move past this. The entire world is trying to come up with a vaccine. We’re witnessing the greatest amount of resources ever marshaled to address this challenge. But it’s not going to be an easy road to get there. We are not going to be normal anytime soon. We can’t be sheltered in place forever, but we also can’t be in a crowd of 60 thousand people at a sporting event. We are going to have to start rethinking what “normal” is going to look like. There will have to be an adjustment of the human psyche. We’re already seeing two camps on either end of this. We have a group of people who are afraid to leave their homes, and we have another group of people who don’t believe the pandemic is real, and are demanding that everything re-open. I think the new normal will be a hybrid that is somewhere in the middle with a vaccine being the key to getting things back on track. But to do that, we need to accept our circumstances and change our behaviors based on the data. There has to be a return to rational thought — to trusting in science and medicine — that will drive other decisions.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We have had strong plans in place since before the pandemic, and with a few adjustments, those are the same. Interlink invented the force sensing resistor — what we call FSR. These are sensors that detect force or pressure, similar to pressing a button. That’s our legacy. But now, we are transitioning beyond just being a sensor or FSR company. We have spent time understanding how other sensor technology works, combining the different types of sensors with software that controls them. The future of Interlink will be that we are a broader, more comprehensive sensor solution provider that can touch nearly every industry. We have a patent pending on a multi sensor fusion platform that will really help us drive IoT solutions.
Trying to be productive and meet our goals during a pandemic requires us to be nimble. Just last month, we quadrupled the production of our ring sensor component, used in certain ventilators and imaging machines. We did this while navigating stay-at-home orders in the countries where some of our manufacturing facilities are located — China, Singapore, and here in California. This experience has taught us a lot about the ability to diversify our production schedules and supply chain.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Start by understanding how to shore up current business objectives in the near term. Be realistic about what is possible over the next few months. Be balanced in your thought process. Next, look at areas you could capitalize on in the long term. As I mentioned, there is a flip side to this and there are real opportunities to be had. Even in this environment we are in now, you must have some long-term goals and then, the smaller, short-term goals along the way that are part of the journey. Companies who will come through this stronger than before are the ones that have the ability to change the plan and pivot based on new data. It may be necessary to tweak your business strategy. As additional information becomes available, be flexible enough to change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
TBIF: Too Bad it’s Friday! That is something I have said since the early days. My goal is to build a place where people enjoy what they do and feel like part of something.
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