Jeff Benck took over the reins of Benchmark in March of this year. Jeff is an engineer who spent his early years as a development engineer at IBM and went go on to hold various engineering, marketing and project management roles at the company over 18 years. After he left IBM, he held C-level roles with a variety of mid-cap public companies who were suppliers to computer and networking companies like IBM and HP. These roles provided Jeff with a unique background on what it was like to support a large OEM. His most recent role as President and CEO of Lantronix allowed Jeff to work in the Internet of Things realm. EMSNOW caught up with Jeff recently to learn more.
EMSNOW: Your background and experience in the OEM world suggests you have a sensitivity to the customer side of the EMS industry. How should this OEM perspective contribute to the success of Benchmark under your leadership?
I absolutely have a customer-first belief system. One of the perspectives I bring to Benchmark is an OEM customer point-of-view, not only because I was once a happy customer of Benchmark, but also because I worked with other EMS competitors. From those experiences, I know what great customer partnerships look like and the commitment that is required to collaborate. I’m also an engineer and have led a lot of different product development teams throughout my career. I understand the pain points and challenges that need to be solved for our customers.
Benchmark doesn’t develop its own intellectual property; we help our customers co-create next-gen innovation. That’s why Benchmark has invested heavily in engineering capabilities and technology building blocks that allow us to serve our customers throughout the product development journey, from concept to prototype to scaling. This approach allows us to become an innovation conduit. It also solves two of our customer’s biggest challenges today: getting to market faster and at lower costs.
EMSNOW: The OEM and EMS business models while similar do have their differences. What are the challenges you anticipate in moving to the other side of the table?
The EMS industry continues to change as companies look to add more value, but not every EMS provider has navigated this transition successfully. Benchmark has invested for many years in engineering and technical skills that are more often found in OEM product companies. We also have a wide range of technology building blocks that allow us to help OEMs in deeper and more meaningful ways. We can now take on a lot of tasks that OEMs were once responsible for, such as engineering, design or test development. We can even own the complete solution. From my early customer interactions as president and CEO of Benchmark, I’ve heard them acknowledge we’re ahead of many of our competitors because we’ve invested in these skills, and the timing is right because they need more capabilities and support from their EMS partners.
All of the OEM companies I’ve led throughout my career used outsourced manufacturing, so I have a keen understanding of the differences between the two business models. And while I’m continually learning about the EMS space, I’m well suited to help Benchmark accelerate its transition to becoming the best collaborative innovation partner in the industry.
EMSNOW: The industry has clearly zeroed in on the Internet of Things as being a key opportunity. What do you think are the major strengths of the EMS industry as a whole and Benchmark specifically in capturing business from that opportunity?
The last company I was at before Benchmark was focused on the IoT space. It was clear from the customers we engaged with everyone wanted to connect their high value industrial or commercial machines, but rarely knew where to start. It shouldn’t be surprising, as there are very few companies where IoT networking is a core competency. EMS providers have a significant role to play in facilitating customers with connectivity solutions and sophisticated wireless building blocks.
Benchmark is uniquely positioned to address this opportunity because we have invested in IoT, and more specifically, RF technology and 5G enablement. Many EMS providers offer off-the-shelf connectivity modules, but we’ve gone beyond that and built a High Speed and RF Design Center of Innovation where we can collaborate with customers on their specific needs and create custom solutions to help them address their complex networking challenges. We also have unique capabilities in micro-e and RF space that provides us with smaller, lower power and more efficient solutions.
EMSNOW: The EMS industry has historically been challenged by low profitability. How do you see Benchmark addressing this challenge?
By moving up the value chain. As I mentioned, the EMS industry has shifted and customers are witnessing a bifurcation where they either leverage unique technical capabilities to provide superior services, or they focus on high volume and low-cost offerings. Benchmark saw the writing on the wall some time ago and began investing in engineering skills and technology that helped solve more complex problems, even if these challenges didn’t necessarily require a high volume solution. We’ve also focused our attention on higher value industries such as medical and defense where we have unique core competencies, and OEMs have traditionally done all of the work themselves. Benchmark also has the expertise to take on the complexity found in highly regulated markets. These investments enable us to be the trusted advisor to companies that typically come with higher returns.
EMSNOW: What do you think are the other major challenges facing the EMS industry going forward?
There is a ton of commoditization going on in the industry which is driving profitability and returns down. At the same time, OEMs are demanding more from their EMS partners and companies like us need to prove our value. We need to continue investing in richer tool sets, a skilled technical workforce and cutting edge technologies.
A new emerging challenge I see is OEMs requiring their products be built in the U.S. For a long time, you were crazy if you didn’t have your manufacturing operations in Asia. In Benchmark’s case, the company has always positioned itself as a leader in U.S. manufacturing operations based on the industries it serves. Today, it’s becoming en vogue to produce products domestically. This is being driven by the rise in tariffs, the desire to source products closer to the end user, and the requirement to produce many sensitive products such as supercomputers, military technology and medical devices domestically. Benchmark has our largest factory footprint in the U.S., representing 39% of our capacity, making us well positioned to take advantage of this growing trend.
EMSNOW: What are some of your hopes and dreams for Benchmark as you take over the CEO position? How will you address challenges like the skilled labor shortage, for example?
My biggest goal for Benchmark is to get all of our customers to think of us as the right innovation partner to help them realize their product dreams. I want Benchmark to be their innovation conduit and collaboration partner, not just their manufacturer. Another aspiration I have is to deliver even more value to our shareholders. Our investments and execution position us well to gain market share and grow at a faster rate.
As for addressing the labor shortage, given the scale of Benchmark and our global footprint, I believe we are well-equipped to find talent that have skills in our core competencies across the marketplace. For example, we moved our headquarters to Arizona with the availability of technical talent being a key consideration. Arizona provides a better quality of life for our employees than a lot of cramped and expensive “tech hubs” across the U.S. We’re also down the street from Arizona State University, which produces some of the top engineering talent in the world. Of course, these advantages aren’t limited to our Arizona footprint. We align ourselves with several leading universities around the globe in proximity to our facilities.
At Benchmark, we consider ourselves “big enough to scale, but small enough to care,” which applies to how we treat both our customers and employees. This unique culture also positions us well to attract top talent.
EMSNOW: What else would you like to say to EMSNow readers?
As a former product developer and lifelong technologist, I’m thrilled to join Benchmark at a time when EMS companies are challenged to evolve by providing more innovation and value to OEMs. The Benchmark team has stepped up to this challenge and has been very receptive to my leadership in the early days of my tenure. I believe we’re very well positioned to thrive in this new world of EMS, and my background and customer perspective will serve us well as I lead the company in this new direction.