DALLAS. That's one way to get your audience's attention at a conference: speed painting and a mini-concert to kick things off. Fleet technology provider Omnitracs opened its Outlook 2016 user conference Monday, Feb. 1 with an analogy for visualizing the future of trucking, and with Iowa voters just then making their choice for the Republican presidential candidate, things were bound to get political.
The conference opened with artists performing songs including Tom Cochrane's "Life Is a Highway," Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" and The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" onstage. Painters splashed portraits of Nelson and Stones front man Mick Jagger onto canvases as well as the Statue of Liberty and Golden Gate Bridge in a U.S. coast-to-coast theme.
"It's all about seeing where it's going," Omnitracs CEO John Graham said, referencing the image of Nelson that had just come together. "How quickly did you pick that up?
"It's all about being able to picture this," he quipped.
Graham noted the company's investments in 2015 and expansive product release plans for this year, with more than three dozen on the way. First among those is Intelligent Vehicle Gateway, Omnitracs' next-gen truck telematics system offering multichannel connectivity and future expansion capabilities.
"When we tried to paint the picture of who we wanted to be and how we wanted to operate as a team, we started to look at what are the pieces that we had," Graham said. "This year alone, we'll release 38 new products and platforms. Pretty exciting — and very different from where we were at."
The company spent $50 million in research and development in 2015 and will spend another $70 million in 2016, and has doubled its employee count from 550 about two years ago to just under 1,100 today. New employees are focused in R&D, customer service and sales, Graham added.
Omnitracs also promoted more individuals in the last year than it did in the last five years, he noted, describing the company's strategy to grow and cultivate its brain trust. But in terms of being able to predict where the market is going, Graham pointed to economic volatility in China and stemming from immigration overflows from the Middle East into Europe.
Work on autonomous vehicles and smart infrastructure going on now in the automotive world will make its way to trucking, and more and more sensors and data will be added to the mix in trucks, he said. Part of Omnitracs' strategy has included not only bringing together the right assets and minds through acquisitions and hires, Graham said, but relocating its headquarters from southern California to Dallas.
Why Dallas? "Texas is transportation," he explained, with easier global accessibility and a more workable time zone for clients east of the Rocky Mountains. The administration of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the state's longest-serving governor of 14-plus years, helped convince the company it should move to the Lone Star State.
Perry shared the session as keynote speaker. With the timing of the Omnitracs user conference this year, Graham said the company wanted to fold in some political insight.
A Republican presidential candidate himself through two election cycles, Perry spoke of his rural roots and boosting the state's competitiveness dramatically in his time as governor. His advice for fleets was to follow checklists: two he suggested for guidance were the Bible and the U.S. Constitution.
In the latter is a framework for interstate competition, he noted, a tenet he followed in advancing his home state. "It will create the best," he said, adding that trucking companies, just like his home state, innovate by creating checklists of what clients want, then pursuing change to essentially be the better suitor.
Addressing the current field of Republican candidates, Perry reinforced his endorsement of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who served as solicitor general in the former governor's administration. One of the merits of the candidate — who won the Iowa Caucus hours after Perry's speech at the conference — is that "he knows what he doesn't know," according to Perry.
Perry also alluded to Republican candidate Donald Trump, the second-place finisher in Iowa. "There may be somebody running for president who does not know what he doesn't know; just saying," he said.
And again without mentioning names — though he later called Trump's candidacy "a phenomenon unlike we've seen in America" — Perry criticized Trump's stance on immigration and securing the U.S. border with Mexico.
"It's 1,257 miles, and most of that is private property," he said. "You're not just going to build a wall, it's going to be beautiful and you're going to make Mexico pay for it."