An electronics engineer by profession, Hans-Ulrich Müller had a successful career in the Swiss semiconductor industry and as venture partner at Partners Group before joining u-blox.
One day in 1998, Professor Gerhard Tröster called him up to tell him about a small group of engineers who wanted to form their own company and to ask whether he would be interested in taking a seat on the board. He didn’t hesitate for a second.
You came on board at an early stage in u-blox’s development. What motivated you to invest in the company?
Hans-Ulrich Müller (H-UM) – In 1997, after 20 years in the electronics industry, I decided to set up my own consulting firm. I received a call from professor Gerhard Tröster in 1998 and met him and the founders who were then interested in setting up a company. They made a very professional and positive impression. The idea of miniaturizing high-tech GPS components appealed to me and fitted in perfectly with my field of interest. As a sign of my commitment, I put up 50,000 Swiss francs of my own.
What was your role during the start-up phase?
H-UM – During the first year, I acted as a coach and mentor. We considered the pros and cons of the venture, drew up a new business plan and worked out how much money u-blox needed. I also provided contacts with the industry and potential investors.
Could you tell us a little about Partners Group?
H-UM – In 1998, Partners Group also was a small start-up company investing third-party funds into private equity but also wanting to run its own fund. We set up a 150-million Swiss franc private equity fund, intending to invest it into several companies. After looking at about 300 firms in Switzerland and Germany, we eventually went ahead with three of them, including u-blox. Apart from its potential, the fact I’d been on the board for over a year was a crucial factor for our initial investment of 5 million francs.
What has it been like working so closely with a group of entrepreneurs?
Things have always gone smoothly. The only problem appeared if they got too technical. Then I had to ask the founders to explain things in terms potential investors and I could understand (laughs).
Can you tell us more about your role with u-blox?
H-UM – The first two years were amazing. We won a 12 million franc contract to supply 60,000 GPS units for the Swiss road pricing system. After that, Benefon - a Finnish company that needed a GPS unit for its mobile phones – contracted us to produce 50,000 units a month. We found an additional investor, set up production and started delivering in the second quarter of 2001. By mid-2001, Benefon was bankrupt and left us sitting on 140,000 units with a 9-million-euro debt to our suppliers. As a result, the new investor pulled out, and the banks insisted on repayment. Then came 9/11, which paralyzed business until the end of 2001. At that point, Partners Group insisted that I acted as ad-interim CEO until we could find a permanent one. My first job was to get an extension with our creditors and the suppliers.
In this difficult period, we could win Thomas Seiler as an experienced CEO, willing to jump in and also to invest his own money. He was thinking way ahead and making decisions aligned with goals, which is also one of the reasons why u-blox is successful today.
Finally, other investments from Partners Group enabled us to survive, and we sold the 140,000 GPS units we had in stock. We developed our next-generation GPS components, branched out into Asia and, by 2004, showed our first profit.
u-blox went public in 2007. What was your involvement in the IPO?
H-UM – After 2004 we had much higher margins and started considering an IPO. In mid-2007, we figured the time was right.
Partners Group had about 45% ownership of the company, so we began talking to banks, establishing contacts and setting pricing. The IPO went ahead successfully in 2007. I then found a new Chairman in Dr. Fritz Fahrni, who defined a new strategy with a much broader product portfolio, and we went into the wireless business because most of our customers needed these products.
Where do you see u-blox in the next 20 years?
H-UM – We’re extremely well positioned for the Internet of Things, which is a booming market. It requires lots of high-end products, but also simple, reliable, low-cost components suitable for many fields, such as positioning, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. I think u-blox will also play a central role in the automotive sector, an area where we have a lot of expertise. And I see u-blox playing a role model: I think it’s excellent how we find talented employees all over the world and integrate them into our constellation.