Gary Burrell, co-founder of Garmin company based in Olathe, dies at 81

Gary Burrell, who co-founded Garmin and shepherded it as it grew into one of the Kansas City area’s most recognized and successful business ventures, died Wednesday at the age of 81, the Olathe-based company announced Thursday morning.

Burrell, together with fellow engineer Min Kao, formed the company in 1989 to build products enabled by the then-emerging technology of Global Positioning System, or GPS. They named it Garmin by joining the first three letters of each founders’ first names together.

The two believed GPS would have relevance beyond its initial military applications.

Over the years, Garmin grew from a small startup to a global company with more than 13,000 employees in 60 locations across the globe. It employs some 4,000 workers in the Kansas City area.

Garmin now manufactures products for five markets: automotive, aviation, fitness, marine and outdoor recreation. The company recorded earnings of $3.3 billion last year, including about $778 million in profits.

Burrell retired in 2002 and continued to serve as Garmin’s co-chairman until 2004, when he was named chairman emeritus.

“Gary Burrell has been my friend, mentor and partner for more than 30 years,” Kao said in a news release Thursday. “His vision, values, engineering skills and commitment to serving our customers have been the foundation for the growth of our company. It has been both a great privilege and a blessing to have known this amazing man and I know his legacy will live on.”

Burrell was not the first Kansas City business giant to die this year. Henry Bloch, who co-founded Kansas City-based H&R Block, died in April at the age of 96.

Before launching Garmin, Burrell worked at several marine and aviation electronics companies including Lowrance Electronics, King Radio Corporation and AlliedSignal. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Wichita State University and a master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Cliff Pemble, Garmin’s current president and CEO, was among Burrell’s first hires.

“It’s a sad day for us — a day we knew was probably coming — but it still stings nonetheless,” Pemble said in an interview Thursday. “Gary had a lot qualities. I believe, though, that he will be known most for his humble spirit and his mind of a servant.”

In the earliest days, only engineers worked at the emerging company. But Burrell was known for his personality as much as his technical prowess. Pemble said the founder was quick to greet friends and employees with his “infectious smile.” And he was known to work on the production lines, troubleshooting and teaching employees along the way.

“He just made everyone feel welcome and part of the team,” the CEO said.

While the founders believed there was great potential in GPS technology, Pemble expects the company’s growth far outpaced their expectations.

Garmin’s initial public offering in 2000 solidified the founders’ wealth. Burrell has long held a spot on Forbes’ list of richest Americans and was reportedly Garmin’s second-largest shareholder.

But Pemble said wealth didn’t change him. Burrell remained humble and quietly gave away millions of dollars, preferring to invest his fortune in educational and faith-based causes, Pemble said.

He almost always avoided public recognition and granted few interview requests over the years..

Burrell personally championed the company’s “vertical integration” strategy, which seeks to maintain as much in-house control over the development and production process as possible. That means Garmin’s nautical instruments and smartwatches are produced by Garmin employees, not third-party vendors.

“I think the legacy that is so clear in my mind is the jobs that have been created by Garmin. And I think that’s something Gary would be very proud of,” Pemble said. “Those jobs have provided stability for families, including families like my own, for many, many years.”

Burrell was deeply involved in Olathe’s Indian Creek Community Church.

In 1985, he and Gary Kendall ventured out from the First Church of God in Shawnee to plant the new church on a plot Burrell found along South Black Bob Road.

“I think Black Bob was a two-lane dirt road when they found the property, said John Bennie, a longtime friend and Indian Creek’s current business administrator.

Like Garmin, the church blossomed over the years. Several expansions made room for the 1,000 families that now attend.

While Burrell was active in volunteering and donating to the church, Bennie said he did so quietly.

“He was very modest, very humble and behind the scenes,” he said. “But he remembered pretty much everything about everyone he ever met.”

While Burrell amassed a fortune, he could have been confused for any regular church member. Bennie said he never owned a jet or luxury cars.

“We would meet for lunch at Perkins because you could get a free slice of pie if you’re over 55,” he said. “You would have never known that he was who he was or had built what he had built.”

Laurie Minard, Garmin’s vice president of human resources, remembered Burrell for his genuine interest in his employees. A 23-year veteran of the company, Minard was the first human resources team member hired.

When she first started, she said, Burrell would personally help vet job applicants by checking their references. And he seemed to know each worker personally.

In the early days, the founders would celebrate employees’ fifth-year anniversaries with congratulatory dinners at local restaurants. Over the years, the hordes of employees outgrew dining rooms and eventually moved to larger venues at hotels.

Minard remembered a time in the 1990s when 50 employees were recognized. Burrell wasn’t expected to talk about each of them, but surprised the crowd.

“He actually told a story about every single person without any notes,” Minard said. “He really cared deeply about people and their families. He had incredible relationships.”

No announcement has been made about funeral arrangements for Burrell.

This story has been updated to include Burrell’s relationship with Indian Creek Community Church in Olathe.

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