Country of origin: Taiwan
Year came to U.S.: 1973
Education: BS Electrical Engineering, National Taiwan University;
MS and PhD Electrical Engineering, University of Tennessee
Business: Garmin (1989)
Headquarters: Olathe, KS
2015 revenue: $2.8 billion
U.S. employment: 4,333
Kao’s work has been used by the United States Army, NASA and now by smartphone users around the world.
He came to the United States to pursue master’s and doctoral studies at the University of Tennessee.
Min H. Kao went from growing up in a small Taiwanese town to becoming a self-made millionaire. In the process, he gained three degrees including a PhD, served in the Taiwan Navy, built GPS (Global Positioning System) and satellite technology for the U.S. Army and NASA respectively. He now spearheads the development of GPS devices and location-based computing.
Moving to the United States in 1973 on a student visa, Kao went on to build navigational systems for various companies. After his GPS technology became operational at NASA, Kao explored his desire to start his own company. With co-worker Gary Burrell, they secured $4 million in financing from Kao’s colleagues in Taiwan and started their company in Kansas in 1989, which they named Garmin in 1991 from a combination of “Gary” and “Min.”
Garmin practices vertical integration. It conceives of, manufactures, markets and sells its own products. These products include automotive parts, marine units, aviation technology, fitness devices and, more popularly, wireless GPS applications for smartphones.
By 1995, sales had reached $105 million with a profit of $23 million. By 1999, sales had doubled to $233 million and profit nearly tripled to $64 million. A decade later, Garmin emerged as the global market leader in the PND (portable navigation device) segment, and by 2010 company sales skyrocketed to $2.7 billion. In 2015, the company shipped 16.2 million units worldwide.
Kao now has an estimated net worth of $1.6 billion, but he has never forgotten the places or people who helped him to reach this far. He maintains close ties with his birthplace. He also made the largest private donation in the history of the University of Tennessee, $17.5 million. His name now graces the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.