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Coffee Talk: Bob Brown

Each week, we sit down with a different member of AEye’s leadership team to discuss their role, their view of challenges and opportunities in the industry, and their take on what lies ahead.

This week, we talk with AEye CFO, Bob Brown.

Bob Brown 1. You have a great deal of experience in the LiDAR industry. Tell us a little bit about that.

I was at a couple of LiDAR companies before coming to AEye, so I tell people I saved the best one for last. I’m a big believer in LiDAR as a market opportunity. There’s a huge need for this technology, and LiDAR will be able to go everywhere, ultimately.

My background has been a mix of public and private companies, and a lot of hardware-oriented companies with software mixed in. I spent a number of years at HP, and my longest stretch was about 14 years at the semiconductor company, LSI Logic. I also worked at Cadence, and have done some things in the startup world. This is my fifth private company.

While I’ve done a variety of things, my depth of experience is highest in hardware-oriented companies, and you have to have a system knowledge when you’re doing hardware. That system capability is critical, and very helpful to understanding how LiDAR works, because it’s a combination of great hardware and great software that really creates a disruptive solution.

2. Let’s talk a little bit about that. You’ve worked with large companies, small companies, LiDAR, a lot in the hardware space. What attracted you to come to AEye?

I was introduced to the company by someone I know and was just very impressed with four major elements.

One is the team. This team is absolutely phenomenal – great experience across the board – just enormous capabilities in terms of technology and business expertise. Everybody at each position is extremely strong. I would say the team, coupled with the culture of the company. Those two elements are critical, and I was convinced AEye would be a great fit for me personally, and that the company could succeed with the team that we’ve got in place.

Second, the technology is absolutely best in class. I’ve seen a lot of LiDAR solutions over the years, and I’m convinced this is by far the best one in the market, and really leapfrogs the competition pretty dramatically.

Third is customers and partners. We’ve really established an “A” list of customers and partners, including Hella, Continental and a number of other companies that are leaders in their spaces. The fact that we won some of those companies is a testament to what this team and this technology can do.

Finally, we’ve got a great business model in terms of how we’re approaching the market and how we’re working with Tier 1s and how we’re working with all of our customers in a unique way.

It’s a combination of those four elements that convinced me that AEye would be a winner and that it would also be a great place to work.

3. This role clearly requires you to be lock-step with the CEO. Can you talk about how you and AEye’s CEO, Blair LaCorte, collaborate, and what that looks like during a pandemic?

You really need a strong partnership between the CEO and CFO to have a successful company long term, and Blair and I quickly established that kind of partnership. I think it was pretty clear to both of us when we met that we would work very well together, and that was key to making the decision to come to AEye as well. You’ve got to have chemistry between the executive staff, and the CEO and CFO relationship is a critical one.

We spend a lot of time together, lockdown or otherwise. We talk multiple times a day, usually starting early in the morning, and we’re on calls with each other and texting throughout the day. It’s just a constant communication stream between Blair and I all day long, seven days a week.

4. You’ve held finance roles at large global corporations like Cadence, LSI and HP, and also several startups. How has your experience at the former informed how you guide the latter?

I think it was a great development path for me to start with some of the larger companies, because I learned the processes and structures needed to run a very large corporation successfully. Those learnings can be mapped to a startup, but in a very different way. By that, I mean there’s the nimbleness and aggressiveness that you need as part of a smaller company in a high growth environment like AEye’s, but you must marry that with some of the best practices that you develop from these larger companies. It’s a combination of keeping the speed and quick decision-making that you need as a startup, but embracing some of the process and structure critical to successful growth. You can’t cause things to slow down too much or you disrupt what you’re trying to do. It’s a real balancing act to get it right so that you’re getting the best of both worlds effectively. That’s the objective that I’m always striving for as CFO of AEye.

5. The world has changed in every way due to the pandemic, including how teams operate and deals are done. Can you shed light on that?

Certainly, everybody’s adapting to a remote work environment, which can be challenging, but I’ve noticed AEye is very adept at that. Many companies seem to be struggling with being remote. I think part of making it work is having a great, collaborative team environment, which AEye does. I think that has enabled AEye to transition into this remote work environment better than some.

Finance people are usually used to working in close proximity to each other and being able to go down the hall and chat with people and ask questions, so we’ve got to adapt to that like everybody else and use tools and processes that you wouldn’t have used quite as much in the past. You have to do the accounting and finance jobs very efficiently on a remote basis and take advantage of some of the software and communication tools available to help enable that.

In the world of finance and capital raising, things are now being done through Zoom calls instead of flying all over the country or the world for personal meetings. Certainly, I’ve done that before, raising money, flying all over the world to meet with investors. This environment is one where it’s a lot more efficient. In some ways, it’s better because you can see a lot more people a lot more quickly than you could otherwise, and it’s easier to organize meetings on the spur of the moment. However, you lose that personal connection from meeting people face to face. Either way, it will be a theme that’s going to continue into 2021 until we get broadly distributed vaccines, and even then, we’ll still be cautious probably for a while.

6. You are a Michigan native, so, having grown up in the Motor City, I have to ask, did you grow up with an affinity for cars?

I love cars. I grew up around cars, being from Michigan. My dad worked for Ford and my grandfather worked for Chrysler, and all of our friends were from the auto industry, so I definitely grew up around that. It’s always been a big interest for me. I still subscribe to all the car magazines, Motor Trend and Car and Driver and Road and Track, so I was always interested in what exciting new cars are coming out.

7. And just for kicks, what’s your favorite mode of transportation, and why?

I have to say cars, definitely cars. I enjoy other things as well. I like biking. I grew up riding dirt bikes as well. I haven’t done that in many years, but at some point, maybe when I retire, I’ll get a motorcycle again. We’ll see.