John Blake, New CEO of Freedom Scientific
In June 2012, Freedom Scientific turned a page in its history as an industry leader in the field of access technology for people who are blind and low vision when the company welcomed its new CEO and president, John Blake.
Since unifying three major companies in the blindness field--Henter-Joyce (creator of the JAWS screen-reading program), Blazie Engineering (leader in refreshable braille displays and note-taking products for the blind), and Arkenstone (known most for its OpenBook OCR software)--Freedom Scientific has maintained a strong foothold in all three product areas, adding a notable collection of screen magnification products for low-vision users as well. A new CEO at the helm of Freedom Scientific, in other words, is news in the access technology industry. AccessWorld was quick to pursue a conversation with John Blake to find out where he is coming from and where he and the Florida company are heading.
John Blake grew up in Rochester, New York. With an undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester and an MBA in finance from Rochester Institute of Technology, he comes to Freedom Scientific with a 20-year career history with Eastman Kodak, a Rochester-based corporate giant.
During his career with Kodak, he developed expertise in finance, marketing operations, and product management. For the last decade, he served as global general manager of the company. In 2012, when Eastman Kodak filed Chapter 11, it was time for a change for Blake, and he and Freedom Scientific were soon in conversation.
Blake is married, has three young children, and maintains residences in both New York and Florida. His leadership roles in Kodak, he says, provided not only a solid grounding in the roles of consumer electronics (particularly digital cameras) but also an understanding of markets and customers, all skills that are easily transferable to a parallel industry.
As the new CEO, Blake says, "You certainly have a plan in your mind that you share with stakeholders, but you first take the time to utilize the objectivity you have, listen to people (dealers and customers, those here and in other parts of the world), and try to formulate some ideas around where things are going well and where things need to be improved." It is better, he believes, as the new leader, to listen than to assert.
An essential element in moving forward with a new vision, Blake says, is to study the status quo and remove any barriers. Barriers in any company, and he says Freedom Scientific is no exception, can occur when a company does well (second to none in the industry, in his opinion) and develops certain biases and inertia within that successful performance. "Inertia is a strong force," he says, "people are comfortable doing what they have always done."
The team he has inherited, Blake says, is an excellent group of dedicated and knowledgeable leaders and, together, they are studying the market, where they are making investments, and where current changing technologies provide the best opportunities.
To familiarize himself with the access technology industry, John Blake is engaged in plenty of listening and observation. He is in conversation with dealers, agencies, and others in the industry around the world. Mostly, he is learning from his own staff.
"We are providing critical fundamental capabilities to people who are blind," he says, "enabling people who are blind to be productive. We do a great job and will never compromise that."
What he contends the company already has in its favor are its flagship product, JAWS, and its Focus braille displays, which he contends are the best in the industry. It only makes good business sense, he believes, to continue supporting and developing existing products.
But he wants to develop new products as well, taking advantage of new technologies to find even better ways of enabling people who are blind and people with low vision to be productive and independent. He and his team are studying new technologies, consumer trends, and looking at features like portability and various operating systems.
He cites with enthusiasm how, when his family lived in Singapore during his former corporate role, his children were able to communicate easily with their grandparents via video Skype. The grandparents were 10,000 miles away and yet, small children could see their faces and hear their voices every day.
"We need to embrace all new technological trends in the blindness field, too," Blake says, believing that there are still capabilities that the blindness industry has not yet taken advantage of, particularly in the realms of cameras, portability, and operating systems.
Are there new products on the Freedom Scientific horizon? Probably, but Blake isn't saying anything specific at this point.
If there is any noticeable change in the way in which Freedom Scientific does business in the near future, it may be in its relationships with customers. "We have a reputation for not always being the easiest company to deal with," Blake says, and his marketing background indicates a need for change in that particular area.
"We are actively listening to our customers and to others in the industry," he says, believing that a smart business person will always begin by listening to customers. "If you have happy customers, you have a happy business."
To read more about Freedom Scientific and directions that the company and its new CEO are taking, visit Freedom Scientific.
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