An inside look at Olathe-based Garmin and the products responsible for its expansion

OLATHE, Kan. -- Gone are the days when the only use for a watch is telling time.

“We actually made the first smartwatch, which is kind of funny. It`s before the term smartwatch was really coined over 15 years ago,” said Susan Lyman, vice president of global consumer marketing for Garmin.

Garmin's first smartwatch in 2003

Garmin has developed seven different lines of smartwatches, each with popular health and fitness features.

“Not only does it have wrist-based heart rate, but it measures stress level. You can get your text messages. It stores your music, so you can run without your phone using your wireless headphones. You can also pay with your watch,” Lyman said.

But almost every smartwatch on the market can do the same things. Garmin said it`s worked hard over the past decade to distinguish itself from competitors with features that are unique to Garmin products.

“Our watches have an always-on display, so it`s not something where every time you move it comes on and off. It has great readability,” Lyman said.

And some watches in the series can stay on for a month or more before needing a recharge.

“Battery life is something that sounds kind of boring if you think about a specification, but it matters. If your battery is dead in the middle of the day, that`s not a great thing,” Lyman said.

Garmin watches range in price between $80 for the junior series, which is geared towards kids, to more than $1,100 for the more high-end lines. Each new release brings new features on board.

Garmin watches on display

“One of the new features that we have come out with for the 5x Plus, which is our largest version, is the pulse-oximeter," said John Hosler, product manager of consumer products for Garmin. "The pulse oximeter allows us to track the saturation of oxygen in your blood. So for people who go to different altitudes, it allows us to get a different indication of how you`re acclimating."

And the company, known for it`s GPS mapping, has now found a way to work that technology into its smartwatches.

“What maps bring to a wearable is you don`t need your phone with you to know where you are. So for example, if you are in Kansas City and you want to go for a 5-mile run, you can enter the distance you want to run on your watch and it will create courses for you,” Hosler said.

And this technology, which is sold worldwide, is developed right here in the metro.

“We have about 3,400 employees right here in Olathe at this headquarters,” Lyman said.

That`s right, the global world headquarters for Garmin is located in Olathe, Kansas.

Employees work at Garmin's headquarters in Olathe.

"It`s so exciting here. We love being in Kansas City, and like I said, we`ve been here in Olathe for nearly 30 years," Lyman said.

The Olathe HQ is where the watches are designed. Engineers said it takes about two years to see a watch from development to production.

“They are purpose-built, so we specifically design a watch for a runner, specifically design a watch for an athlete or a little kid,” Lyman said.

And a big portion of the development process happens outdoors. The Garmin campus has a gym, outdoor walking trails, a courtyard and sports fields for employees to test and try products.

A Garmin employee tests a product outside.

“We get to work on products that fit right in with our hobby or our passions. We have runners working on running watches, designing right here in Olathe, these running watches. You`ll see them running at lunch with three or four running watches on their wrist,” Lyman said.

Another thing you`ll notice about the campus is that it's growing. The demand for products has prompted the need for more space, which will eventually create more jobs.

“The expansion is our new distribution center and manufacturing, and it`s about 700,000 square feet and it will be opening soon, next month. So we`re very excited about that, and that is part of a phase transition where we are moving manufacturing and distribution and expanding our offices at the same time,” Lyman said.