By 1989 Burrell had spent nearly his entire professional career — with the exception of a brief stint at Lowrance Electronics — working for King Radio. During these years the company went through many corporate changes. In 1983 King was acquired by the Allied Corporation and combined with the former Bendix Corporation to form Bendix-King. Allied later went on to merge with the Signal Companies in 1993 to form AlliedSignal which acquired Honeywell in 1999 and then took its name.
Min H. Kao (Name in Chinese: 高民環), was born in 1949 in a small town in Taiwan called Chushang (Chinese: 竹山, pinyin: Zhúshān) in Nantou (南投縣). After serving in the Taiwanese navy he attended National Taiwan University and moved to the United States to attend the University of Tennessee where he obtained advanced degrees in Electrical Engineering. While a graduate student, he did research for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the United States Army. He later went on to work for the American defense contractors Teledyne and Magnavox.
Burrell hired Kao to join his division at Allied’s King subsidiary in 1983. Kao had been working at Magnavox developing military navigation systems using the Global Positioning System constellation of satellites, which at the time was still known by the name NAVSTAR. During his years working with Burrell, Kao led the team that developed the first GPS navigation system that was to be certified for use in airplanes by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Burrell left Allied Corp. in 1989. Convinced that the company should have been more aggressive in pursuing products based on GPS technology, he disappointedly found management did not agree with this conception. He took to interviewing for jobs at other companies including Magnavox, but couldn’t find a good fit. A deeply religious Christian, Burrell had been a founding member in 1984 of Olathe’s Indian Creek Community Church. Having left his job at Allied, he was considering devoting himself full-time to the ministry. However, over dinner, Kao asked Burrell if he had ever thought about starting his own company. Burrell replied that he hadn’t, but then went on to say that if he were to start a company, he would do so only with Kao. Both agreed that the future of navigation would be closely linked with GPS technology.
At the time the constellation of satellites was still being assembled. The 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger had set the system’s construction back by 24 months. The satellites had been redesigned to fit aboard a Delta II rocket. The system was declared operational in April 1989, and went on to prove a decisive strategic advantage to U.S. and Allied forces in the 1991 Gulf War.
Kao had been thinking of starting a company, and had recently visited old school friends in Taiwan, one of whom was an investment banker, who assured Kao that if he wanted to launch a company, money to help get it started would be available.
Within weeks of their dinner, Burrell and Kao were on a plane to Taipei, Taiwan and within months of that visit had amassed $4 million, which included the combined contents of their own personal savings accounts.
The money was sufficient to hire a dozen engineers and to rent office and work space in Lenexa, Kansas. Initially they called the company ProNav, but later changed it in 1991 when a competitor, using the name NavPro on one of its GPS receivers, sued alleging trademark infringement. The name “Garmin” is combination of the two founders’ names “Gar” being the first three letters of Burrell’s first name, and “-Min” being Kao’s first name.
The company’s first product was a GPS receiver called the GPS 100, a panel-mounted receiver aimed at the marine market, and sold for $2,500. It debuted at the 1990 International Marine Technology Exposition in Chicago. The product was an instant hit and generated a backlog of orders for 5,000 units.
Soon after, in January 1991 Kao set off for Taiwan to set up manufacturing facilities in Taipei.
Another early product, a handheld GPS receiver, proved popular with military personnel serving in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War. In the early 2000s, Garmin launched a series of personal GPS devices aimed at recreational runners called the Forerunner. A similar wrist-worn GPS device with two dimensional tracking and waypoint projection called the Garmin Foretrex is popular among day hikers, off-road mountain bikers, and sailboat racers. Garmin also launched their popular StreetPilot in-car navigation series, starting with a monochrome key-operated unit. This was followed by the 16-color StreetPilot ColorMap, then the more advanced StreetPilot III. The StreetPilot range is now diverse.
One of the most popular of the Garmin GPS units are the eTrex series. These GPS units are colorful with features that differentiate each unit. The base model eTrex, commonly nicknamed "eTrex Yellow", is Garmin's "budget" entry-level GPS unit. Other, more advanced eTrex models include the Summit, Venture, Legend, and Vista, each with various additional features such as WAAS, altimeter, digital compass, city database, and highway maps. Many models come in color and expandable-memory versions.
The Geko series is a compact line of handheld receivers aimed at a beginner/budget market.
In 2003 Garmin launched the iQue line of integrated PDA-GPS receivers. On October 31, 2005 the iQue M4 became the first PDA that does not require a PC to preload the maps. The American version came with built-in maps of North America, while the UK version was supplied pre-loaded with maps of Western Europe.
In October 2005, Garmin released the StreetPilot i-Series, compact GPS navigators which come in three models, i2, i3, i5. The i2 has a monochrome display, and maps need to be loaded on a Transflash card. The i3 is similar to the i2, except it has a color screen. The i5 has a color screen and the maps come preprogrammed into the device. More advanced versions of the StreetPilot include the c-Series, some of which sport large colour touchscreens, FM traffic notifications, support for weather and information updates from MSN Direct, and Bluetooth support.
In October 2006, Garmin began shipping the nüvi 660, a pocketsize widescreen successor to their nüvi 300 series. The 660 added bluetooth, FM transmitter, enhanced screen brightness and screen size, all in a small "flat" size.
In April 2008, Garmin launched Garmin Mobile PC, a GPS navigation software program for laptop PCs, and other computers based on the Microsoft Windows operating system.
Garmin entered the aviation market in 1991 with the GPS-100AVD panel mount receiver. Their first portable unit, the GPS-95, was introduced in 1993. In 1994, the GPS-155 panel mount unit was the first GPS receiver on the market to receive full FAA certification for instrument approaches.
In 1998, Garmin introduced the GNS-430, an integrated GPS, Navigation receiver, and Communications tranceiver.
Garmin expanded their presence in the aviation market in 2003 through acquisition of UPS Aviation Technologies, thereby acquiring the latter's II Morrow Apollo line of aircraft GPS/NAV/COMM units, complementing its existing aviation product line. II Morrow, Inc. was founded in Salem, Oregon in 1982 as a manufacturer of LORAN C marine and general aviation products. In 1986, United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS) purchased the company to expand the use of electronic technology in the package delivery and tracking business and renamed it UPS Aviation Technologies, Inc. in 1999. It soon phased out of the marine business and focused on development of technology for UPS and general aviation.
By 1999 the company’s products had captured roughly 50% of the North American market share in the market for GPS receivers used in the marine and outdoor recreation markets, according to a market study conducted by Frost and Sullivan. Its own internal estimates showed that its aviation retrofit products had a 59% market share, and that among portable aviation GPS products, it controlled 76% of the market.
By 2000 Garmin had sold three million GPS devices, and was producing 50 different models. Its products were sold in 100 countries, and carried by 2,500 independent distributors. As of August 22, 2000, the company held 35 patents on GPS technology. By the end of June 2000, the company employed 1,205 people: 541 in the United States, 635 in Taiwan, 29 in the United Kingdom.
The company started trading publicly on the NASDAQ exchange on December 8, 2000. At that time Burrell owned 19,911,155 shares. Kao owned 20,352,803 shares. Together their holdings accounted for 45% of the stock in Garmin. Kao’s brother, Ruey-Jeng Kao, an attorney in Taipei, owned another 7,984,109 shares, which when combined with Burrell’s and Kao’s shares constituted 54.22% of the shares outstanding.
In August 2003 Garmin completed acquisition of UPS Aviation Technologies, Inc., a subsidiary of United Parcel Service, Inc., expanding its product line of panel-mounted GPS/NAV/COMM units and integrated cockpit systems for private and commercial aircraft. The acquired company changed its name to Garmin AT, Inc. and continued operations as a wholly owned subsidiary of Garmin International, Inc.
In 2006, Garmin announced it would release all of its software for Mac OS X by the end of the year.
Garmin has acquired Dynastream Innovations Inc, EME Tec Sat SAS (EME), and Digital Cyclone Inc. Dynastream is located in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, and is a leader in the field of personal monitoring technology — such as foot pods and heart rate monitors for sports and fitness products — and is also a leading provider of ultra low power and low cost wireless connectivity solutions for a wide range of applications. EME Tec Sat SAS (EME) is the distributor of Garmin's consumer products in France; following the acquisition, EME will change its name to Garmin France SAS. Digital Cyclone Inc (DCI) is located in Minnetonka, Minnesota and provides weather solutions for consumers, outdoor enthusiasts, and pilots. Garmin also bought Nautamatic Marine Systems Inc., an Oregon-based company that makes autopilot systems for boats.
In fiscal year 2006, Garmin reported a total revenue of $1.77 billion, up 73% from $1.03 billion in fiscal 2005.
Oregon based aircraft company Epic AIR LLC (subsidiary of Aircraft Investor Resources (AIR) LLC — United States) on or around April 17, 2007 announced that it will use Garmin glass pane cockpits and related avionics in all of its certified and experimental very light jets and turboprop aircraft. Garmin G900X will be used in company's owner-built airplanes, while Garmin G1000 will be used in certified Epic aircraft.
In 2008 they became title sponsors of cycling team Garmin-Chipotle to promote their Edge range of cycle computers.