Standing tall

Casting industrial laser companies as rugged individuals

John Wayne, the celluloid cowboy, was a bigger-than-life figure. Not quite as big as the 9-ft statue in the Orange County, CA, airport, but still a larger-than-life personality. One of the many enduring images he left is the rugged individual standing up (sometimes in the face of popular thinking) for apparent “lost” causes.

In my younger days I was a fan of the “Duke,” but this changed over the years, and I came to see him as a forceful and outspoken advocate with a personal agenda. But he was still a colorful character, even as he became a bit of a caricature. He was replaced on my “like” list by Clint Eastwood, who carried the lonesome stranger image to new heights in spaghetti westerns and then in the Dirty Harry films. Funny that both men, on different levels, used their film image to great effect in their public personalities.

It seems the Duke always managed to be polite, regardless of how much indignity was heaped upon him, whereas Dirty Harry could barely manage an eye twitch in acknowledgement of a kind act. I met Eastwood once in California, and he was exceedingly soft spoken and thoughtful in his remarks to a group with whom I was dining. He was running for mayor of Carmel, so maybe I was seeing his political face.

Both film actors come to mind as, wrestling with the ILS Annual Economic Review, I take a call from an investment banker with interest in the laser market. In my position as editor-in-chief of this magazine I routinely get calls looking for my market perspective. This call followed the same pattern as most, and I willingly shared published market information with the caller. However, he wanted more-specifically, my views about certain market factors, which I am always reticent to share, especially with those I consider strangers.

Over the course of sparring about some players in the market, he threw a curve at me saying, “This industrial-laser market is still dominated by a group of individuals.” The implication was that the $6 billion industrial-laser industry is still immature. I countered with a quick tally of the large companies that make up a major portion of annual laser revenues-TRUMPF, Rofin, Coherent, Newport, and so forth-and the big systems suppliers such as Amada, Bystronic, Mazak, Mitsubishi, but he was unshakable.

In his view, the industrial-laser market, with the limited number of exceptions I identified, is still populated by individually controlled companies whose founders and owners, cast in the rugged-individual model of the film heroes, were out there struggling against the big guys to establish a place in the market.

I think he saw this as negative, because he seemed to value size as a measure of market stature. I, on the other hand, see a technology that has yet to plateau, enabling unlimited opportunities for individuals to step forward with fresh new ideas that may provide the next ratchet in the stepped growth of industrial materials processing. These are not all Duke or Dirty Harry types, but they are focused and to an outsider may be considered as individuals as they try to counter established thinking.

I wondered if his perspective was born of frustration from dealing with these individuals as he was trying to put “something” together in the market; or does he really believe that size matters, not the drive of a person committed to an ideal. After all, Coherent was started by three guys in a laundry room in Palo Alto.

David A. Belforte

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