Thursday, September 27, 2012

September Observations - How Boise, Idaho Became a Printer Capital

also published in Photizo io360

How Boise, Idaho Became a Printer Capital

Observations: How Boise, ID Became a Printer Capital In debating ideas for the theme of my September Observations column, I had many choices. With each coming month, the drumbeat seems to quicken, with the future of printing itself in play and so many current developments on top of mind, including great product and services strategies and innovations coming from industry players both large and small. So I was not faced with “What to write about?” but rather “Which story?”

But there was one longer-term, historically significant event that would not escape me and helps to answer an important question, for many of us at least, of how Boise, ID, of all places, became a very important place in the printing and imaging world.

Unlike PC and software companies, for example, that are concentrated in more populous areas like Boston, MA, California’s Bay Area, and Seattle, WA, printers reflect a more far-flung geography. Just in the United States, we have locations like Rochester, NY, Lexington, KY, Boulder, CO, and many of the well-known Hewlett-Packard sites like Vancouver, WA, Corvallis, OR, and San Diego, CA, which are of historic and in most cases current interest. But I would argue that none of them can boast more great history and a continuing large concentration of printing and imaging talent and innovation than Boise. Without going into the “why” of the others, I have some special insight into “Why here?” having lived in Boise for 31+ years and having participated through most of that period in the printing and imaging industry, along with myriad friends and colleagues who also happen to be my neighbors.

The Definitive HP chronicle includes much on Smelek and Boise
The triggering event for my column was a sad one: the death of long-time technology executive Ray Smelek on September 3. The news of this long-time Boise resident’s passing reached me while I was traveling, much like the news of Dave Packard’s demise did years ago, and triggered a cavalcade of personal memories of Ray and our paths crossing many times. And notable in the memories, of mine and others, is Ray’s biggest overall claim to fame, business-wise at least, of his instrumental role in bringing the HP printer division to Boise, ID in the late 1970’s.

Working for HP in the firm’s Bay Area headquarters, Ray’s efforts with the city of Boise and the state of Idaho led HP to plant a foothold in “the Gem State” in the mid-1970’s. Boise became home to HP’s line of impact and eventually laser printers, and by 1984 was well established, at least as a “captive” supplier of hard copy devices (“captive” meaning that HP used its own printers for the firm’s line of technical and business minicomputers). That was the year that the mavericks in Boise “broke the mold” and offered a revolutionary $3,500 laser printer for the masses with common PC interfaces with a sales outlet in the PC channel. The rest as they say is history, and I’ve done my part in past blog posts to help document the LaserJet legacy (see “Happy 25th Anniversary LaserJet” coverage from 2009 and “25 Years of LaserJet”). In the interest of remembering Ray’s business contributions, as well as many of his wide-ranging community and philanthropy efforts, nicely crafted tributes followed his death in the Idaho Statesman and on the Idaho Technology Council website, an organization that made Ray one of its two inaugural inductees in the Idaho Technology Hall of Fame in 2010. (Ray’s co-inductee was another HP legend based in Boise, Dick Hackborn.) I encourage my readers to seek out those tributes, in addition to numerous mentions of him and the Boise move, in the 2009 book, The HP Phenomenon, by Chuck House and Raymond Lane. Ray himself authored a memoir in 2009, titled Making My Own Luck.

I also wanted to document several personal memories of Ray. As a young(ish) HP recruit to the Boise Disc Memory Division in 1981 (the “other” division on the young Boise site at the time), I was aware who Ray was from nearly day one, as the general manager of the Printing and Tape division next door. But I had little day-to-day contact with him, except being aware who he was through very occasional site-wide gatherings, where once an even younger colleague of mine swore he was seeing Lee Iacocca, a famous business leader of the time! (I had to be the one to inform him that it was actually Ray Smelek.) A couple of years later, that same colleague and I (still on the disc storage side) enjoyed visiting with Ray and other printer division folk, in the HP booth at Spring Comdex 1984, where the original LaserJet was introduced. So while he looked like a classical CEO, Ray did booth duty, too!

But, already, through his community contributions, it turned out I was not the first member of my family to meet Ray. My wife was employed during our early Boise years as a grant writer for the College of Idaho, where Ray headed the board of trustees, so she came to know him personally, before I did. As he had heard she was in the Boise area because her husband had been recruited by HP, she came home telling me that Ray wanted to know a little more of my story, too.

After that, I had more occasions to be around Ray, but as mentioned previously, we were merely crossing paths, as about the time I went into printing, Ray was heading off for a long run on the storage side of the house. But going back to that curious encounter with my wife, I was always impressed of his knowledge and interest in the organization and the people, even the newbies of the time. Others who knew Ray better confirmed to me that was a special trait he possessed, that of being highly-tuned to individuals and possessing a broad people knowledge and awareness—a good trait to emulate.

Many individuals have been cited as being the key developer/thinker/designer/inspirational leader in terms of the LaserJet and its 25+ years of success (all directed out of Boise I might add). But more than taking a village, the LaserJet’s dimensions and duration actually required more like a sprawling city of contributors to raise it—internal to HP and among many partners, including notably Canon. But Ray Smelek was the most instrumental person, bar none, in establishing an HP presence in Boise, going back to the 1970’s. And I want to be a voice in thanking him and remembering him for that.

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