Power Technology Expands: Alexander Firm Creates Niche In Giant Industry

Thomas Burgess, founder and CEO of Power Technology Inc., knew that lasers represented the future when he first began tinkering with product refinements during the 1960s. But he never saw where innovation would take those early models.

"Didn't have any idea at the time," said the 70-year-old businessman. "We knew it was growing but didn't have any estimates."

As lasers grew in number and uses, Power Technology established a multimillion-dollar niche in a multibillion-dollar industry dominated by large corporations.

The company grew from humble beginnings making laser components to producing laser modules that sometimes are components as well. Power Technology is proud to proclaim that its products have blasted into space on shuttle missions and submerged beneath the waves with deep-sea explorers.

In the biomedical field, its products aid surgery procedures, DNA analysis and cancer detection. Commercial uses of Power Technology laser-related products include inspecting semi-conductors and scanning bar codes.

The company's day-to-day leadership has shifted from Burgess to his twin sons, Walter and William.

The brothers quip that Power Technology became the biggest business in town after relocating its operations in 2000 from the Mabelvale area of southwest Little Rock. That statistical reality was aided by moving from the largest city in Arkansas to neighboring Alexander, population 640.

The 25,000-SF facility on Alexander Road just south of Interstate 30 represents a big jump from the early days when Thomas Burgess was the staff and his kitchen table was the production line.

Over the years, the company moved from the kitchen to the Burgess family garage to separate quarters that started at 3,000 SF, doubled to 6,000 SF and doubled again to 12,000 SF.

"We ramped up because laser technology is more and more popular with no end in sight," said William Burgess, 34, vice president of operations.

All but a handful of Power Technology's 65 employees work out of the Alexander facility. A half dozen are split between the company's West Coast sales office in Meadow Vista, Calif. (about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento), and its East Coast sales office in Endicott, N.Y. (about 80 miles south of Syracuse).

Annual revenue is more than $7 million, with domestic business accounting for about 75 percent of sales. Instead of high-volume, low-margin products, the firm traditionally has focused on items with bigger profit margins and more stable markets.

The Power Technology line ranges from a $50 laser built to operate from a household electrical outlet to a $15,000 custom-made laser.

"We compete on both ends of the product spectrum," said Walter Burgess, vice president of sales and engineering.

Innovation Sparked Company

The roots of the company date back to 1969 when Thomas Burgess developed a new and improved power supply for a Jacksonville manufacturer, Blount & George Inc., the predecessor of today's AGL Corp.

The smaller, less expensive, longer-lasting, more reliable power supply put together by Burgess proved a hit and a welcome innovation for Blount & George's line of construction-related lasers. Power Technology, incorporated in 1970, was off and running, with a corporate moniker reflecting the firm's foundational laser product.

"I think they had about 10 people working out of the garage when we were born," Walter Burgess recalls his father saying of the company's size circa 1973.

Back then, gas lasers were the norm, and helium-neon lasers with a familiar red beam were common. When laser scanners began taking over supermarkets and shops, the devices were often equipped with Power Technology components.

Laser trivia: A 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum (67 cents) holds the distinction as the first product in a grocery store to log through a bar-coding system using the fledgling UPC code on June 26, 1974.

Much smaller laser diodes became the rage, and the Power Technology catalog features scores of related components, accessories and diode laser modules, which look like a variant of a Star Wars light saber.

Early work with the U.S. Naval Research labs led to other government contracts and military assignments. Power Technology is a contributor to the U.S. Missile Defense's Airborne Laser system, tasked with tracking and destroying an in-flight ballistic missile before it can deploy its warheads

"Homeland security has been a good market for us over the past few years," William Burgess said.

And a confidential one. On a tour of Power Technology, a lab-coated engineer is huddled over an optical spectrum analyzer, measuring the wavelength of a blue laser. Walter starts to elaborate on what he's up to but thinks better of it.

"It's one of the more exciting things we've done in the past few years," Walter Burgess said. "Let's just leave it at that."

The company stocks lasers with 125 combinations of wave-length and power levels covering a 2,000-nanometer range of light, from the mid-ranges ultraviolet through the visible spectrum of humans to mid-ranges of infrared.

The machine shop is accustomed to producing parts with tolerance specifications of plus or minus 0.005 inch, half the base line for typical manufacturers.

"We can go down to less than 0.001 inch on request, as long as the customer is willing to pay for it," Walter said. "The level of precision demanded by our customers continues to push us."

Power Technology's emphasis on fabricating in-house components gives it an edge in responding to an order, requiring less lead time to gear up for production.

"We are firm believers of integration," William Burgess said. "A lot of people want to outsource, outsource, outsource."

In addition to improved inventory management and quality control, the company's integrated production allows it to pull off quick turnaround times. Two weeks or less for customized work is the norm for Power Technology. The firm's flexibility and custom capabilities help it land and retain clients.

"We solve their problem, and they're locked in with us," Walter Burgess said of customer development.

Power Technology typically avoids the dog-eat-dog markets where the big boys roam, for example, laser-related data storage opportunities such as printers, compact disks, DVDs and more.

"That's not us, and we're quite content with that," Walter Burgess said. "We primarily make the laser simple to use."

Forms New Group

This year, the company announced the formation of Photonic Component Group, which distributes laser components for a variety of domestic and foreign manufacturers including Eagleyard Photonics of Germany, Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. of Japan, Snake Creek Lasers LLC of Hallstead, Pa., and InTopto of Norway

The Photonic Component Group also resells products by Opnext Inc., a spin-off of Hitachi's laser diode and photonics division

"We have a very international flavor to what we do," William Burgess said.

A relationship with Nichia Corp. of Japan gave the company access to a blue laser diode that produces a shorter wavelength and accommodates greater data density for high-end users.

"We're fortunate enough to be one of the first with their technology," William said. "It's been a good business line for us."

In terms of regulatory oversight, laser companies such as Power Technology fall under an arm of the Food & Drug Administration, the Center for Devices & Radiological Health.

"Yeah, the same guy that inspects tanning beds inspects us," William Burgess said with a smile.