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Publication Date: Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Fully charged: Roy Clay, founder of ROD-L Electronics, keeps pushing for corporate responsibility Fully charged: Roy Clay, founder of ROD-L Electronics, keeps pushing for corporate responsibility (December 25, 2002)

By Pam Smith

Almanac Staff Writer

"I play golf. But there's only so much golf you can play," says the deceivingly diminutive Roy Clay, attempting to explain why he's "not the retiring type."

The 73-year-old president and sole founder of ROD-L Electronics, in eastern Menlo Park, prefers to keep on repeating a mantra of corporate responsibility and neighborliness.

A resident of the Green Meadow area of Palo Alto since 1961, Mr. Clay has straddled the corporate and civic arenas in and around Menlo Park, where he founded his company in 1977.

Since his company celebrated its silver anniversary in October, he's been recognized three times for his contributions to technology by Gov. Gray Davis' office, a regional professional association, and an Oakland museum.

Appropriately, the three accolades also recognize his civic leadership.

The African American Museum & Library in Oakland will feature him among the 50 most important African-Americans in technology when it opens a new exhibit February 1, "partially because of his technological accomplishments, and partially because of his role in providing jobs," for both professional and low-income workers, says exhibit curator John Templeton.

Though Mr. Clay seems mild-mannered when he first shakes your hand, he becomes quite lively when he speaks about the people and groups he's worked with, professionally or in the broader community.

Mr. Clay has long served various local nonprofit organizations -- he's board president for the Girls' Club of the Mid Peninsula in East Palo Alto, and he also sits on the board of the OICW job-training facility in Menlo Park. He ended his tenure on the founding board of the East Palo Alto Junior Golf Program last year.

His latest and probably top task, though, is mobilizing residents and leaders from in and around Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood to improve the quality of life there, he says.

His company is geographically close to, though not inside, Belle Haven, known as the city's most minority-populated, lower-income residential area.

"I want to work with the business community to become the best corporate citizens they can become," for instance, by hiring local residents and helping the school system, says Mr. Clay. "It's my opinion that with education and employment, you improve the quality of life and crime disappears."

He's long practiced what he preaches, says Sharon Williams, executive director of OICW, a job-training program on Willow Road.

"He's been one of the most faithful employers of our graduates from the time his business began," says Ms. Williams. Mr. Clay served on one of OICW's advisory committees for years before he was elected to its board of directors in September, she says.

In October, Mr. Clay joined forces with former mayor Billy Ray White, a Belle Haven resident and Menlo Park's first black mayor, to host the first event in their campaign to motivate the community. About three dozen people, plus city, school, and county officials, attended. Another, similar meeting will probably be scheduled shortly after the holidays, says Mr. Clay.

Though separate, he hopes to coordinate some of his and Mr. White's community-empowering efforts with those of two other groups, he says. The Belle Haven Alliance was recently incubated by local developer David Bohannon. The Concerned Citizens of Belle Haven, started by members of the Mt. Olive AOH Church of God in Belle Haven this fall to attract the entire neighborhood, has been headlined by pastor Dr. H.L. Bostic.

Though a lauded entrepreneur among technology professionals, Mr. Clay is probably better known by the average local as a former Palo Alto councilman than as president of ROD-L Electronics. "What we make affects everybody's life in the developed world," but most people still don't know what his company does, says Mr. Clay.

ROD-L, tucked in an unassuming suite of offices in a low-slung building on Constitution Drive, makes equipment that tests electrical products for safety.

It's not sexy, but it's practical.

Companies including Hewlett-Packard and General Electric use it to test their products -- everything from computers to televisions to dishwashers to cardiac pacemakers -- to make sure they're safe from electrical shock or fires, explains Mr. Clay.

People are most susceptible to being shocked or to having their TV explode after a power surge, says Mr. Clay, which can occur in your house when power comes back on after an outage. ROD-L equipment puts products through a simulated surge, then looks for problems, he says.

He got the idea from a former employer, Hewlett-Packard, in the 1970s.

In the 1960s and early 1970s he set up HP's computer development facility, managed research and development for the company's computer products, and served as interim general manager for its first computer division, in 1970, he says. "My group was the founding group of Hewlett-Packard as you know it today."

HP -- which he found to be a good example of good corporate citizenship, by the way -- told him it wanted to test every electronic product before it was shipped, not just a sampling, and that other companies wanted the same.

They needed equipment that was simple and safe enough for lower-skilled employees to handle, and that could do high-volume testing, says Mr. Clay.

He formed ROD-L and built a prototype testing tool for businesses such as IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard and Xerox, he says. "They all wanted to do more or less the same thing" for different kinds of products, he says. "They said if you build it, we'll buy it."

He won't divulge statistics about the private company's progress over the last quarter century, such as total revenues, or the number of employees. But he will drop hints of expansion.

Hewlett-Packard's first order was for four units, and it now owns more than 2,000, he says. And "every IBM plant in the world has our product," he adds.

Part of the reason for the secrecy, he says, is that three major competitors have sprung up over the years, manufacturing in Japan and Taiwan. ("We were the first to do what we're doing," and those companies copied his product, he says.)

After he left Hewlett-Packard in 1971, and before he formed ROD-L, Mr. Clay was consulting for Menlo Park venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and doing some soul-searching.

"At 42 years old I determined what I wanted to be when I grew up," he says with a chuckle.

One thing he did know: "I was interested in having more minority professionals in Silicon Valley facilities, plants, companies," he says.

He faced a temporary obstacle early on in his own career, due to his race. Shortly after graduating from St. Louis University in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, he applied to then-McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis. He was told, he says, "We have no jobs for professional Negroes."

"I never give up," says Mr. Clay.

Four or five years later, he applied to the same company, and was hired. That job was his first brush with computers, and gave him expertise in software development "before there was a computer science discipline," he says. The company purchased an IBM computer, and another from Burroughs, he remembers.

Fifty years after his first run-in with McDonnell, "my company is the most multicultural you'll ever see," he says, employing African-Americans, Caucasians, Chinese, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders.

"He gives people a chance that other employers might not take a chance on," says Ms. Williams, the executive director of OICW.

If you have people of average or better intelligence who want to work, they'll do good for themselves and the company, says Mr. Clay.

To motivate his employees to be productive and creative, he says, he stresses flexible schedules, family priorities, and continuing education.

The company offers to pay full tuition if employees want to further their education on their own time, he says, and there's no requirement that they remain with ROD-L after getting a higher degree.

"We want you to leave better than you came," he says. "If you're not bothering to learn more, then you're becoming unproductive."

He also encourages his employees to learn as much as they can about all parts of the company, he says. The more they know about the big picture, the better they'll be at their specific roles, says Mr. Clay, citing the success of the manager of his accounting department, who started out as an electrical assembler.

E-mail Pam Smith at [email protected]

Recent praise

** In October, San Mateo County Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson presented Roy Clay with a commendation from the governor's office, to recognize his contributions to technology and his leadership in civic affairs.

** In November, his upcoming induction into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame was announced by the Silicon Valley Engineering Council, an umbrella organization representing more than 60,000 high-tech professionals.

** In February, Mr. Clay is expected to be featured in an exhibit entitled "The Soul of Technology" at the African American Museum & Library in Oakland.


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