1972 LEMO USA
How it all started...
Even though LEMO connectors were launched on the US market exactly 50 years ago, the LEMO USA subsidiary company was officially created only 5 years later in 1972. LEMO’s sales director from 1965 to 1996, Walter Straessle was the one who discovered the New World for the Swiss headquarters. He recalls some memorable moments for us.
Spring 1972: Richard Nixon is the president of the United States. All across the nation, people rush to the cinemas to discover The Godfather. They listen to Lou Reed and Cat Stevens on the radio. The television audience looks forward to season 2 of the new popular series Columbo. This is the country that Walter Straessle is about to travel around to find his “reps”, official representatives who would sell the Swiss company’s connectors in America.
When he lands in Los Angeles in April 1972, Mr Straessle has mixed feelings. “I was of course excited about starting to do business with the Americans!”, he smiles. However, as he is about to start his first prospecting tour in North America, he is feeling a bit intimidated as well. “Even if we had no doubt an excellent product, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Our connectors had been distributed in USA since 1967 by agents, but setting up a company successfully and launching direct sales was another story! I was aware that it was a huge market and that their way of doing business was much more aggressive than ours in Europe.”
Once in the country, Walter Straessle quickly adapts though. People soon start calling him “Walt” and he discovers a dynamic, stimulating and friendly environment “It was quite casual, with excellent relationships, easy and direct contacts.” It is exactly this relaxed informal way of doing business that made him understand the more subtle challenge of this new supposedly aggressive market.
“I immediately understood that with our new American colleagues it was essential to keep our feet on the ground! Without going against this precious enthusiasm, keeping the best of its extraordinary energy, whilst limiting their tendency to take strategic risks. We had to find the right people, the appropriate balance.”
It is in Berkeley, near San Francisco that the sales director gets in touch with Bob Wersen. At the head of a small connector workshop, with five other people in a modest wooden building, Bob is a serious engineer, interested in working with LEMO. “He was our first official contact, explains Walter Straessle, and later our first official representative. From that day on, we started talking about LEMO USA.” It was a providential choice, given that back then nobody was even dreaming of Silicon Valley.
Convincing LEMO’s founder to take a chance on starting business in California was anything but easy. “Léon Mouttet, LEMO’s CEO was worried about the 9-hour time difference. He preferred the east coast, along the famous route 128 around Boston. This is where major technological companies were set up at the time, around MIT and Harvard.” Very impressed by his visits at Stanford University, Walter Straessle insists and ends up getting Léon Mouttet’s trust. It would be in California and they prove to be right.
Bob Wersen became LEMO USA’s first director and was responsible for finding customers and establishing a network. It wasn’t an easy task. The market existed indeed “Wherever there are cables, there are connectors! smiles Walter Straessle, but there was a problem: the patent. LEMO was the sole manufacturer of these products and other connectors were never 100% compatible.” This meant a major risk for the customer and it was certainly not by accident that success came through a rather special market: medical, which was well advanced in the States. LEMO’s first customer is a medical device manufacturer.
“The only way to understand this market and to face competition was to go and see the customers”
This is the start of a long adventure and, more importantly, that of a tremendous amount of work. For many years, two or three times a year Walter Straessle travels around the USA to meet customers, to explain about the products, to reassure them. “Direct contacts were very important, even crucial. The only way to understand this market and to face competition was to go and see the customers, listen to their needs, keep proposing new ideas.”
Of these meetings, based on discussion, trust and intuition, Walter Straessle recalls a memory that represents LEMO’s philosophy in the United States particularly well. One day, he was talking to a potential customer whose start-up company manufactured small devices to be placed on patients’ finger tips to measure blood oxygen and pulse. The man said: “You know Walt, we will never be a big customer for you” Walter Straessle replied: “There are no big or small customers. Only good customers.” Shortly afterwards, the small company’s turnover shot up to 2 million dollars, which was a fairly considerable amount in the seventies.
Since its early successes, LEMO USA has been making steady progress. The first inventory, necessary to ensure the growing number of deliveries, was stored in an area rented in Santa Rosa’s Business Center, near San Francisco. Additional space had to be rented every two or three years, until the first US factory was inaugurated in 1983 in Santa Rosa.
To conclude on a typically American note, we ask Walter Straessle whether he remembers any crazy moments, or strong emotions which would mark the history of LEMO connectors in the United States. It takes only a second before a beaming smile shines up on his face as he answers: “The 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. For the first time, mixed cameras required mixed fibre optic and electric contacts. LEMO was capable of equipping them.”
45 years after the creation of LEMO USA, now located in Rohnert Park, the LEMO Group generates 40% of its turnover in USA.