Focus on fitness at the core of Thor Labs

| 30 Sep 2013 | 01:16

You won't find too many world headquarters with a bicycle rack stocked with mountain bikes for its employee's use at the main entrance. Then again, you won't find too many Chief Executive Officers like Alex Cable.

The CEO of Newton-based Thorlabs is an accomplished scientist who has combined his intellect with business, an intense interest in the customer and a strong investment in dedicated employees to build Thorlabs into an international powerhouse in the photonics industry.

Early in his career, Cable worked at Bell Labs, in Holmdel, as an engineer. While there, an idea that began as a lunchtime conversation, led to a series of experiments by Cable, Arthur Ashkin, John Bjorkholm, Leo Holberg and future Nobel Prize winner, Steven Chu, involving manipulating atoms at low temperatures. This led to the discovery of the Bose/Einstein condensate. Bose-Einstein condensation is "an exotic quantum phenomenon that was macroscopically observed in dilute atomic gases for the first time in 1995."

While at Bell, he started a side business in the spare bedroom of his home working nights and weekends building two Scanning Tunnel Electronic Microscopes for Dupont. Confident he had a winner in this new business, Cable left Bell Labs in 1989 and founded what he said was at first "a bootstrap operation" in a basement on Mill Street in Newton called Thorlabs, Inc. It was named for his golden retriever, Thor.

Essentially, Thorlabs designs, develops, and manufactures its product portfolio of more than 15,000 SKUs with specialties in photonics, imaging, optics, fiber optics, light analysis instrumentation, lasers, mid-IR, optomechanics, vibration isolation, motion control and of late, breath analysis technology.

"I'm blessed to be in a position to get up every day and do something that matters to the world," Cable said.

As a child, Cable loved venturing to Sussex County to hike and camp. Living in Freehold, at the time, Sussex County was his favorite part of the state where he chose to begin what would become a business that would have a hugely positive impact on the entire area to the tune of now more than 1,000 jobs and extensive community support.

The first years of Thorlabs, Inc. where — what Cable calls "the sweat equity" — he worked hard and kept reinvesting back into the business. His diligence paid off as now Thorlabs is a leading designer and manufacturer of photonics equipment for research, manufacturing and biomedical applications worldwide. Cable's love of Sussex County has kept world corporate headquarters in the county seat, and it's now housed at the corner of Merriam Avenue and Sparta Road. Thor also has locations in other parts of the U.S. as well as in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Japan, China and Brazil.

The foundation of Cable's business model is customer service — he senses the needs of his customers and prides Thorlabs on going above and beyond that to achieve "even what the customer did not conceive as possible or needed."

Cable recently spent a week traveling to meet with a number of academics researching breath analysis as a means of early disease detection. Among other things, he asked the same question of each: "Was the story about the dogs true?" Cable said it's important to analyze the 3,000 plus components that are exhaled, but he was more interested in a story that dogs had been used to identify cancer patients based upon their breath.

"If dogs can sniff and screen for cancer, they are learning a pattern," he said.

It's this pattern in which Cable is interested in extrapolating into technology to identify diseases based on breath analysis.

Keeping healthy
Cable is in great shape and credits fitness to being his secret weapon against stress. In conjunction to keeping fit, Cable created Lab Snacks — an assortment of mostly healthy snacks. The outside of the box includes the company's trademark logo along with the charge to share the snacks and get creative recycling the box.

Lab Snacks are a go-to pick me up for Thors' employees and are given to clients around the world as well as to races and other events Thorlabs sponsors.

Sponsoring local events is important to Cable to perpetuate health and fitness in the communities in which his offices are located. It also goes back to how this CEO of an international company manages to defuse the inevitable stress that typically accompanies such a position. Cable's stress-defusing weapon are endurance sports.

"Competing in sports makes me a better person in business. It translates back and forth and frees me to manage what otherwise could be a very stressful life. Participating in sports inoculates me against stress," he said.

He also ties fitness into the mix at work because having healthy employees is a plus for the company and for them. In addition to having mountain bikes available to sign out for a lunch break ride, he facilitates employee gym memberships and entries into area running and cycling races as well as such perks as discounts to area salons and the like. His concern for his employees' health sometimes extends to some chiding, like the occasional sign he'll affix to the elevator suggesting they take the stairs instead. Cable may be highly intellectual and a business guru, but he also has a sense of humor.