From HS dropout to CEO of his own global company Alex Cable and Thorlabs keep moving into the future
Thorlabs international headquarters on Sparta Avenue in Newton
Photo by Laurie Gordon
By Laurie Gordon NEWTON — There are many international CEOs who don't have a stationary bike in their office. Alex Cable does, but it's only because the head of Thorlabs is currently injured: otherwise, he'd be running. Cable has taken the philosophy of “healthy body, healthy mind” to a whole new level and sets a fine example for his employees by, himself, finding time to work out every day. Not an easy task when you have locations all over the world and an incredible drive to expand sales each year by 15 percent, but Cable's way of life that has catapulted Thorlabs into the forefront of the photonics business. Thorlabs, a vertically integrated photonics products manufacturer, was founded in 1989 to serve the laser and electro-optics research market. As that market has spawned a multitude of technical innovations, Thorlabs has extended its core competencies in an effort to play an ever increasing role serving the photonics industry at the research end, as well as the industrial, life science, medical, and defense segments. The organization’s highly integrated and diverse manufacturing assets include semiconductor fabrication of laser diodes, optical amplifiers, lithium niobate modulators, quantum cacscade/interband cascade lasers, and VCSEL lasers; fiber towers for drawing glass optical fibers (silica, fluoride, tellurite, and hollow core); MBE/MOCVD epitaxial wafer growth reactors; extensive glass and metal fabrication facilities; advanced thin film deposition capabilities; and optomechanical and optoelectronic shops. The business started in Freehold, New Jersey, in a small ranch home. Cable had tried several other businesses, but this time, he was determined. He took over the biggest room in the house-- the master bedroom-- and created a lab. Speaking of labs, as his black Labrador retriever, Thor, sauntered by, he found the name for his business: Thorlabs. Cable is brilliant, fast-forward-minded and always looking for new horizons. But it wasn't always that way. In fact, Alex Cable got kicked out of high school. “I was a troubled kid,” he said. During the years he should have attended high school, he worked as a machinist and a Hungarian businessman took him under his wing and trained him and he learned to cook. At age 14, Cable was a dishwasher and worked his way up in the culinary business. “Things were ok, but I finally figured out that I wouldn't make much money,” he said. In his late 20s, Cable went to County College of Morris and then earned his Bachelor of Science in Physics from Rutgers University and a graduate degree in material science from The Stevens Institute of Technology. Out of Rutgers, Cable was recruited by Steven Chu to work at his lab at Bell Labs in the Spring of 1984. At Bell Labs, Cable became involved in a series of experiments on a low-temperature atom manipulation technique known as "optical molasses." In late 1987, Chu left Bell labs to take a position at Stanford University. "He asked me to go with him out to Stanford," Cable said, "But after a lot of consideration I decided to start my own business instead." That's when he built the lab in the 900-square foot home in Freehold. Together with a college friend, he built two scanning tunneling microscopes for DuPont in that bedroom lab. The business took a different tact and Cable discovered that selling optomechanical parts was a good business and one that he enjoyed. As a child, Cable loved venturing to Sussex County to hike and camp. It was his favorite part of the state, and where he chose to begin his not-at-home business. Thorlabs has grown and has a hugely positive impact on the entire area, creating more than 1,000 jobs and providing extensive community support. Cable worked hard in the first years of Thorlabs, Inc. — what Cable calls "the sweat equity" part — and kept reinvesting in the business. His labor and diligence paid off. 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. When it comes to community, Thorlabs is vested wherever it has locations, but especially in the Newton area as that is it's World Headquarters. It's very common to see Thorlabs sponsoring local events, especially ones involving fitness. “Being vested in the community is very important. Our employees live here and we want to make sure we support community events and charities locally,” Cable said. Currently, expansion is taking place for Thorlabs in Ely, which is located in Cambridge Shire in the United Kingdon. Expansion is going on at their site in Germany as well as in Japan. “One of our missions is to aggressively pursue early cancer detection by using human breath,” Cable said. “We tend to find ourselves in he company of some great scientists and look to a future in technology remaining on the bleeding edge of new projects.” He added, “In order to sustain a 15 percent growth each year, that means $75 million in new business. We need to sustain plus look at larger and larger projects. To have a high reward, that means taking a high risk sometimes.” Cable said, “I am honored to serve our community and to play a role in the work of tens of thousands of research laboratories through the products that my company provides. I am committed to building a company that achieves its competitive advantage from its fundamental understanding of the community of customers we serve. Thorlabs has grown into an integral part of the photonics community. I hope that Thorlabs will continue to foster the forward movement of photonics in cooperation with the amazing community of scientists we are privileged to serve.” He's not your average CEO. He doesn't hide behind a suit most times, but prefers a casual look in the office. Bike racks are located right outside the employee entrance to encourage people to ride to work. Cable, himself, has participated in countless running races and athletic events even cycling up Mount Washington not once, but twice. “It's about the training and it's amazing what the human body can do if only we work toward reaching our potential,” he said. The same philosophy goes for Thorlabs. Cable believes that diligence breeds high performance and Thor's performance has gained the company an international reputation. Thorlabs is located at 56 Sparta Avenue in Newton, New Jersey. For further information, visit: www.thorlabs.com.