HAYDEN — The technical questions always went to a physicist and engineer named Richard Odenberg.
Odenberg fielded the phone calls from customers curious about his creations: advanced silicon-based surge suppression systems to protect sensitive, low voltage semiconductor technology — systems now in use around the world, from fishing boats to hospitals and the military.
In those earliest days of the fledgling new California company, callers with a tech bent were routed to Odenberg because he knew the product better than anybody. He knew it better because he invented it. So engineers calling for more information were sent to the guy who spoke their language.
“Engineers who want to buy, want to buy from engineers, not sales people,” Odenberg explained in a recent interview with NIBJ.
Just as routinely, when callers with sales questions called the company, they were directed to Phil Smith. They were routed to Smith because he spoke their language. They learned to trust him because when he said a product would be sold for X and delivered by Y, it was.
And once in a great while — not often, mind you — a curious caller would make an observation.
“You sound a lot like Phil Smith,” someone might say to Odenberg.
“Interesting,” Odenberg might reply. “I know him; he’s got a beard.”
If anyone ever guessed that Richard Odenberg and Phil Smith were the same man, the same brilliant scientist and extraordinary salesman, they never said so. And neither did he.
“It has something to do with somebody trusting you, without seeing you, spending thousands and thousands of dollars without ever shaking their hand,” Odenberg confides on a gorgeous June morning in the restaurant attached to his manufacturing firm at Coeur d’Alene Airport/Pappy Boyington Field. “When I’m an engineer I’m an engineer. When I’m sales, I’m sales.”
He was like that 45 years ago when he and his accountant-turned-partner created Transtector Systems.
And now, celebrating his 78th birthday with his Transtector family surrounding him, he is like that still.
Call it The Odenberg Trifecta.
It is June 1, and Transtector is celebrating the anniversary of its founding by Odenberg in 1967.
On this date, the Transtector team is further assembled to cheer Odenberg on his recent receipt of the prestigious “Entrepreneurial Achievement Award,” which he accepted in a ceremony in May. The honor is bestowed annually on a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers “who has been instrumental in furthering entrepreneurial growth in the United States by demonstrating an innovative mindset to create a successful technology-based business.”
And finally, although his 78th birthday is technically three days away, it is a suitable excuse for a company party complete with two big cakes, an appetizing lunch line and cool corporate gifts for all.
Transtector President Shawn Thompson, an Odenberg disciple for 28 years, tells employees the story of their founder’s entrepreneurial birthing pains. Thompson explains that their need for each other in a business partnership became clear one day when Odenberg’s accountant, Frank Honorof, was digging through Odenberg’s kitchen drawers. Odenberg had said somewhere in there was the tax paperwork Honorof needed, but what Honorof found didn’t look like tax documents.
“They were (customer) orders,” Thompson says while Odenberg stands next to him, smiling sheepishly as employees hoot and holler. Then Thompson grows serious.
“He was doing all this in his kitchen, folks,” Thompson says. “He created an opportunity for us for 45 years.”
That 45-year opportunity arose from a humble if inspired origin. After studying physics and engineering at UCLA, Odenberg worked for Space Technology Laboratory, where he built solar simulators used primarily in satellites.
“There was a group of us who got done early and we decided to make inventions,” he says.
Odenberg, who’d been fascinated with the new semiconductor industry that arose around 1962, worked up a patent application on his product that focused on silicon suppression and circuitry, and he branched off on his own in 1967. Fame and fortune were nowhere to be seen.
“It took five, six years to get the patent approval,” he says. “It didn’t go through quickly because nobody understood it.”
But he understood it and, knowing its potential, he persisted, first in Los Angeles, then in Lake Tahoe, and finally here in the Coeur d’Alene area. With Honorof at the business helm and Odenberg steering technology — and raising money in those early days just to stay afloat — the scientist tapped a phone company invention that took their investment to a new level. It was called “telemarketing.”
“We were one of the first companies to telemarket products,” he says. “AT&T showed us how.”
Boy, did it. So impressed was Odenberg and, although he’s shy to admit it, so good at it, that he became the company’s “heavy-duty telemarketer.” Or rather, that responsibility fell to Phil Smith.
The company grew. In 1981 they moved into unimpressive quarters on Seltice Way with about 35 employees before eventually taking up residence at the Coeur d’Alene Airport. Here they’ve grown to 194 employees, with 35 still in Nevada. The company supports 66 Idaho suppliers.
When Transtector blossomed and the potential for Odenberg’s products expanded, many suitors expressed interest in buying the company from a man who could have been ready to retire. In 1998 Odenberg sold Transtector to Smiths Interconnect Protection Technology Group, part of the 23,000-employee Smiths Group with branches in 50 countries. Odenberg sold, but he did not sell out.
“He’s still here doing this stuff,” says Colleen Krajack, the company’s Hayden-based human resources director for 15 years. “He didn’t need to work a day in his life after he sold this to Smiths.”
Krajack marvels at Odenberg’s work ethic. When he’s not traveling some 120 days a year, lecturing worldwide, he’s usually at the office, and he still takes work-related calls at nights and on weekends. Krajack describes Odenberg as “kinetic, a true innovator” who is also a “passionate yet gentle, gentle spirit.” He’s as committed to his children and grandchildren, she says, as Odenberg is to the rest of the Transtector family.
And that’s saying something.
Asked if he feels proud looking out at 200 employees and knowing that his hard work and determination — and Phil Smith’s sales excellence, of course — paved the way for their jobs and the many benefits to their families, the smile disappears from Odenberg’s face like an electrical switch has been flipped. He shakes his head and it’s clear that his interviewer has missed the point entirely.
“It’s a situation they have made for me,” he says. “I’m just a cog in the wheel.
“If they didn’t do all this … I wouldn’t have anything. Zero. They’re the ones who make the product work.”
They’re the ones, he’ll say, who have carried out what Odenberg learned from his father and brothers. The Odenberg men were clothing reps, successfully peddling high-end stuff when most people were dirt poor.
“When people didn’t want to buy 80 cent hose, they were selling $9 hose,” he says.
And that wasn’t just superb sales technique, either — a family trait that also helped Richard get rich. It was insistence that there will always be a market for quality products, Odenberg says.
“My dad believed that quality will always outrank cheap,” he says. “Our product isn’t easy to build, and other companies sell more but cheaper products. Our reputation is quality. That’s what we’re known for. That’s who we are.”
It is 11 p.m. one recent night and the phone in the home of Transtector’s founder rings. The call is being rerouted to him from India, from someone wanting information about a Transtector product. But this is no ordinary call; the guy clearly knows what he’s talking about, and he won’t be satisfied talking to someone in sales.
The founder takes his cue.
“I’m Richard Odenberg,” he says humbly, “an application engineer.”
Just in case, Phil Smith is standing by.
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