LATHAM — The transition from keeping his ship running on its own to running his own ship took some time, but it was not a huge jump for Integra Optics founder and CEO David Prescott.
After a nine-year stint in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear engineer operating warship reactors, he worked for other companies and started other business ventures before launching Integra in 2007.
He said by applying the principles of hard work learned on the farm as a boy and teamwork learned aboard the ship as a man, he finds leading the fiber optic supplier an easy fit.
“I’ve always been an independent hard-charger,” said Prescott, now 45.
The nuclear reactor operators aboard a Navy ship are collectively among the brightest and most highly trained people in the enlisted ranks of the U.S. military, and as Prescott rose to become a supervisor, his role was more to mentor and lead his subordinates than to manage and motivate them.
He takes the same approach now with Integra Optics, giving his employees the tools and support they need, then letting them do their work, and requiring that they do it well.
“I think we hold everyone accountable to their core values,” Prescott said.
He also reaches back to the military to find new employees, valuing the culture of self-discipline and teamwork they’ve been indoctrinated with there. About 25 percent of Integra’s workforce is veterans, compared with about 5 percent of New York’s population.
In its 11 years, Integra Optics has expanded to about 80 employees and grown to $40 million in sales. It plans further growth in the rapidly expanding fiber optic market.
Integra’s headquarters and main manufacturing facility is adjacent to Albany International Airport; it also has sales offices sprinkled around the United States and a smaller manufacturing facility in Brazil.
Integra’s main product is the fiber optic transceiver, a device that converts computer data to light then transmits it through fiber optic lines, and receives light from the fiber optic line then converts it to computer data.
The Iowa native first came to the Capital Region for nuclear reactor training at the U.S. Navy’s Kesselring Site near Ballston Spa. He eventually would return here to settle down with the Gloversville school teacher he met in Virginia Beach. But he first spent nine years in the Navy, most of it aboard the cruisers USS South Carolina and USS Portland, reaching the rank of petty officer second class and winning the honor of Sailor of the Year before leaving the service.
“I was ready to go as soon I graduated,” Prescott recalls of his high school years. He’d been interested in the Naval Academy but was told he’d have a hard time gaining admission because he’d never played sports in high school.
Rather than hit the gridiron, he’d always worked jobs.
The family left their Iowa farm and moved to the Minneapolis area when Prescott’s father lost his day job as a John Deere machinist. But by that point, Prescott was entering his teens and had already picked up the work ethic and adaptability that would shape his future.
“Growing up on a farm you have to be able to do everything,” he said.
Prescott gained extensive knowledge of electronics in the Navy, which led him to a civilian job as Time Warner Cable’s Albany-area director of engineering, which gave him extensive exposure to fiber optic cable technology.
It also gave him extensive appreciation of well-made parts. He did not enjoy being called in at 3 a.m. to figure out what had broken and how to fix it.
“You have to be able to trust and rely on every component in the system, right down to the smallest bolt,” Prescott said. Integra’s sales pitch comes down to just that — customers can rely on what it makes and sells. Integra states its transceivers are 33 times more reliable than industry average.
“You don’t have to worry about our product,” Prescott said.
Some competing products cost more, some less. Some are of equal quality, some are of obvious poor quality, others look fine but may fail under stress.
“Our customers have tried these and that’s why they come to us,” Prescott said.
David and wife Melissa live in Glenmont with their three sons, ages 12 to 16.
The quality of a company and its products relies significantly on the quality of its employees.
Integra recruits from technical schools as well as from the ranks of military personnel transitioning back to civilian life. It draws less from college campuses, Prescott said, because college often teaches students to think more than to do. Some college graduates will enter the workforce lacking basic workplace skills and many will expect to be highly paid to recoup their investment in tuition, he said.
“You still have to be willing to train people on how to be a good employee and a good team member,” he said.
To boost production, Prescott in late 2017 invested more than $1 million in three robots that now do the work of six people and could do the work of 30. The move didn’t result in job cuts, and won’t preclude further hiring as the company aims for $100 million in sales by 2022.
“There’s always openings for the right people,” Prescott said.
To retain and motivate employees, Prescott has created a workplace environment that has landed Integra on a number of best-workplace lists, with on-the-job perks such as lunch-hour fitness boot camps and yoga, after-hours brew fests and community involvement through efforts such as Toys For Tots.
It’s all part of a larger effort to build teamwork and an enthusiastic company culture, said Prescott, who sees a crucial part of his role as creating the atmosphere and providing the tools for his people to do their best work.
“I’m not at the top of the organization, I’m at the bottom of the organization,” he said.
DEEP BLUE TO WILD BLUE
When he left the Navy, Prescott set out into the other blue expanse — the sky. He’s since become a skilled and enthusiastic pilot and now owns several airplanes.
The Pilatus PC-12 serves as a company plane. In the early days, Prescott would fly it all over to meetings and pitches, but now that Integra Optics is established, the turboprop is more commonly a revenue source, often chartered for use by other pilots.
Most of Prescott’s flying these days is for pleasure, in his 1943 T-6 Texan. The workhorse military training aircraft of the World War II era can do a barrel roll without complaint. But it handles like a brick compared to modern aircraft, and requires full attention and careful execution from the pilot.
His favorite plane — without ever having flown it — is the gull-wing F4U Corsair, one of the great fighter aircraft of World War II. He bought a copy that saw combat with the Salvadoran Air Force in the 1969 Football War against Honduras and he’s having it restored to safe, airworthy condition.
For the record, the Texan wears a sharp U.S. Navy paint scheme and so will the Corsair.
One can find a common thread in all this — building a company that can pitch itself on quality, running a nuclear reactor, flying a temperamental 75-year-old plane.
“I think the theme is kind of consistent, it’s all about precision,” Prescott said.