I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jerry Rawls, the CEO and co-founder of Finisar, about his experiences during the past two decades. While technology companies are accustomed to volatile market places and constant change, Jerry guided Finisar through arguably the most volatile market environment in history.
In this interview he takes us through the strong days of the late 90’s with a peak market cap of nearly $5 billion, through the dotcom bubble burst where typical companies in the same market segment saw sales drop by 98% in under a year, to today where Finisar has been established as a strong global company and a leader in optical components.
SM: Where I would like to begin the interview is to ask you a bit about your background to set the conversation in context before you started Finisar. Take us back to where you come from, where you grew up, about your family, did you have entrepreneurial roots? JR: I am a Texan. I was born in Houston and I grew up in Texas. I went to the University of Texas Tech. I can’t trace entrepreneurial roots back very far other than that when I was a kid I always had jobs, I had a newspaper route when I was 10 and I always had jobs doing something, but I don’t remember starting much of anything.
I was in a junior achievement organization where we actually made soap and sold it to supermarkets for a year and that was fun, we did that for a year. I went to college and studied mechanical engineering. Texas Tech was great experience for me, I enjoyed the social and educational parts of it, and I also had some great summer jobs. I worked for IBM, Shell Oil, and US Steel during the summers.
I learned in that process that I did not want to be a design engineer, and though I was majoring in mechanical engineering it seemed the kinds of activities I would enjoy were more involved with people. I had been a bit of a student politician, a student body officer and a member of the student senate. I was a fraternity officer. I was a member of a lot of organizations, and, I don’t know, somehow maybe that steered me along that way.
So I decided that what I wanted to do was go to business school as opposed to more education in engineering or moving into a job as a mechanical engineer somewhere. I went to business school at Purdue.
I chose Purdue because at the time the Vietnam War was running hot and heavy, and Linden Johnson had just abolished what used to be known as the II-S (two s) scholastic deferment for education from the draft, but he had grandfathered everybody that was in school, and essentially what it said was you have four years to complete your degree, and after that you are subject to the draft, which at the end meant you were subject to going to Vietnam.
Anyway, it was a very quantitative MBA; everybody in the program was either an engineer or a scientist.
One of the companies that had interviewed at the school the year I finished was Raychem. I ended up joining Raychem and I actually moved to Menlo Park for a few months as part of a technical training program because the job I had accepted was a sales engineer and my first job was going to be Chicago.
So, I went of to Chicago to be a sales engineer, and I did well at it and my customers grew and I sold a lot of Raychem materials. Then I moved to Dallas and became a Sales Manager, and then I moved to California and became a Marketing Manager. I progressed through the marketing management roles and became national sales manager and head of product marketing for our division, and eventually the division manager of a couple divisions of the company.