This story was originally published in the Idaho Statesman on Aug. 11, 2009
When Ray Smelek went to work for Hewlett-Packard Co. in 1957, computers were the size of rooms.
Home printer? Forget it.
When Smelek, now 74, was tapped by the Silicon Valley company to start what would become its wildly successful printer division in the 1970s, he stepped onto the technological frontier. And he helped shape the Treasure Valley's future.
Smelek was instrumental in bringing HP's emerging printer division to Boise, a city with virtually no technology base at the time. A few hundred workers Downtown would peak at more than 4,000 employees on Chinden Boulevard east of Eagle Road. HP's LaserJet printers, the company's most successful product, would become ubiquitous in homes and offices worldwide.
And HP's presence in Boise would help launch a tech industry that now accounts for more than 11 percent of the Valley's work force.
Smelek details the coming of HP to Boise as part of a new book about his life titled "Ray Smelek - Making My Own Luck (The harder I worked – the luckier I got)."
Q. When you first came to Boise in the early '70s, you were scouting for a location for HP's emerging printing division. What did you find here in terms of the community and the industrial and technological base?
A.There were a lot of people who were very interested in having us here, because they felt there was a need for a diversification of the workforce. Since we were going to design and manufacture, there was a potential for a number of jobs. We did not have a good technological base. The community had mostly been around agriculture and byproducts that were related to agriculture. There was no ... technical education, because at that time the only engineering programs were up at the University of Idaho.
Q. What about the workforce? Was it a workforce that you thought could be trained to do this technological work?
A. I think the people had a good work ethic and were trainable to do the jobs we needed. We could train people to assemble and wire products. Engineering was the key issue. But we had recruited engineers from a variety of universities around the Northwest anyway. And we felt Boise would be an attractive place to get them to come to.
Q. What was your own attraction to this area?
A. I liked the people. I like the golf course at Crane Creek. I liked the area's sporting availability for my children. My children did not want to move. The fact that we could join the country club, we could go skiing at Bogus Basin, water skiing at Lucky Peak – those were all things that were attractive.
Q. In the end, what sold you on Boise as the place to start the printer business?
A. The personal amenities for the family and myself. I was asked to go into places: Bozeman, Mont., wanted me to go there; Twin Falls wanted me to go there. I (told them) you don't meet the criteria for the air travel. (HP wanted a place outside of California that was not more than a two-hour flight from the Bay Area, where the company was headquartered).The bottom line was the easiest transition with the family.
Q. What if your family had wanted to go to Spokane? Might history have been different then?
A. Well, it could have been. Later on HP put a facility in Spokane. We could have gone either place. I just had a better affinity for Boise. (HP also considered Corvallis, Ore., before eventually putting a facility there.)
Q. How important was having your family's support to come to Boise?
A. The choice was high for Boise because of their needs. (To say we) wouldn't have come if they had said no, that wouldn't have been the case. We were moving, and I was trying to make it as easy as possible for them to move.
Q. You seem to suggest in your book you were given a lot of autonomy in making the decision on where this plant would be located. Why was that?
A. As long as we met the basic criteria HP had – they had 20 items – we were given a fair amount of autonomy.
Q. It just seems awfully easy.
A. It was easy. They said, "You know what we are looking for. If you can't get it done there, go somewhere else."
Q. You must have represented to the city of Boise just a huge opportunity for a blue-chip company to come in and set up business.
A. At the time HP was not a really huge company. We had been growing. We were a plum from that respect. But I don't think anybody envisioned it would grow to what it did.
Q. Getting the land for the HP plant came with some special challenges that put you in the business of buying people's homes. You talk in the book about buying one person's house and farm.
A. There was a gentlemen and his wife that had a piece of property on the south side of the area. He said, "I have been here all my life, and I am going to die here." (HP said, ) "How about if we buy your property and then we will give it back to you and you can live here for as long as you need to?" He was also farming his land. Later on we had him farm some other land just to kind of keep the weeds down.
Q. You also had people opposed to HP coming here. What were they worried about?
A. Mostly anti-growth people. They had moved here from large areas and they liked it the way it was. They said, "You are going to mess it all up." In every case if I would see a letter to the editor or got a letter, I'd go visit with them or have them come in to show them what we were doing. They were always surprised at the diversity of the workforce, and also we were a clean industry ... and we were very conscious of our impact in the community.
Q. How do you think HP's presence contributed to the growth of the Treasure Valley's technology center?
A. I think significantly. I'm not sure what year it was, but the chamber asked me to come give a talk one day about how to attract another (tech) company to Boise. I said attracting a company is not easy. They are going to have to have some kind of an affinity for Boise. But HP and Micron are going out every year and hiring the top engineers who will become entrepreneurs in the country. No matter how fast we grow, we cannot satisfy all their personal goals. (Some) of them will leave and start their own companies. Instead of spending a lot of money trying to attract a company to come in, we ought to start educating people about the needs.
Q. As people broke off from HP for whatever reason, many of them stayed here and started tech businesses. Is that how a lot of tech businesses grew?
A. That's mainly how it evolved over time.