An industry ‘pioneer’
International business represents 30 percent of Optical Cable’s sales
People typically don’t associate Roanoke with the NFL or NASCAR, but without the products of Roanoke-based Optical Cable Corp., sports fans wouldn’t have the bird’s eye view of the big game or the stock car race. Broadcast customers use Optical’s cables, connectors and accessories to televise sporting events.
Optical Cable manufactures a broad range of fiber-optic and copper-data cabling and connectivity products. They include fiber-optic and copper cabling, specialty fiber-optic and copper connectors and wireless distributed antenna systems. The company’s products are used in settings ranging from data centers, sports venues and racetracks to universities, corporate offices and military installations.
Founded in 1983 by a small group of engineers, the company is known as a “pioneer in fiber-optic cable,” says CEO and President Neil Wilkin. Its first products focused on military applications. Shortly thereafter it began diversifying into cable. In the early 2000s, Optical added copper and connectivity products to the mix. The new products gave the company an opportunity to expand into a variety of industries.
“We started talking to people involved in the gas, mining and broadcast areas,” Wilkin says. “We were moving toward offering our customers and users complete solution connectivity. We wanted customers to know we weren’t just fiber-optic cable anymore.”
The company has grown not only through sales but also acquisitions. In addition to its headquarters and manufacturing facility in Roanoke, it has added manufacturing facilities near Asheville, N.C., and Dallas. Its 145,000-square-foot facility in Roanoke sits on a 24-acre parcel of land near Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. About 200 of the company’s 400 employees are based in Roanoke. The remaining 200 are split evenly between the company’s two other manufacturing sites.
Wilkin describes Roanoke as the “perfect location” for the company. “There is more going on in this area than people realize,” he says, referring to a growing regional focus on technology.
The area has been a boon to the company. In the period from 2007 to 2013, sales grew about 65 percent. During the 2013 fiscal year, the company — which went public in 1996 — had net sales of $75.3 million, the second-highest level in its history.
The company’s international business is another strong component of its growth. Last year it represented 30 percent of Optical’s sales. Currently, the company does business in more than 50 countries. It started exporting soon after it was founded. One of its first international sales was to the Scandinavian military. “We have built up a name for ourselves,” says Michael Newman, vice president of international sales, referring to Optical’s export business.
In May the company received the President’s “E” Award for Exports, presented to organizations with consistent export growth based on an innovative international marketing plan. President Kennedy established the award in 1961. A total of 66 U.S. companies were honored this year. “Having won that award brings validity to our methodology and the disciplines we use to enter those markets,” says Newman.
The company sells products through U.S. and international sales teams and also through distributors in the countries it serves. Its two largest export markets currently are Canada and Australia.
Before Optical enters a market, Newman develops a customized sales approach. “In Latin America, for example, we might have one sales model that works well, and in Europe we will have another sales model,” he says. “The key to success is being able to look at different markets and plan a market entry or execution.”
The company does a stable business in Perth, Australia, where it targets the area’s mining, oil and gas industries. “Perth is a city that is thriving on taking minerals out of the ground and selling them,” says Newman. He finds that business people in Perth value their family time and relaxation. “It’s very family oriented. It’s a good place for doing business in that regard.”
Newman has a ritual before he travels to any destination. “I update myself on the local sports team and look at who is winning. I update myself on the local soap opera,” he says. “People want to get to know you when they are doing business with you. It helps to form bonds.”
The economy in Roanoke is in transition, moving from a traditional economy to one that is more technology based. Originally a Norfolk and Western Railway town, Roanoke still benefits economically from the Norfolk Southern Railway, the successor of Norfolk and Western. Technology and health care are two of the area’s growing industries. Major players in those sectors include Carilion Clinic and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine as well as the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Because of its strategic location on Interstate 81, the city has several corporate distribution centers in the Roanoke Centre for Industry and Technology. They include retailer Orvis, cosmetic company Elizabeth Arden and Advance Auto Parts. Major employers in the city are Carilion, Norfolk Southern and Advance Auto Parts (which is headquartered in Roanoke).
Located in Western Australia, Perth has a large presence of mining and mineral companies, thanks to the large deposits of coal and metal ores in the region. The economy also includes oil- and gas-related industries as well as agriculture and tourism. Western Australia is one of the leaders in the production of liquefied natural gas. Perth is home to more than 30 international oil and gas companies. One of its largest export partners is China. Employers in the city include consulting firm Velrada, Woodside Petroleum, the cooperative grain exchange CBH Group and iron ore producer Fortescue Metals.