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Tektronix at 70: Silicon Forest's 'original' tree keeps reaching higher

Beaverton company refocuses to help drive the digital revolution.


SUBMITTED PHOTO - Tektronix has a history that stretches from just after World War II to deep into today's digital revolution. The Beaverton-based company's products have helped innovators develop some of today's technological marvels.There’s a company headquartered in Beaverton that helped put that smartphone in your pocket.

That same company helped make Facebook, Google and Amazon work.

That company helped keep the country safe by helping develop advanced radar and surveillance technology.

And that company, founded 70 years ago this month, was Tekrad.

To be fair, it was Tekrad for all of one month.

Today, however, you know that company as Tektronix because its famous founders quickly realized their first name choice was too similar to another fledgling technology company and changed the name.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Tektronix co-founder Howard Vollum helped push technology forward as the Beaverton company's first innovator.Under its now-familiar name, the company grew into “a storied brand” and “real incubus of technology,” according to its president.

Pat Byrne said his company’s testing and measurement devices pre-date the digital revolution by four decades yet still help drive an ever-increasing rate of technology that bring us the innovations we use today and those already in engineering labs for tomorrow.

“What’s around the corner is really being worked on here in Beaverton, Oregon,” Byrne said.

Tektronix was incorporated in Portland in the wake of World War II, the creation of four partners including an ingenious engineer named Charles “Howard” Vollum and a savvy businessman in Melvin “Jack” Murdock.

Even while he was still a student at Reed College, Vollum improved upon the design of the oscilloscope, an electronic signal testing device still central to the rapid development of generations of complex technology.

Tek became a world leader in oscilloscopes, a place it still holds today even though the devices have evolved, said Byrne, who took over as president in 2014 after starting his engineering career working for competitors.

Tektronix recently unveiled a more modern look for its logos, including this 'monogram' version.Byrne put the Beaverton company back under the spotlight last week, unveiling a new company logo that not only refreshed its look but also signaled that Tek was moving more strongly to fully integrate software and engineering expertise into its hardware devices so Tek can more effectively team up with its customers, who are the inventors of the world’s next great technologies.

Tektronix has always looked forward.

The company boomed early, and by the mid-1950s, needed lots of room to grow. It bought 313 acres of former farmland in Beaverton from the Anna Algesheimer estate and turned it into its headquarters campus, according to Marshall M. Lee’s book, “Winning with People: The First 40 Years of Tektronix,” which covered the company’s growth into the 1980s.

For the past 60 years, that campus along Southwest Jenkins Road has been the heart of the company, and today it remains the largest work site in a company that employs 3,500 people worldwide. The Beaverton site houses the company headquarters, loads of engineers and even some manufacturing.

For decades, Tektronix was Oregon’s largest private employer, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia. Although nearby Nike and Intel are now among companies with larger workforces, and part of Tek’s original campus is leased to other companies, Tek remains a leader in a narrower product niche that would have made the late Howard Vollum proud.

A Portland State University study study from the early 2000s found that Tektronix and Intel were the two most important companies driving the development of the local high-tech region now recognized worldwide as the Silicon Forest.

Even by the time of that PSU study, the companies together had incubated nearly 100 area high-tech businesses, including important companies such as Mentor Graphics and Floating Point Systems founded by prominent Tek alumni. Tek’s influence can now be traced back to multiple generations of high-tech companies.

“I think Tek is the ‘original’ tree in the Silicon Forest,” Jon Carpenter, a 33-year employee who started as an intern and worked his way up to vice president of Tektronix Operations, wrote in an email. “There are many reasons why other technology companies may choose to locate in Washington County/Portland area today, but it was a different story 30-plus years ago when I started with Tek.

“Back then, technology companies chose to locate close to Tektronix because it gave them a potential competitive advantage,” including partnerships and perhaps early use of Tek’s latest technology, Carpenter explained.

He added that the local "electronic industry as we know and benefit from today would not be possible without Tektronix.”

Byrne said Tek also was responsible for bringing many talented engineers and other employees into Beaverton, where they often stayed for years, put down deep roots and contributed to the economy and community.

“I think they came for the opportunity to participate in the technology revolution, and ended up staying for the quality of life that area and companies offered,” added Tracy L. Benson, a 37-year employee who directs the Americas Customer Care Center.

Another longtime employee, Mike Wadzita, a product planner in his 38th year at Tek, agreed.

“There is a prevailing culture of continuous improvement across the company,” Wadzita wrote in an email. “I find it incredibly energizing to work alongside so many talented and dedicated people who are focused on innovation and meeting new customer challenges …”

Wadzita and others also noted other Tek contributions, such as supporting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and other educational programs, as well as working closely with the region’s universities and colleges to create or enhance engineering programs.

Certainly, Tektronix has had its ups and downs, especially as growth into multiple divisions during the 1970s and 1980s eventually gave way to contractions that included selling off entire units and laying off employees as the company refocused on the core testing and measurement products that were the foundation of its success. One of the direct spin-offs was its circuit-board division, which became Merix Corp. in Forest Grove.

In 2007, Washington, D.C.-based Danaher Corporation paid $2.85 billion for Tektronix but has left it grounded in Beaverton and kept it focused on testing and measurement devices while the parent company has a wider product footprint.

Carpenter, the VP, said Danaher has allowed Tek to keep its team-oriented culture but also increased discipline and accountability in ways that will help the company keep adding to its long legacy in an increasingly fast-paced and competitive industry.

“I can’t tell you how often I run into somebody while I am wearing something with the 'Tektronix' logo, and inevitably, they will tell me how they used to work at Tek or how their parents worked at Tek or their grandparents or their siblings or people they know,” Carpenter said. “And those recollections seem to always be filled with a sense of pride.”

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Tektronix first put down roots in Beaverton when it bought former farmland in the 1950s. The campus is off Southwest Jenkins Road.