The plan becomes clearer to William Pollock every day.
Whether it was when his family was forced to evacuate Ethiopia because of a civil war or the difficult start of his company, Optimation Technology Inc., Pollock knows his experiences are part of a plan that is greater than he.
While growing up in Africa, he developed a strong faith and came to realize that no matter what the circumstances, there was always a divine plan for going forward, one better than any plan he could come up with on his own.
His belief system has helped him to see the world in simple terms—an asset in an ever-changing business world.
“Basically I believe that there is a master plan and that if I just follow a master plan, things are always going to work out,” Pollock says. “If you’re driving to the airport and there’s a big traffic jam, you don’t have to worry about, ‘Am I going to miss the plane?’ You think, ‘Wow, maybe there’s a better plane.’”
Pollock, 65, has grown Optimation Technology, which has its headquarters in Rush, from one employee in 1984 to more than 400 employees, including those at 10 branches across the country. In 2012 he bought Kingsbury Corp., a 120-year-old New Hampshire firm that began as a toy manufacturer but moved to building machining centers and, later, high-speed assembly machines.
The firm, which moved operations to Rochester, has some 60 workers and provides machining capability for Optimation Technology.
Today he runs both companies and does not plan on slowing down.
“It’s fun; this is my hobby,” he says. “People say, ‘When are you going to retire?’ My dad died with his boots on when he was 96. Don’t count on me leaving before that.”
Pollock was raised in Sudan. His mother, originally from Ohio, and his father, a Pittsburgh native, moved their family to Africa in 1946. His father was a missionary builder, building things such as a clinic, a school or a house for an area of Africa as part of a mission group. The aim of the missionaries was to try to reach people who had not been reached.
Living in Ethiopia, Egypt and Kenya taught young Pollock, among many other things, to be resourceful.
“When you’re growing up someplace (your environment feels) kind of normal,” he said. “So running around barefoot and living in a grass hut is normal. I did like technical things, so I was always tinkering—I pretty much knew I was going to be an engineer.”
After a brief period of home-schooling, he attended the Schutz American School in Alexandria, Egypt. He was one of eight students in his graduating class. He was away from home from September to May at boarding school starting at age 9. That lifestyle helped to build Pollock’s independence and self-reliance.
“You had to take a boat and a train, and a train and a boat, and so it took like two days to get to school,” he says. “You didn’t come home.”
Running, his hobby, strongly influenced his future. He won the Egyptian national junior championships in the 1,500-meter and 3,000-meter events, feats that were highly appealing to American track programs.
Coming to America
His guidance counselor in Egypt, who was originally from the Los Angeles school district, suggested Pollock take a look at American colleges, which led him to New York. He received a full scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, north of Albany, as a recruit of the track team.
He graduated with two degrees in electrical engineering. After college he worked for $25 a month in Egypt as a teacher at Schutz American School, his old boarding school, from 1971 to 1973. After two years of surviving on the meager salary, he saw an ad for a position at Eastman Kodak Co. and returned to New York, living in Rochester and working at Kodak for 12 years until 1985. It was a position that put his health in jeopardy.
“Working for a big company was very stressful,” Pollock says. “They were really good to me, and they gave me good promotions, they gave me good raises, they gave me everything, but there (was) too much structure for me. I ended up with high blood pressure and I’d end up with these phantom diseases. So I had to just be me.”
Leaving Kodak, Pollock began teaching at SUNY College of Technology at Alfred and working on his ideas for Optimation Technology as well. He worked more than 90 hours each week for four years.
“I enjoyed it, but there’s something fake about teaching,” Pollock says. “You have a certain profile of students: There are the really good ones, some OK ones and some failures, and at the end of the semester when the whistle blows or the bell rings those failures go off. It’s acceptable to have not succeeded, which is really disappointing.”
He was promoted to associate professor, and the day he received tenure he quit, pursuing his company full time.
“I started it because back then all the big companies, the GEs and the Kodaks and all the auto companies, they were really self-contained,” Pollock says. “I could just see a glimmer that at some point they were going to start sub-contracting some of the automation for manufacturing.”
The first eight months of the company were costly, time-consuming and disheartening. He did not get a single customer in 1984, the year of Optimation Technology’s founding.
“When I first started trying to sell engineering, I would tell them I’ve got this great company, Optimation, I can do this, this and this, and then somehow in the conversation it would always come up: ‘How many people work there?” Pollock says. “I would say, ‘It’s just me,’ and then they would say, ‘It’s nice to meet you’ and show you the door. For eight months I didn’t get a single contract. Nothing.”
In his most difficult times, a Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11—“I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”—helped him to trust that his efforts were not in vain.
“I was ready to give up,” he says. “I almost gave up, but then I was praying about it and I decided no, I’m not supposed to give this up.”
Even though he was alone in the difficult starting period of the company, Pollock preferred it that way.
“The problem is, from my perspective, you can’t be as dynamic and as aggressive and as fast to market if you have to work with a group of people because it bogs you down. So partnerships have a price with them,” Pollock says. “At the end of the day I pretty much have an insatiable appetite for risk. I basically just take the risk myself.”
Little by little the company began gaining traction. Today the industrial engineering services and full-service automation solutions company has locations in Rush, Rochester, Corning and Syracuse in New York, along with Boston, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis and Philadelphia.
The Kingsbury move
Before its move, Kingsbury was in Keene, N.H. The company can machine any parts required to fabricate the products Optimation builds, including its roll-to-roll manufacturing machines, Pollock says.
“The company is fully vertically integrated to self-perform. We employ two shifts of CNC machine opera-tors,” he says.
Most recently, Kingsbury partnered with Kodak to produce next-generation touch-screen sensors for a market that is predicted to grow to $32 billion by 2018. Kodak provides the conductive film and chemicals used to make the sensors.
Pollock plans to introduce more lines of machines to the Kingsbury brand in the next few months.
Pollock purchased the brand, intellectual property, patents and all the physical manufacturing equipment from the former owner at a bankruptcy auction.
“We built an engineering center in New Hampshire to continue the design of these machines and moved 110 tractor-trailer loads of equipment to Rochester, where we built the present manufacturing center,” Pollock says. “Kingsbury was established as a sister company for Optimation, and the two firms work very closely together on most projects.”
Pollock’s values are not lost on employees. At the company’s headquarters, a playground can be seen from the road. In 1995, Pollock decided to add a full-time day care there to take stress off his employees and their families.
“He is very kind,” says Kelly Burns, chief financial officer and vice president of corporate services for Optimation Technology. “He has a lot of love for humanity. He had a very unique upbringing that gave him a very unique perspective to the world and (different from) what most Americans have. He is so very humble, and he always says ‘I could lose it all tomorrow and be OK.’”
She added: “Work is his hobby—he just loves it—but it’s not money and success that drives him; it’s the people around him and seeing people have opportunity. The bottom line on a financial statement is not what drives him.”
The company’s full range of services includes startup, installation, automation, engineering, design, fabrication, construction and maintenance. It serves the oil and gas, chemical, packaged goods, life sciences, film and plastics, food and beverages, and glass industries.
When starting his own company, Pollock took a few lessons to heart from his time at Kodak.
“I learned a lot at Kodak about too much structure is death,” he says. “You have to have some structure, but you can have less structure and still be very successful.”
His employees are trusted to do their jobs well.
“I learned that having these starting times and stopping times and defined lunch hours and all that stuff wasn’t healthy,” Pollock says. “When we started this, we said we’re not going to do that. Come when you can, leave when you can, get your work done.”
“Working with him is so easy because he really knows problem(s) and he has no fear,” says Philip Barranco, director of information technology for Optimation Technology. “He sets you up to run with things.”
Family life and balance
Pollock’s view on life has shifted to keep his mental and physical health on track. He does not view stress in the same way.
“He manages stress amazingly well,” says his wife, Carolyn. “Sometimes I won’t know about a crisis until it’s over because he doesn’t want me to worry and he knows I will. He empowers people to do their own jobs—he is as far from a micro-manager as you can get. He hires competent people and trusts their judgment in making big decisions without his input.”
Pollock says he has three daughters: Allison de Jesus, 40, his biological daughter; Dawn Hodgkinson, 38, an adopted daughter from Korea; and Louiza Tsoureka, or Liza, who was the family’s exchange student. Liza was not officially adopted, but they refer to her as their “Greek daughter” and Pollock walked her down the aisle at her wedding.
“Bill is my ‘heart dad,’” Liza says. “(He) is someone you can count on, who’s there when you need him and when you don’t, eager to help and always ready to show his love.”
She adds: “(What) I admire about him is that he never stands still. He is always doing something new, always having a new idea, always ready to start something difficult and exciting. Although he is a very successful businessman, he has never forgotten his origins, and he is one of the humblest people I have ever met.”
On the run
Running continues to be a major aspect of Pollock’s life, and his recent marathons include the 2012 and 2013 Boston marathons. In 2013, he finished the race before the bombing took place. He plans to run the Boston marathon again this spring.
“One of my goals is to set the record in Boston for 90-year-olds, so I’ve got to keep going for a while longer because I’ve got like another 25 Bostons to run before I get to that,” he says.
He adds: “In my age group almost everybody else is dead, so there’s not very many people left.”
He and his wife have tried to instill in their children some of the same values they had growing up. Chief among them is frugality. His wife grew up in Egypt and shares the need to live simply.
“I’m what they call a third-culture kid,” Pollock says. “(Living in Sudan) taught me tremendous survival skills and all the importance of things; … all that has been really useful.
“But I like technology a lot, so that’s a piece of what I do. I haven’t rejected technology just because I grew up without it,” he adds.
Pollock built an underground house because he wanted to. His 2,600-square-foot home in Alleghany County is a place that reminds him of his upbringing.
“It’s really bright and nice even though you’re buried under three feet of dirt,” he said. “It’s three miles from the closest pavement. I have 100 acres; I own the view. It’s the closest piece to Africa that I can get. I’m happy there.”
Pollock has learned that failure is part of the plan, no matter how hard it can be to face at times.
“The real advice is that failure is never final,” he says. “And that ties into my whole belief structure, so when things go badly you figure that if you keep going (things will get better). But you don’t just let it (failure) go and do nothing; you let the stress part go and then you say, ‘What can I do?’”
He adds: “If you know that, no matter what, failure isn’t the final answer, that there is something after that, then you try to figure out ‘What is (that) something?’”
Position: CEO and president, Kingsbury Corp.; CEO and president, Optimation Technology Inc.
Residence: Hunt, Allegany County
Education: B.S. and M.E., electrical engineering, 1971, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Family: Wife Carolyn; daughters, Louiza Tsoureka, 41, Allison de Jesus, 40, and Dawn Hodgkinson, 38
Passions: Optimation, Kingsbury, family, church, running marathons
Quote: “The real advice is that failure is never final. … But you don’t just let it go and do nothing; you let the stress part go and then you say, ‘What can I do?’ If you know that, no matter what, failure isn’t the final answer, that there is something after that, then you try to figure out, ‘What is (that) something?’”
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