Chris McNiffe had a late night this month as he stayed up to watch NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity land on the red planet.
The landing at 1:32 a.m. Aug. 6 was personal for McNiffe, the 51-year-old CEO of Rochester-based Truesense Imaging Inc. The company’s image sensors were on board to capture high-definition color images from the surface of the planet.
Truesense Imaging develops and manufactures image sensor devices for commercial, industrial and professional imaging applications. Its sensors can be found in a variety of jobs and applications, from cameras that were used to capture shots of Britain’s royal wedding to those used in traffic monitoring and DNA sequencing.
Originally the Image Sensor Solutions business of Eastman Kodak Co., the business was sold last November to Platinum Equity LLC, a Los Angeles-based private-equity firm, for an undisclosed price. The operation was renamed Truesense Imaging.
Truesense employs 225 people. The majority are based on Lake Avenue, with a handful in sales and service centers in China, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.
McNiffe enjoys the diversity of the job, noting that the sensors can be used in a range of applications.
"It’s a great time to be in the imaging business," he says.
Originally from New Jersey, McNiffe received his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in 1983. He has more than 30 years of semiconductor industry experience, having started his career as an engineer with RCA Corp.’s Solid State division in Somerville, N.J.
He spent roughly 16 years in Silicon Valley, holding engineering and sales and marketing executive positions with companies such as 8×8 Inc. and NCR Corp. His engineering background, coupled with the ability to speak technically but understandably to customers, helped McNiffe in his sales and marketing jobs.
The business that would eventually become Truesense Imaging began in the physics division of Kodak in the early 1970s, with research in the area of solid state imaging.
The potential of these early research projects, including development of a prototype image sensor in 1975, drove Kodak to increase its investment in the image sensor field. In 1979, ground was broken for a new wafer fabrication facility dedicated to manufacturing solid-state image sensors for use in Kodak’s photography business.
McNiffe came to Kodak in 2000 as vice president of sales and marketing for the Image Sensor Solutions business. At that time the group was making a transition from a mainly internal focus to serving outside customers.
He was named manager of the group in 2004 and held the position through the acquisition by Platinum Equity, when he was asked to become CEO.
Platinum Equity leaders said at the time of the deal that the Kodak division was attractive to them because of its success in creating innovative products.
Jason Leach, a principal at Platinum Equity who led the acquisition, said Truesense was an ideal fit for the firm.
"We have a lot of experience acquiring non-core business units from corporations like Kodak and helping those businesses thrive as independent companies," Leach says. "In Truesense, we saw a business with strong leadership and a track record of successfully developing innovative products for high-end applications."
The former Kodak division’s management team-which remains intact at Truesense-had the right vision for moving the company forward, Leach adds.
"They have unparalleled industry knowledge and technical expertise, and an impressive track record cultivating long-term customer relationships," Leach says. "So far, Chris and his team have exceeded our expectations."
Truesense Imaging has spent the last several months settling into its new independent company status and getting new departments, such as human resources and finance, off the ground. Physical improvements are being made to the 260,000-square-foot building.
Truesense has hired roughly 20 employees since the deal closed and has some openings.
McNiffe declined to disclose sales data, saying only that the business is doing well and has grown substantially after some tough times during the global recession in 2008 and 2009.
Thomas Stenglein, chief financial officer, has known McNiffe since 2000 when Stenglein transferred to Kodak’s image sensor unit from another part of the company. The two have since worked together, and one of Stenglein’s main reasons for moving to Truesense was that McNiffe was at the helm.
Stenglein says several qualities make McNiffe a successful business leader. Among them is his ability to engage employees, listen and understand the needs of all involved with the business while maintaining bottom-line results.
McNiffe trusts his team to lead and manage their business areas, and he is decisive and assertive, Stenglein notes.
He also stresses McNiffe’s dedication to the business, recalling one time when McNiffe caught a 6 a.m. flight to San Diego to meet with a supplier and flew back the same day to meet with a customer in Rochester.
"It is this leadership by example that makes people want to follow him," Stenglein says. "Chris’ leadership is centered on integrity; his actions and values are congruent at all times. He is approachable, and this in conjunction with his integrity develops trust within the organization."
At the office, McNiffe and the rest of the management team follow a monthly schedule that involves creating a sales forecast, reviewing production plans and preparing financial information for the team’s monthly meeting with Platinum Equity officials.
His fifth-floor office features large prints of images that customers have taken with cameras using Truesense Imaging sensors. Family photos are displayed around his desk, and the corners of a dry erase board hanging next to a conference table feature messages from McNiffe’s children.
On the road
McNiffe travels for roughly 25 percent of his work time. The trips largely focus on customer visits. He enjoys the time with customers, which allows him to use his engineering background.
"I love finding out what cool, new ways people are using our sensors," he says.
Those visits are also a time to determine customers’ needs. That is especially important for Truesense Imaging, since it often has to anticipate future needs in its markets to remain competitive.
Truesense has about 300 customers, evenly divided among Asia, Europe and the United States. It also has a standard product line featuring some 40 types of sensors.
Customers are always looking for products with higher image quality and lower costs. It is exciting to be involved in creating such new technology, but keeping the costs in check at the same time can be a challenge, McNiffe says.
He calls Joe Parkinson, one of his former bosses in Silicon Valley, a business mentor. From Parkinson, McNiffe learned how to focus on getting the best product at the lowest cost by focusing on manufacturing efficiencies and teamwork.
Gregg Gordon, president of the Rochester-based Social Science Research Network, an online depository for academic research papers and journals, has been a friend of McNiffe’s for nearly a decade. The two met because they had children the same age.
He describes McNiffe as "crazy smart" and someone who can find solutions others may not. He also notes that McNiffe cares about his employees and customers.
"While the bottom line is very important, he understands that relationships are far more important," Gordon says.
Gordon also spoke of McNiffe’s humility.
"Not only does he give copious amounts of credit to others, he understands his role as a leader and the importance of enrolling others in the organization’s larger purpose," Gordon says.
McNiffe lives in Pittsford with his wife, Renee, daughters Madison, 19, and Megan, 17, and son Mitchell, 11.
In his free time, he enjoys photography, a hobby he is able to improve upon thanks to tips from company customers. He also enjoys skiing, and with his son he has taken up learning how to play the electric guitar.
Professionally, McNiffe says Truesense Imaging will pursue new high-end imaging markets and new territories, noting recent growth in the Indian and Latin American markets.
"We have many aspirations moving forward," he says.
Position: CEO, Truesense Imaging Inc.
Education: B.S. in electrical engineering, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 1983
Family: Wife Renee; daughters Madison, 19, and Megan, 17; son Mitchell, 11
Activities: Photography, skiing, learning electric guitar
Quote: "I love finding out what cool, new ways people are using our sensors."