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TECH ISLAND
An Entrepreneur for the Ages At 85, Alfred Roach is still trying to innovate technology
Mark Harrington

MARK HARRINGTON

'SAY WHEN," says Al Roach, tipping a crystal of Irish Mist to the brim of a paper cup. It's late afternoon on Halloween and dusk has darkened the windows of his office in this bleak industrial park near the Copiague rail station.

"When," I say, and he grins, still pouring, his boxer's nose meeting an up-twisted lip. His cotton-white hair seems to glow as he raises his cup in a toast.

It's not quite clear what we're toasting (Roach is not a drinker), but it doesn't seem to matter. We've spent the past two hours recounting a life it would take both Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney to portray properly, and it's clear Roach could turn and spit out the window for all he cares of what people think of him.

Alfred Roach, 85, is an entrepreneur with the scars to prove it.

Before September, he was best known as the founder of TII Industries, a telecommunications company that grossed nearly $700 million selling lightning surge protection equipment to phone companies. He launched TII after he retired for the second or third time in his life. Before he started TII, he used a stock windfall from a brewery he ran near Buffalo ("If you serve one year in Buffalo you don't have to go to purgatory," he says) to launch AJR Electronics from his Levittown garage in 1965. He now lives on the Lindenhurst shore.

Roach was thrust back in the regional spotlight in September, when his latest venture, American Biogenetic Sciences Inc., was ranked Long Island's fastest-growing technology company by accounting firm Deloitte & Touche. For Roach, who has had more careers than Madonna has had personas, the 1,036.22 percent growth ABS has experienced during the five years Deloitte & Touche tracks it has not quite come fast enough.

"I would never have predicted I could stay in this business more than two years," says Roach, who dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Army. He was in and out of the New York City Fire Department by the age of 28, was the Army's welterweight boxing champ in 1935, an investment banker, an insurance and stock salesman-all before he was 50. "If you would have told me when I started ABS I would still be at it 14 years later, I would have laughed you out the door." But age and opportunity-and the waiting game of biotech-have taught him patience. ABS, he says, is on the verge of major breakthroughs in cancer treatment, pre-screening for heart attacks and drugs for Alzheimer's and epilepsy. But after 14 years of costly R&D, the company is still at least a year away from break-even.

Meanwhile, TII, which is run by his son Tim, is making its first moves beyond telephone surge protection, and is looking at the market for protecting broadband Internet lines, home networks and computer memory and modems from lightning strikes.

For someone with a nose for financial opportunity, Roach seems oddly unimpressed by the dot-com crowd after the wild run-up of Internet stocks.

"Where are they now?" he says. "You can discount the future but these guys are discounting the hereafter. The public will always come back to, 'When are you going to make some money?'" Still, Roach, who claims to be neither a scientist nor an engineer ("I'm an entrepreneur, a finance man, a salesman," he explains), makes no bones about the desire for wealth that has, to paraphrase his autobiography, put the fire in his belly.

He recounts a speech he heard once at Columbia University by a professional who claimed that wealth ought to be the last priority-a claim he took exception to in his own speech that followed.

"Wealth may not be everything," he quotes himself as saying, "but when you're old as I am, it can sure make things very, very comfortable." When we finish, we're greeted at his office door by George Katsarakes, chief operating officer of TII Industries, with whom Roach has a dinner meeting. "It's a challenge keeping up with him," says Katsarakes, describing the effort among office staff as something of a relay race, with Roach passed off by the last executive when he or she has reached exhaustion level. It's difficult to imagine, but somehow plausible, that six months ago he was hit by a car while riding his bike.

"Didn't break a single bone," says Roach, whose brushes with death have caused several priests to read him last rites over the years (he broke his back jumping five stories during a fire department demonstration at the 1939 World's Fair).

Watching him race around the office-he's the last one here tonight-the toast at day's end suddenly seems a perfectly appropriate gesture.

 

 


American Biogenetic Sciences, Inc. 2000