An Entrepreneur for the Ages At 85, Alfred Roach is
still trying to innovate technology
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
"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.
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.
Roach, 85, is an entrepreneur with the scars to prove
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.
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.
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.
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
someone with a nose for financial opportunity, Roach
seems oddly unimpressed by the dot-com crowd after
the wild run-up of Internet stocks.
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.
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.
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
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).
him race around the office-he's the last one here
tonight-the toast at day's end suddenly seems a perfectly