May 10, 2005 in Business

Tech pioneer Lewis Zirkle dies

By The Spokesman-Review
 

People who recall the life of Lewis G. Zirkle, who died April 30, salute his pioneering spirit and his desire to make his company’s workers more important than profits.

Zirkle, who in the 1960s created Key Tronic Corp., one of Spokane’s major tech-company successes, died at his home in Rathdrum at the age of 90. Family members said Zirkle had not been active in the business community since retiring in 1993 from Key Tronic.

In 1968, Zirkle was a manager at American Sign and Indictor, one of the region’s first big successes in selling technology products worldwide. He started Key Tronic in 1969 with an original plan to manufacture the plastic key tops placed onto keyboards. Within a few months, Zirkle realized he had a larger opportunity making computer keyboards.

The timing was perfect, since the desktop computer revolution had recently begun.

Zirkle and his company associates helped turn Key Tronic into a successful innovator.

At one point, Key Tronic had three Spokane buildings — production plants in Cheney and in the Spokane Industrial Park and offices in the Spokane Valley. It became the largest keyboard maker in the world, employing at its height 2,800 area workers.

Over time, the success of the computer revolution turned keyboards into mass-produced commodities. Once sold for around $100, keyboard prices dropped to around $15.

Faced with the need to cut costs, Zirkle resisted the idea of shifting production overseas, said his son, Dr. Lewis Zirkle Jr., who served on the company board at the time and who practices medicine in Richland.

“He was absolutely devoted to his workers. He would walk through the (industrial park) factory every day,” Zirkle said of his father.

To stay competitive and boost sales, the elder Zirkle added manufacturing plants in Ireland and in China, his son said. But he resisted other suggestions that he cut jobs in Spokane and shift them south of the border.

By 1992, board members had voted to replace the Zirkles with a turnaround specialist, Stan Hiller, who came to Key Tronic focused on cutting costs and shifting production.

A year after Hiller’s arrival, Zirkle left the company and never again served on the board, his son said.

“He was ahead of his time in many ways. Key Tronic was among the first companies to introduce commercial optical readers, the forerunner of the bar code reader. It was just too early for it to be accepted,” his son said.

Zirkle also wanted — but never succeeded — in building several smaller assembly plants in urban neighborhoods to allow women to work part-time hours and leave children at company daycare facilities, his son recalled.

All those ideas flowed during the 1970s and early 1980s, before Key Tronic had to go through a harsh reduction. Today, it has about 170 area workers, according to company officials. It now focuses on contract manufacturing, only producing keyboards at its China production site.

Still, company officials today consider Zirkle’s role undisputed in setting the general course of Key Tronic.

“The culture and capabilities that Mr. Zirkle built here remain,” said Key Tronic CEO Jack Oehlke.

“The core technologies which he developed have been essential in our successful transition to becoming a contract manufacturer,” Oehlke said.

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