BOISE - It wasn’t what you might think that made Ray Smelek decide to bring Hewlett-Packard’s printer division to Boise in 1973, launching a high-tech industry in the Idaho capital city that transformed the city’s economy.
“From a personal point of view … it seemed like a nice move for our family,” Smelek writes in his new memoir, “Ray Smelek, Making My Own Luck.” There was an attractive golf course. Ski passes were cheap. And the state’s teen driving age of 14, at the time, was highly appealing to Smelek’s kids, who were then aged 7, 10, 12 and 14.
Smelek had been mulling three possible cities: Boise, Spokane, and Corvallis, Ore. “The reality is that HP could have located its printer division in any one of the three cities,” he writes. “In fact, over time, HP ended up developing facilities in all three of those initial cities.”
But it was the LaserJet printer, developed in Boise, that became the high-tech company’s biggest product ever. Introduced in 1984, there’d been 100 million of them sold by 2006.
“I didn’t tell anyone at the time what the truth was about how we site selected Boise,” Smelek writes in his book. “It seemed such a dumb reason. But in reality, I believe that the decision-maker’s affinity for a specific place plays a large part in any site selection when there is no specific business reason, i.e., natural resources, customer proximity, etc.”
Smelek’s career with Hewlett-Packard started in 1957 as a college intern. He retired from the firm in 1994 and led several other Boise high-tech businesses, including Extended Systems and The Network Group.
His life and career, from a Colorado kid who worked at a gas station and was the first in his family to graduate from college, to a world-traveling high-tech executive, are detailed in a memoir that Smelek originally began writing for his grandkids.
“I realized that I was writing a piece of Idaho history,” he said recently. “Idaho has a direct connection to Hewlett-Packard’s success as a corporation.”
The company’s arrival in Boise had an impact, Smelek said. “There’s no question that it’s changed Boise. Highly educated people came here to work for HP and then went on to launch their own tech companies and they stayed in the Treasure Valley. … The fact that HP was here drew other tech companies and suppliers who wanted to be nearby. It’s given a lot of credibility to Boise as a technology center.”
During the current downturn, Boise’s tech giants have downsized considerably, including HP. But technology remains a significant factor in the city’s economy. In the Boise metro area, 10.4 percent of the jobs were in high-tech in 2007, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. The state Department of Commerce reports that technology is Idaho’s largest industry, making up 25 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, and the state ranks first in U.S. patents per capita.
Smelek’s book contains lots of insights into doings at HP and its history in Boise, in addition to family and personal history. It was published by Caxton Printers in Caldwell, Idaho, costs $15, and is being sold at two Boise bookstores, Rediscovered Bookshop, 7079 Overland Road, and So Glad, 3136 S. Bown Way. Those outside Boise who’d like to purchase a copy can send e-mail to Ray’s wife, Candy, at email@example.com