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Optics brand merger gives birth to a photonics giant

20 Mar 2003

At the start of 2003, Thermo Electron brought six of its optical businesses under the umbrella of its subsidiary Spectra-Physics. Jacqueline Hewett spoke to president of Spectra-Physics Guy Broadbent to find out more about the story behind the massive rebranding exercise.

From Opto & Laser Europe April 2003

This year certainly started with a bang at Spectra-Physics. Its first move of 2003 was to announce what it called the "single biggest brand merger in photonics". The exercise saw parent company Thermo Electron integrating its six photonics businesses into Spectra-Physics.

The result is a 2000-strong firm that represents about one-fifth of Thermo Electron, a global technology giant with a presence in 30 countries and annual revenues in excess of $2 bn. Last year alone, sales from Thermo's optical operations amounted to $300 m.

The newly expanded Spectra-Physics will sell everything from electro-optic crystals and diffraction gratings to high-performance CCD cameras; in fact, the next catalogue to hit the shelves will list more than 4000 products. Guy Broadbent, who took over as president of Spectra-Physics 14 months ago (when it became a wholly-owned Thermo company), hopes that the rebrand will help Spectra-Physics get closer to its customers by offering them a broader range of integrated photonics solutions.

Reasons and results "At Thermo, we have been pushing towards a more united customer approach," Broadbent told Opto & Laser Europe. "A lot of our businesses share common customers and we were running a very disintegrated approach to the customer base. The new Spectra-Physics gives a more unified approach to our customers. It makes a lot of sense both from our point of view and for our customers."

There were two options for progress, according to Broadbent: "We could do everything under the name of Thermo, which we have done in instrument-based sectors, or we could bring all of the photonics-related businesses together under the established Spectra-Physics brand."

Broadbent says that customers recognize the name of Spectra-Physics, and this strong brand-awareness is something that the other Thermo businesses will now benefit from. "We felt that we could bring the other products under the Spectra-Physics brand and give them more visibility and more recognition," he explained. "Customers were also telling us they wanted more integrated solutions and simplified buying relationships."

As a result of the merger, Spectra-Physics now sees itself as a "one-stop shop" for photonics-based solutions. The company will use the integration as a springboard to expand its markets and extend its OEM services, such as design and prototyping.

"Instead of a customer buying a list of products from us, we want to sit down and try to figure out what they are trying to achieve and what their level of in-house capability is," Broadbent said.

But he eagerly points out that the firm's OEM activities will run in tandem with supplying a broad range of list products. "We want to maintain the technical innovation that we have in our core competencies such as solid-state lasers and high-power diodes," he said. "OEM services will not operate at the expense of the core technical capabilities that meet customer's specific needs and applications."

Broadbent says that no cost-cutting measures or job losses will be associated with the rebrand. The costs involved in marketing individual product areas will be reduced naturally, as the company will go to trade shows with one branding message.

"We plan to create an omnipresent brand," explained Broadbent. During the transition period at Spectra-Physics, the focus will be on creating a link in the customer's mind between the company and the former Thermo brands that are now part of it. "It's very important for us that we maintain continuity with our customers," Broadbent said. "Over time the other brands will fade away." However, he added: "We may use [the original company names] for certain product branding. For now it might be 'Spectra-Physics Corion filters' to maintain some of the continuity."

With some new product strings to its bow, what markets will Spectra-Physics be targeting, and which areas could see growth? Broadbent cites four areas. The first takes the company back to the foundations on which it is built: scientific research. Lasers such as the Spectra-Physics Millennia are familiar in research laboratories, and Broadbent is keen for things to stay that way.

"Even though it does not grow rapidly, the scientific research market has solid growth and it's where innovation takes place," he said. "We feel that being an innovation leader ourselves, we need to stay attached to that community. It's a solid piece of the business."

The remaining three areas, namely biomedicine, microelectronics and industrial manufacturing, highlight the company's desire to move into markets in which photonics is under-exploited. Broadbent believes that the sheer size of Spectra-Physics will allow it to thrive where smaller companies have failed.

"A lot of small companies have done a great job of the innovation to develop the product, but don't necessarily have the resources to build a reliable supply chain," he said. "It's one of the things that has held back penetration of photonics."

Broadbent believes that the biomedicine area will see continued photonics enablement. "Whether it be more under actual medical procedures or instrumentation for diagnostics, biomedicine is a growing area and we are very focused on it," he said.

Broadbent sees the microelectronics field as being divided into two significant areas: manufacturing and metrology. As in the scientific research market, Spectra-Physics is keen to maintain its leading role in innovation, and Broadbent sees applications ranging from printed circuit boards to data storage in semiconductors. "Again, there is growing penetration of photonics," he said. "For example, we are moving to shorter and shorter wavelengths in the ultraviolet. That, I think, is something where we will be strong."

Market growth The last area of potential growth is industrial manufacturing. Spectra-Physics is looking into both the macro- and micro-markets, including applications such as welding and UV-laser micromachining respectively. The company hopes to jump on the photonics-enabling bandwagon as it passes through both these markets.

"There is an opportunity for us to help in the transition of traditional laser technology, such as CO2 lasers and lamp-pumped systems, to more diode-based systems," Broadbent said. "These systems can bring greater efficiency and reliability over time and we think this will be a significant growth driver. All those customers will need a source of light - that's when we think our strong relationships will help us."

A notable absentee from this "target and growth" list is telecoms. Like many, the company has had its fingers burned by the downturn in telecoms. Needless to say, the firm will not be turning telecoms customers away, and they will be offered systems that come from standard product lines. But Broadbent says that this area is not a strategic focus for Spectra-Physics at present.

"There are so many opportunities to help customers in the markets we are already in," he said. "I think that doing more with customers who know us and we know them is a more productive use of our time, and hopefully their time, than going out on a mission in a space we don't know."

Offering support to customers across the globe shouldn't be too much of a problem, bearing in mind the distribution of Spectra-Physics's operations. The company has a strong commercial presence in the US, Europe and Asia. To improve its Asian coverage, it has just established commercial operations in China. This market offers significant growth opportunities for Spectra-Physics and its customers, as does Japan.

"We are strong in the Japanese market," Broadbent said. "It's a very influential market in terms of the way technology is developed. The market contains some big players that sell products enabled with our capabilities on a global scale. There's a lot of good technology coming out of Japan and China. Having a presence there is very important."

Broadbent's belief that photonics is the 21st century enabler - just as electronics was in the 20th century - looks likely to keep the company focused on innovative laser applications. The name Spectra-Physics, which has for so long been synonymous with the laser, looks set to stand for the total photonics solution in years to come.

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