Down Memory Lane….. #ROLM Corporation

We recently closed down and moved out of our office on Old Ironsides Drive in Santa Clara; the building was going to be torn down and a new high-rise glass and chrome building built in its place. Ironically, I started my career @ a company right across the street from our office- ROLM Corporation,  which too is now in the process of being razed to the ground to make way for a high-rise building for a nearby company looking to expand its campus- signs of changing tastes and times.

For those not familiar with ROLM, it was started by 4 graduates from #Rice University in the late 60s, early 70s, led by a personable, charismatic, and visionary leader Ken #Oshman. Their #PBX phones and switches were state-of-the-art and their products world-class. Most of the big companies, hotels, universities, and other establishments worldwide used ROLM phones and switches (you will still find ROLM switches and sometimes even ROLM phones in use today). Their technology was pioneering and they were able to take on the giants like #AT&T, and Nortel. ROLM was one of the first companies to come out with the technology of activating the phone when it was removed from the cradle, via a magnet that in-turn activated the PBX switch- groundbreaking technology in the 80s.

ROLMs success can be attributed to its people, culture and Oshman’s leadership. It had a culture of openness, employee well-being and corporate responsibility. Way before the term ‘great place to work’ became a cliché, over-used by companies to try and promote themselves, Rolm was known as a great place to work and was nicknamed “G.P.W”, by its employees – true validation. Ken Oshman was a valley icon because of his vision, and foresight; he was an inspirational leader and the employees had great loyalty to Oshman and ROLM.

Rolm was very different from other companies in other ways as well, starting with the campus – it had been built to give it a college campus look and feel, with single story low slung buildings, plenty of open space, meandering streams, and calming fountains – a Zen like atmosphere.They had a state of the art gymnasium, with an Olympic size swimming pool, Jacuzzis, tennis courts, a full-size hardwood basketball court, racket-ball courts, and a workout room. The cafeteria had been designed with multiple levels, an outdoor eating area, and high quality food – all of which the likes of #Google, and #Facebook boast of, some 25 years later . Even before the words like flex-work, and work-life balance became buzz words, Rolm implemented these practices with minimal fanfare. Employees got 3 months paid sabbatical for every 7 years of full-time employment, had profit sharing, and other benefits – all this before stock options, and such benefits became common in the valley.

By the time I joined Rolm in the east coast, it has been sold to IBM and was known as #IBM/Rolm. Most of the middle and upper management were from the parent IBM company and the culture was classic IBM – dark suits, conservative ties, and heavy middle management.

IBM started changing the direction and strategy of ROLM and its products. They attempted to upgrade the ROLM products to make them more compatible with IBMs hardware as part of their strategy to integrate voice and data. This strategy did not really work and started creating all sorts of issues with the product.

More important, the two were very different cultures. One was a California based company, with an open culture and flexible approach whereas the other was an east coast based company, big, bureaucratic, inflexible, and set in its ways . ROLMans were passionate about the company and its products – there is an active online ROLM community where former employees stay connected and plan reunions, some 15-20+ years after they left the company – it was a family and former ROLMans try to maintain their camaraderie even today, with their reunions and local gatherings, across the US. IBM on the other hand was a bureaucratic and hierarchical organization, run like a large organization and very rigid in its decision making.

Ironically, my IBM colleagues back in the east coast did not think much of ROLM and its entrepreneurial ways; many of them had either been loaned from the parent IBM to ROLM or had moved from IBM to ROLM – and they were steeped in the IBM ways; they had little regard for the bohemian west coast. On the other hand, once I moved to the bay area, the original ROLMans would tell me how difficult it was to get IBMized- the sales guys would tell me stories of how during sales calls, 2 sales guys from ROLM and 20 guys from IBM, from various departments, would show up, completely overwhelming the client and the presentation. I had just finished reading the story of how #Xerox was not able to appreciate the value of #PARC – it was as if I was living the very cultural conflict I had read about.

A combination of the mismatched culture and fierce competition from #Nortel (another company that went by the wayside) caused ROLM to lose market share and bleed red heavily. IBM tried to salvage the situation by partnering with Siemens Telecomm., but after a couple of years, decided to get out of the PBX business and sold the entire company to #Siemens.

Siemens decided to close down the corporate office in the east coast and consolidate it with the corporate office in Santa Clara, renaming it Siemens-Rolm. I moved as part of this consolidation and the move from the glass-and-chrome high-rise buildings of the east coast to the college-like Rolm campus was an incredible experience. While I did not get to enjoy the culture of the original ROLM, I got to enjoy the state-of-the-art gymnasium, the high-quality cafeteria, and most important, work with some of the original ROLMans. Almost 10 years after Oshman left ROLM, the original employees still talked fondly about him and his leadership qualities.

As more and more of the original #ROLMans either quit or retired (some of them had made a lot of money during the hey days of ROLM and again when ROLM was sold to IBM for $1.5B in the 80s), ROLM started getting ‘Siemenized’, with folks from Siemens taking over the management and leadership. The only part of the original ROLM that remained was the campus – the spirit and culture of ROLM had been slowly eroding starting the late 80s.

I left ROLM in the mid-90s and did not pay much attention to it;  it had been renamed Siemens Telecommunications and had lost its original identity- but I fondly remember my first job, the ROLM campus, and the people after all these years. It was therefore with great sadness and nostalgia that I saw the last of the ROLM buildings being torn down. As they say, the only thing permanent is change. ROLM is one more example of a great company that lost its way due to a combination of the loss of its charismatic leader, and a cultural mismatch with its acquiring partner(s). The tear-down of the ROLM building and campus also shows that the valley has been changing in the past 20 years. Loyalty and camaraderie are not cherished values anymore- we are all too busy being busy.

For those interested in learning more about ROLM, I have attached a link to a YouTube video of an interview of the 4 founders of ROLM in 2004 at the Computer History Museum titled ‘Competing with Giants’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyTuxVQgw6c

Someone named Linda Boutin had posted online pictures of the ROLM Santa Clara campus on 4900 Old Ironsides Drive, from a couple of years back. I have posted a couple of these pictures – the first pix is of Bldg 4, the building I worked in; the other two are gym basketball court and the swimming pool in the rec center. The campus has been in a state of disrepair, vandalized, and left to the elements; they started tearing down the buildings about a year back and last I saw, there was only one of the former buildings still standing..

ROLM Bldg 4

Rolm Bldg 4

ROLM Basketball Court

ROLM Basketball Court

ROLM Swimming Pool

ROLM Swimming Pool

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