Rex Rozario: The PCB Industry’s True Renaissance Man
You may know Rex Rozario OBE, as a part of the team that developed the first circuit board in England in the 1950s, or for being the founder of Graphic PLC, which has been serving the industry for 50 years and achieved phenomenal, long-term success in China. What you might not know about are the many other lives of Rex: the successful restaurateur, the developer and co-owner of a marina voted best in the UK, and the drummer in a band called The Flintstones. As a matter of fact, in one of his past lives, Rex took drum lessons from Jim Marshall, of Marshall Amplifier fame. If you can’t tell already, Rex is cool.
In this exclusive I-Connect007 multi-part interview that was conducted recently, I will introduce you to all of the people that Rex Rozario is, and where he, his team, and Graphic PLC are headed to next.
Barry Matties: Rex you’ve been working with circuit boards for a long time. Please begin by explaining how you began in the PCB industry.
Rex Rozario: When I left Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, I went to England to finish my studies at two technical colleges, Reading and Acton, before graduating at Brunel with an electrical and electronics degree. While at university, I did odd jobs to keep the cash coming in and I got involved doing some work for a condenser company; I learned quite a bit about condensers. After I graduated, I found a very large condenser manufacturer not far from the university, called the Telegraph Condenser Company, and it employed about 3,000 people.
I applied and was offered a job as a lab technician because of my experience working part time on condensers. When I joined I had already paid for a vacation and they honored that. But when I returned, a guy was doing my job. He said that he had started the day I had left or whatever. So I assumed that because I was on vacation and I hadn't been there long enough that possibly I was fired and caught the bullet.
Then the manager wanted to see me. He said, “I'm glad you're here, come with me.” I asked where we were going and he said, "To the managing director’s office." Of course, this company employed 3,000 people and nobody ever saw the managing director. Nobody even knew what he looked like. I didn’t know what to expect. I walked into his office and there were six other guys sitting at the table. He started talking and said he had a new venture in mind and they had just acquired the license to manufacture. Here of course is where printed circuits came into the picture.
Then he had a phone call, and back then you didn't have mobile phones, so he had to dash off to the next office. I turned and asked the others, "What is he talking about?" They hadn't a clue. They said, "He keeps talking about printed circuits." He came back and said he was forming a team and we were part of this team. He introduced each person. They were all skilled. One guy, the most important guy, was a silkscreen specialist, another was a chemist, a mechanical engineer, photographer, etc. Those were the key people, and I was coming in now as a technician with my electronics degree.
Then we were given a shed across the road by rail lines, about 1,000 square feet I’d say, and that's it. We said, "Where do we start?" He said, "You don't have to worry." The license was bought from Dr. Paul Eisler who formed a company called Technograph. We were Telegraph, and we acquired the first license to manufacture, and he was brought in as a consultant. It was like the blind leading the blind. We didn't know where to start or where to get the materials from. Everything was done by trial and error and development. The first material was wallpaper material. We had to use this material, which was paper based, impregnate it with resin, buy the copper sheets and actually brush the adhesive onto that, stick it on, and then of course put it into a press. So from day one we had experience of how to use a heated platen press, and that's how multilayer technology came in, from day one. And then we had to print and etch.
Paul Eisler’s innovation wasn't very high tech. He used the graphic arts litho plate-making technology that used the same sort of printing as silkscreen or photo printing solutions. So that's how we started, with single-sided boards, and it was pretty straightforward.
(See historical video, next page.)
Matties: What year was that?
Rozario: This was in 1954. In that very short period we were developing constantly. People wanted high-speed circuits. They wanted the metallic content pressed on the same plane—flush bonded circuits. They wanted rhodium plating. In the very early days we gained a lot of knowledge of plating, etching and materials. Then we had to find customers, but there was nobody using this. One of the first guys we went to was a guy with the last name of Roberts, from Roberts Radio. It's a very famous radio now, because it's still available after all these years, and it's a cultural thing now, to own one of the Roberts radios. He was the first guy that actually used our product.
Then of course the materials suppliers came—people like Formica, who were making laminates—and suddenly realized they could use the same laminate with copper sheeting on top, and epoxy would come in later. Fortunately, those were the very early days, and we started up this company with six to eight people; after 14–16 months we had about 125 people working.
Matties: That's fast paced growth.
Rozario: We then moved into a new facility which was owned by British Insulated Cables Co. They were making the flexible cables back then and there was a mixed technology where we could combine the two together. We were there for a couple of years and employed about 250 people, and Telegraph became the first printed circuit company in the UK. We were doing so well. We had Paul Eisler, who had Technograph, and he also started to manufacture, so we combined the companies and called it TNT, Technograph & Telegraph. At that point I was a specialist doing flush-bonded and flexible circuits. Back then you could take the copper and bond it on flexible laminar, and we did single- and double-sided boards, nothing else.
Later on, with the knowledge we had it was so easy to go into two- and four-layer multilayers. While all this was happening, suddenly this technology was widespread. Paul Eisler sold 16 of his licenses to the U.S., and one was for photo circuits. There were lots of people, GE and others, getting into it and suddenly worldwide, especially in the U.S. and UK, there were lots of little companies starting up around manufacturing PCBs. A new company was starting in Wokingham, England and a chap came to me from it. I was quietly headhunted and asked if I would like to come in and start a new company, Techtonic, with these guys who had a printing firm on Denmark Street, in Wokingham. I went over there and became a kingpin. I had a shareholding! I was only 23 and I was a director. [Laughs]
That's the year I got married and so forth and everything happened. We overtook Technograph and Telegraph in technology and size. We were employing 260 and they were employing about 200. I was there for a few years. I had two children by that time, and any vacation was jumping in the car and driving into Devonshire, which has all the beautiful beaches and moorland. My wife said, "You started up two companies, why don't you have a go on your own." We took a chance and came up to Devon. I remember we found a small place, rented it in Axminster, and then I had to go and find a bank. I met with the bank manager later on.
I said I wanted some information and wondered if this was a good investment. He said he was not the right guy to give out any advice on investments because he advised his wife two weeks earlier to buy shares in Rolls Royce and heard this morning they've gone bust. This was Rolls Royce in the early days. We got friendly and we started there. Then one of our customers went into receivership, and I went to a creditors meeting and met another chap who said he had some buildings and asked if we wanted to come and merge with them. They were making handbags, and he had a handbag factory and mechanical engineering facility, which was great. We started off in a big way and by that time we were putting in plated through-holes.
Matties: The technology was moving fast.
Rozario: Very fast. Then of my two partners, one guy was going into Malta, because the island was developing and he spent a lot of time there. So I was running his engineering company. The handbag guy was 82 and got married with a Rolls Royce and all that. He was never there either, so I was running a handbag factory, doing mechanical engineering and trying to run Graphic all at the same time.
Matties: And how old were you at that point?
Rozario: By that time I had grown up. I was about 29, I think.
Matties: You had some experience now.
Rozario: Fortunately, when we went into Axminster, Racal (now Thales) moved about two miles away and we became their sole supplier of subassemblies. That was obviously very encouraging and made us grow very fast. Then I realized running Graphic and two other companies was not working out and I said to the guys, "Look, buy me out, or I'll buy you out." They said, "Well if you buy us out then you have to move all your equipment." I said, "That's not going to work." So I left. I came out to Crediton, Devon, in 1972, and I started again with six guys.
Matties: At this factory that we're sitting in today?
Rozario: Not here, this is the new factory. We were on another site, and we built a factory. Then we went to five sites all around. Of course, then we decided in the worst recession to start designing this new factory and we moved here in 1992. So Graphic actually has been in Devon for about for 48 years.
The experience we have had from day one. Most of the people here, about 70%, have been here for more than 15 years. There are some guys going back 25–30 years. All the directors have been with me for 40 years.
Matties: That is a lot of experience.
Rozario: We grew up on the shop floor, we know what we are doing and we train guys up, and the cost of labor is very good. They're all local people within a 10 mile radius. It's very consistent. They don't want to be headhunted or go somewhere else, because this a beautiful area to live near the beach, near the wild horses and so forth, with wild birds and various things. The beaches and moorland are all around us. Exeter is now one of the most popular cities in the South West.
Of course, Graphic hasn't stopped there. In Part 2, The Beat Goes on: New Developments at Exeter, the Music Scene, and China, we learn how Graphic is still developing, including their work at Exeter University, more about what they’ve accomplished in China, and Rex—the music man.