When Walter Poggi wasn't challenged enough by his job at Northrop Grumman, he decided to move on. He discovered a passion for testing equipment and launched his own laboratory in 1978.
"I borrowed $5,000 from my brother-in-law, bought a lot of old government surplus equipment, rented 1,000 square feet up in St. James, and we were off to the races," said Poggi, president of Retlif Testing Laboratories. Retlif, which now has labs in Ronkonkoma, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, tests a range of equipment from body armor to airplane electronics so companies can meet federal and international regulations and certifications.
Spending 20 years on the board, as president, and as chair of the government affairs panel of the American Council of Independent Laboratories, Poggi, 66, said he gained an "MBA's worth" of knowledge from council members. Retlif recently was one of 40 facilities to win a federal Defense Security Service award for outstanding industrial security achievement.
What's been your most difficult testing assignment?
I have a lot of nondisclosure agreements, but sometimes someone will want to simulate an environment, like putting a device on a train and doing the measurement while the train is going 80-90 mph.
Why are you establishing an employee council at your company?
A workforce that's better communicated with from upper management is a better workforce. It'll be probably five or six employees to bounce ideas off, and communicate to the rest of the employees . . . We had a financial crisis driven by superstorm Sandy. For 10 days [without power] we didn't do any testing. I did a PowerPoint to explain the information, and people thanked me. I want to build on that now. It's as important to speak to my employees as it is to my customers.
What's your biggest industry challenge?
It's very hard to find technician-level people. There really should be a re-emphasis on technical blue-collar training. Twenty years ago, we had a much better relationship with the high schools. Sometimes people get the impression that technicians are losers, but they're making $30 to $40 an hour -- that's not a loser . . . Our pool that's working out for us are returning veterans.
What are the benefits to being on the Island?
We still have a good core of customers on the Island, and I still think you have good potential for technology and manufacturing growth. Competition is somewhat limited; we all do things differently so we have our customer bases. But Long Island has always been reasonably stable in terms of military aerospace manufacturing, which is our bread and butter.
What was your oddest testing challenge?
We got a call from a gentleman who wanted himself tested. He told us he was being controlled by U.S. satellites. At first we tried to convince him it would be too expensive, but he told us he had the money and kept calling us. After thinking about it, I told him, "In order to test you, we'd have to put you in one of our shielded enclosures, and if we did so, the satellite would not be able to control you." He said, "You're absolutely right, the only time I'm at peace is when I'm in the middle of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. OK, let's forget it."
NAME: Walter A. Poggi, president, Retlif Testing Laboratories in Ronkonkoma
WHAT IT DOES: Testing that enables companies to meet federal and international standards for products and applications as varied as locomotives, antennas, ballast water in ships, body armor, airplane electronics
EMPLOYEES: 75; 50 on Long Island
REVENUE: $11 million to $12 million