(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a three-part series spotlighting the various entrepreneurial ventures and other community contributions of David Coffey.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
David Coffey has been a familiar face within the Oak Ridge community for years. Many old timers know him for the various businesses he started, while others recall the five terms he served as a State Representative (1986 to 96) after now Lieutenant Governor and Senate Speaker Randy McNally decided to relinquish his House seat and run for the State Senate.
“Randy convinced me to do it,” Coffey told us during an extended interview. During the 10 years that Coffey served in the Tennessee General Assembly, he was Republican Floor Leader for two years and served on the House Education Committee, a passion that he still possesses to this day.
“Since 2002, most of my outside activity is for education reform,” Coffey says, adding, “It is still Tennessee’s low hanging fruit.”
In addition to a distinguished business career, he is also known for his service to the local community that, in the past, included organizations ranging from philanthropic groups like the East Tennessee Foundation and Roane State Foundation to First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, and Covenant Health Inc. Coffey was one of the early inductees into the East Tennessee Business Hall of Fame of Junior Achievement and was named “Alumnus of the Year” by King College in 2002.
For many younger residents of the region, he might be best known as a regular attendee at the Friday morning weekly meetings of the East Tennessee Economic Council. Even at 89 years of age and now living in Lenoir City, Coffey is one of the first to drive into the parking lot in his Toyota Prius for the 7:30 a.m. gathering where he frequently engages with speakers in his customary understated but inquisitive manner.
David Coffey is, after all, a scientist at his core, although he admits that, unlike his brothers, he did not earn a Ph.D. He graduated with a B.A. in Physics from what was then King College just across the state line from his hometown of Bristol, VA. From King, he went to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where he did graduate work while working at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) as a Research Assistant.
“I was a fuzzy-faced kid,” Coffey said with that familiar twinkle in his eyes. After three years at ORAU, he was hired as a Physicist in the Fusion Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) where he worked with high-powered and eventually super-conducting magnets for the next 12 years.
“Both were great experiences,” Coffey says, but added, “I wanted to get my feet on the ground.” That meant eventually going into business rather than continuing to work for a government contractor.
“I told Pat (his wife) about my plans, and she responded, ‘I’m pleased.’ She’s been there all along the way in business and raising our kids. It’s been a true partnership,” Coffey emphasizes.
That first business, started in 1968 while he was still at ORNL, was named Nucleus Inc. and was focused on radiation detection equipment. It was ranked on the then “Inc. Magazine 500” as the #266 fastest growing company in the U.S. in 1982 and #377 in 1983.
Soon after leaving ORNL, Coffey also founded a second company – American Magnetics Inc. – where he served as President for the next 13 years before selling it.
“When I came out (of the lab), I knew just enough to be dangerous,” he says, adding, “I worked well with people, but marketing was a challenge.”
NEXT: More business and personal ups and downs.