(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second 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
Like any serial entrepreneur, David Coffey has experienced some ups and downs in the business world as he shared with us during our extended interview. Unfortunately, one of those also involved a personal loss.
“I was busy with these two growing them,” he said of those early years with Nucleus Inc., the company focused on radiation detection, and American Magnetics Inc., the other company he launched in the magnetics and cryogenics sectors. The always inquisitive scientist also had an opportunity to expand his growing set of businesses a few years later.
“A young man wanted me to buy a division of Foster-Miller Inc.,” Coffey said, referencing the company founded in the mid-1950s by Eugene Foster and Al Miller, two graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The local operation was named Orfma, short for Oak Ridge Facilities and Manufacturing Automation. As the name implies, the division was focused on factory automation.
“It was an incredible business, working with companies like Nissan,” Coffey said. “It had many pending contracts and had grown to 80 employees. It also needed several million dollars to survive. I had to close it down.”
Some of its packet switching technology was sold to General Electric. “I took a licking on that deal; I took it on the nose,” Coffey said.
He also shared with us another Oak Ridge-based company in which he invested. “I was approached by Ed Fairstein to buy Tennelec Inc.,” a company that made CB radios and nuclear electronics. “Ed was a brilliant electronics guy. My advisors told me not to do it, but I did.” He purchased 80 percent for $10,000 and immediately filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, folding the company into Nucleus Inc.
When Coffey sold Nucleus in 1991, he recovered that $10,000 investment many times over.
In the decades of the 1970s and 80s, the Oak Ridge resident was active in many business ventures. Besides those already mentioned, Coffey was involved in: (1) Alpha Nuclear Labs Inc. in Dallas (Founder and Chair of the Board of Directors from 1979 to 1983); (2) Atom Sciences (Board member from 1981 to 1986); (3) Founder, Secretary and Board member of SunGraphics Inc. (1979 to 1986); (4) Founder and Vice President of CMC Construction Company Inc. (1979 to 1988); (5) Board member of Link Scientific Group in the United Kingdom (1989 to 90); and (6) Board member of X-Ray Technologies Inc. in Scotts Valley, CA (1989 to 1991).
Locally, he was a Founder, Board member and Treasurer of Second Federal Savings and Loan Association from 1974 to 1982. It is now the Oak Ridge branch of Home Federal Bank of Tennessee.
As noted in the first article in this series, Coffey represented his hometown for 10 years in the State of Tennessee House of Representatives where he distinguished himself for his thoughtful approach to issues and challenges. He decided that five terms were enough, so Coffey announced that he would not seek reelection in early 1995.
Then, in July of that year, tragedy struck in a way no parent anticipates.
NEXT: Coffey is back in the business of running a business.