Local international business revolutionizes roller skis

MILFORD – Jenex’s founder Len Johnson’s most recent claim to fame started decades ago when he became bored and disillusioned with the corporate world.

“I was on the ski team at Dartmouth,” he said from his office in Milford. “I didn’t ski or really do anything when I went out to California except for some Alpine skiing. But when we came back to the East Coast, I became interested in skiing again and patented a new ski binding, which was the first contemporary ski binding for Nordic skiing. I didn’t have time to do much with it so when the ski binding companies came around, I sold the patent to them.”

On a business trip to Sweden, Johnson started a relationship with a company there in 1980 and by 1987, he said he needed a vacation.

“I found out a whole mess of American skiers, some of whom I knew from the national and junior teams, and they were ski racing in the northern border of Scandinavia,” he said. “I went up there to see them and talked to some coaches about training equipment and they discussed how skiers in the ’80s weren’t as advanced as skiers in the ’70s.”

Johnson said the skiers trained on roller skis, but doctors Johnson spoke with, said the roller skis went to fast. They asked if he could design a roller ski that was more like skiing on snow.

He built some prototypes and after retiring from Teradyne, creating the company Jenex.

“Originally, there were no brakes for roller skis,” he said. “There was no means of slowing down. And my daughter, who has passed, was a state champion in skiing and swimming. I built a speed reducer and a simple prototype for her skis. And I decided to patent it.”

That made a big impact, but the large wheels couldn’t roll on dirt roads, just smooth pavement. So, Johnson began looking at pneumatic tires.

“That really changed things,” he shared. “Now you could go all over the place. We came out with some brakes. The first brakes we came out with were really bad. You could use them, I used them because I used to roller ski all the time, but in 2006, 2007, I finally came up with a good idea for a brake and now you could stop. Top coaches said this was the first time that they could stop while skiing. That made a difference. And we started doing ski poles, stuff like that, which is related to training.”

Milford’s Jenex (or Jenex V2, as it’s commonly referred to), is now known and visible all over the world.

“We’re the official sponsor of the Russian National Team, which is the biggest team in the world,” he said. “The Canadian National Team and top skiers have trained with our products. In fact, the people who have trained with our products have over 50 Olympic medals between them.”

They design and assemble in Milford, but subcontract for everything else. The exception being, composite carbon fiber shafts.

“Our patent lawyer said don’t patent this,” Johnson said. “He was absolutely right. It’s a process. If you patent the process, everyone can see how you do it. It’ like writing a cookbook. Now people can see how you’re doing it. Instead, approach it like it’s Coca Cola. They have a recipe that nobody knows except for a few people. Essentially, it’s a trade secret. And we treat what we do as a trade secret.”

Johnson still designs and creates – a long way since his days as a student at Dartmouth College. There he majored in geology, but by his junior year, wasn’t sure he liked it.

“That summer, I applied for a job with the Atomic Energy Commission,” he said. “But because I had been living all over the world, they didn’t get the security check, because it took so long. I had been in Europe and the United States. By the time I had driven out to Colorado, they told me the security clearance hadn’t gone through.”

Johnson then found another job working for an exploration company but by now, he really hated the idea of geology. So, he called the dean at Dartmouth and told him he wanted to take a year off.

“I went to work for a high-tech company in California, where I had an uncle who lived there,” he said. “This was in the late ’50s. Way back. This company was the largest company of its kind in the world at the time. It had 5,000 employees. But I had no clue what the hell I was doing. I had been studying geology.”

Johnson’s boss started giving him work assignments outside his realm, so he enrolled at UCLA for night classes. He loved the job but went back to Dartmouth.

“I said I would finish up my courses there, so I could graduate, but I was really interested in engineering,” he said.

Johnson had a friend in med school, who asked if he could design a better esophageal scope. The ones at the time had a primitive camera where the doctors were unable to see clearly what they were doing.

“The way they were made, they had these tiny bulbs at the end of the probe,” he said. “Of course, the bulbs at the end were covered in blood and they couldn’t see what they were doing.”

Johnson said the light was at the wrong end and they needed to use a fiber optic bulb. So, he designed the first scope of its kind in the world. And Dartmouth even paid for it.

Soon he had another job; Boeing was a major client at the company that he worked for and Boeing asked that any of their projects go through Johnson.

“They were huge,” he said. “And the B-52 products were having problems. And it became political. So, here I was, 25, 26, and they asked me, brand new, to inspect every inch of the aircrafts. I flew all over the country, and it was just poor maintenance. And the scary part was that missiles were being fired accidentally.”

No general wanted to admit it was a maintenance issue but Johnson, armed with a camera, crawled all over the aircrafts, only to discover that someone had spray painted over the electronics.

“It was a total mess,” he said. “Circuits didn’t work. And here I was naïve and new and had all these four-star generals just beating the crap out of me and telling me that I didn’t know what I was doing.”

The powers that be said it was the company’s fault and wanted to meet with Johnson the next morning.

“I got the pictures developed that night,” he said. “I had the photos and spoke to my boss. And I said, ‘I’m going to give these photos to the New York Times. And it’s going to be on the first page.’ And the next day, the case was dismissed.”

Things started going well, when Johnson got a call from a “crazy guy,” in Boston. That “guy” was Dr. David Bakalar, of M.I.T. fame, who founded Transitron in 1952.

“He wanted me to go to work for him,” Johnson said. “He said I came highly recommended but wouldn’t tell me who recommended me. He said he’d tell me after a while, but not right that moment. And he made me a job offer and I said no.”

Bakalar persisted and navigated his way to finding where Johnson lived on the west coast and paid him a personal visit.

“I was married by then,” said Johnson. “He flew out and called me, saying he was just down the street from my house. But I didn’t want to meet with him. And he called me stupid.”

A friend of Johnson said that if he acquiesced, he should make certain that he had a contract with Bakalar.

Johnson contacted a lawyer, who drew up a contract, specifying that if Johnson was fired, even on the first day, he would have to be paid for three years.

Johnson also ensured, that as Transitron was on the New York Stock Exchange, he would receive stock options.

Finally, Johnson, was urged by his wife, who said ‘you’ve got to do it.’

“While in Boston, at that company, I reported to Bakalar but also to Windsor Hunter, a really, really, nice guy,” Johnson said. “He was the senior VP of the company, second in command. And the division that they had bought was in trouble. Our job was to get it back on its feet.”

General Electric was a major customer and wanted something new for military electronics. And Johnson came up with an idea that GE liked.

“When I talked to somebody, they said, ‘this could be big,'” said Johnson. “They recommended that I get some venture capital and start out on my own.”

Hunter heard the rumors and didn’t know that Johnson had an air-tight contract with Transitron.

“Windy, as we called him, said, ‘there are rumors that you’re looking for venture capital,'” Johnson said. “I was sure I would be fired.”

Johnson wasn’t fired – instead, Hunter wanted to be his partner.

“But Windy said, ‘you know Bakalar and if he finds out that we’re going to leave this company together, he is going to sue the hell out of us,'” said Johnson. “Bakalar was a multimillionaire. So, Windy came up with the idea that he was going to leave the company and say he was going to work for another company that a friend of his had started – that was Teradyne. And I would join him two months later. The bottom line, is six months later we were both out of there.”

The two, plus a sales manager, founded Genex. But the problem was, the venture capital company in Boston was bought by another company, who no longer wanted to be in the venture capital business.

“We had both quit,” said Johnson. “Windy had five kids. I had one. We said, ‘What are we going to do? We’re both out of work and the money that we thought we had is gone.’ Luckily, Windy knew some people at Teradyne that he went to school with.”

One person in particular, Nick DeWolf, the co-founder of Teradyne, would be a key person in their future.

Johnson and Hunter used the same business plan they had showed the venture capitalist company and DeWolf liked it. Teradyne would buy them some equipment, rent them some space and give them enough money to get them on their way.

“Then, we rented a little place in Lowell and it was still called Genex,” said Johnson. “And GE was really behind the program, so we got started faster than we expected. And that’s how we ended up in Nashua.”

Johnson called DeWolf, “phenomenal,” adding, “he said ‘I’m not going to micromanage you. If you meet your goals, I’m not going to even go up to see you.'”

Johnson and company grew out of their space in Lowell and found a place on Northern Blvd. in Nashua (“About 60,000 square feet, a good-sized building,” Johnson remembered.) Johnson moved to the Nashua building, while Hunter remained in Lowell. And everything was going great until DeWolf became frustrated with the having to make presentations as Teradyne was also on the New York Stock Exchange.

“People would ask Nick these stupid questions,” said Johnson. “I didn’t realize that Nick couldn’t take it. He decided to leave the company and just quit. That changed everything.”

Genex became integrated with Teradyne and changed the name to Teradyne Connection Systems.

“Things just went on and on,” said Johnson. “By then, we had an operation in Japan. We had one in England. And we had thousands of people working for us. Windy went to Japan. That meant that I was not only the chief technologist but also the general manager, so I was wearing two hats all of the time. And it got to be so crazy, I would meet with the third shift at four in the morning, but because there is fourteen hours time different with Japan, we would have meetings at nine o’clock at night. I was flying everywhere. I took it for 10 more years.”

Johnson told the board he couldn’t handle the schedule and both he and Hunter left the company. But Teradyne asked that Johnson consult for five more years, and they wrote into the contract that he couldn’t consult elsewhere.

“I got bored,” he said. “So, I started a hobby company. I love it. And I come from a family that lived long. My father was almost one hundred when he passed. My mom was up there too. So, I’m not going anywhere.”