Business

Crystal Group founder struggled to change his management style

Retired founder Craig Jensen to speak at 1 Million Cups Wednesday

“With the telecommunications downturn, we didn’t have a market,” Craig Jensen recalls. (Crystal Group)
“With the telecommunications downturn, we didn’t have a market,” Craig Jensen recalls. (Crystal Group)

Crystal Group, a Hiawatha designer and manufacturer of rugged computer hardware and related electronics, was soaring with sales to the expanding telecommunications industry in the 1990s.

Craig Jensen, retired Crystal Group CEO, remembers the industry implosion in 2000 as one of the greatest challenges faced by the company he founded in his home more than a dozen years before.

“With the telecommunications downturn, we didn’t have a market,” Jensen, now 73, said. “We had not pierced the federal government market. We worked real hard for three or four years to do that and we were eventually successful.”

Crystal Group, with about 100 employees, provides products and services to aerospace, commercial, defense, government, industrial and autonomous vehicle customers. The employee-owned company recently completed a $17.5 million expansion that added a 111,500-square-foot facility, grew production capacity by more than 50 percent, created 45 jobs and added state-of-the-art equipment.

Jensen launched Crystal Group as an engineering design company.

“We designed an operator system for MCI, which was based on a personal computer,” Jensen said. “The only way you could get an operator console at that time was to purchase a huge thing from AT&T,” he said. “Steve Hogan (former CEO of LinkUSA) designed a system so MCI could have operators and not have to pay thousands of dollars for the consoles.”

When Jensen heard that MCI was preparing to construct a building to provide more space for computers, he offered to supply 24 units that would fit in the same space as six existing units.

“They let me design them and let me keep the ownership rights,” Jensen said. “With the onset of the telecommunications and internet boom, my timing was extremely lucky.

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“At the same time, we invented something called a ‘quick connect,’ which allowed us to connect through a device all the connections for the back of the computer. All you had to do to replace a computer is pull it out and plug in a new one.

“That really helped MCI, which ended up saving the cost of a new building.”

But he recalled that his company’s “biggest challenge was me. When I first started out, I was authoritarian and not very objective.

“I thought that I knew everything, and that’s the kind of thing that caused problems at the beginning. I had to change my way of dealing with people or we wouldn’t have had a successful company.

“I don’t necessarily like it, but it is built into me. I still get upset over things that I shouldn’t get upset about.”

Jensen, who retired from Crystal Group and no longer is associated with the company, will be interviewed by his daughter, Rina Jensen, a resiliency coach, at 1 Million Cups on Wednesday.

If you go

• What: Craig Jensen, founder and retired CEO of Crystal Group, will be interviewed at the Founder Fireside presentation, part of the 1 Million Cups Series

• When: Doors open at 8 a.m., with the program to begin at 8:15, Wednesday

• Where: Geonetric Building, 415 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• Admission is free

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