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Community Portrait: Paitich instrumental in bringing lasers to Auburn

By: Michael Kirby
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Ron Paitich moved to Auburn in the autumn of 1981, and when he did he brought close to 60 people with him. Paitich was instrumental in the decision of Coherent Inc. to expand and move a large part of its laser manufacturing operation to Auburn. With this move Paitich and Coherent helped establish the area near the airport in North Auburn as a manufacturing and industrial center. Before 1981 very few businesses were located in the area around the airport. “I think the only other industrial activity near the airport when we located here was R&W Products, a high-tech ceramics manufacturer,” Paitich said. Coherent, founded in 1966 and originally based in Palo Alto, is considered to be the leader in manufacturing lasers for medical applications, fundamental research and industrial applications. “The best known application in the medical field is for the treatment of diabetic retinopathy, where a laser is focused on the retina to coagulate extra blood vessels that form on the retina and cause blindness. It’s quite dramatic and not invasive, and a procedure that I don’t think is possible without lasers,” Paitich said. “Coherent builds these lasers from scratch, and of course, has acquired other companies in the process.” Paitich was employed by Coherent since the late 1970s until 1989. In 1981 he was given the task to find a new headquarters to locate the facilities he managed. Retaining skilled labor in the Bay Area during a time of industrial growth made the choice of expanding facilities there difficult. “I pitched the idea to move out of the area to our board of directors,” Paitich said. “Even in 1981 home prices in the Bay Area were so expensive that few of our skilled workforce could afford houses close to Coherent.” After passing through the area for recreation, he had a brief acquaintance with Auburn. His criteria were fairly simple: a reasonable drive to headquarters in Palo Alto, affordable housing and a high quality of life, including nice terrain and recreational opportunities. “I drew a radius of about a two-hour drive from Palo Alto and this area appealed to me the most, and to the employees in the division as well,” Paitich said. “I think about 85 to 90 percent of the staff elected to make the move.” Coherent occupied 30,000 square feet of the first 50,000-square-foot building. It operated a fully integrated precision optics manufacturing facility, including fabrication and optical coating, an exceedingly difficult undertaking for laser quality. The company grew and Coherent added other departments and manufacturing processes to the Auburn facilities, taking advantage of the lower cost labor and abundant work force the area had to offer. “When I left Coherent in 1989 I think close to 250 people were employed and I believe at its peak, in Auburn, close to 400 people were working in four buildings totaling about 200,000 square feet of industrial space,” Paitich said. Though Coherent is still housed at the airport, the workforce has decreased to about 130 people working in optics, said Paitich, citing changes in manufacturing practices and outsourcing of many of the processes as a reason for the decrease. “I still get memorandums from the company and received one recently that said Coherent had sold the optics manufacturing division to a Colorado company and the company has immediate plans to relocate the division to Colorado,” he said. Though Coherent’s presence in Auburn will diminish, Paitich stressed that “Coherent still continues to be a world leader in photonics.” Paitich still lives in North Auburn with his wife, Barbara. Together, they raised two children here. Paitich, not quite ready to retire when he left Coherent, started a home-based business building scientific instruments. He likes off-road motorcycle riding and to tinker with inventions. He holds several patents.