In the coming months, City Blog will take a look at the good work done by various corporate citizens. First: Torch Technologies, a defense contractor with headquarters in South Huntsville. It has 800 employees at 15 different locations around the U.S. and the world.
Getting all swept up in nostalgia lately, what with the celebration of a 15th anniversary, Torch Technologies founder and CEO Bill Roark “drug out the old business plan” not long ago.
He was reminded that the initial goal was to create an employee-owned company of 100 or so, able to compete in the defense industry business that is part of Huntsville’s DNA.
“I guess,” Roark laughed softly, “that goal changed a few times.” Torch Technologies did some $340 million in business last year and enjoys a nationwide reputation as an employee-friendly workplace.
“I had no clue when we started this thing it’d be this successful,” Roark said.
Torch also enjoys a local reputation as “one of the best of the best when it comes to giving back to the community,” as Mayor Tommy Battle said. Added Roark, “That’s one of the things I’m proudest of.”
Indeed, on the occasion of a Sept. 22 anniversary celebration and a ribbon cutting for the new Freedom Center, Torch wasn’t stretching to pat itself on the back. It was reaching out to others.
“Torch is one of the best of the best when it comes to giving back to the community” — Mayor Tommy Battle
Torch presented 15 $15,000 grants to nonprofits (Early Works, Downtown Rescue Mission, HEALS, Huntsville Hospital Foundation, Kids to Love, Community Foundation of Huntsville/Madison County, Boys & Girls Club, Still Serving Veterans, The ARC, the Community Foundation Cap & Gown Fund, Semper Fi Task Force, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, ALS Association and American Red Cross).
Additionally, ‘Torch Helps’, which is funded and governed by company employees, contributed $15,000 to 305 8th Street, Community Free Clinic, New Hope Children’s Clinic and Corpus Christi Hope House. Freedom Real Estate & Capital, a Torch Technologies sister company, contributed $15,000 to the 256 Fund, which has been established to encourage younger employees with tighter budgets to donate $256 annually.
If you’ve been slowed by the soon-to-end roadwork happening along South Parkway, it’s been hard not to notice the impressive new Freedom Center, “named out of respect for what our troops do,” Roark said. A 10,000-square foot conference center, it serves as something of a gateway to Torch Technologies and fellow tenant Invariant Corporation.
The challenges of geography and construction prompted thoughts of joining some competitors at Cummings Research Park. Instead, Torch not only stayed put, it grew.
“It’s a shining star for South Huntsville,” said Mayor Tommy Battle.
“We’re proud to be part of the rebirth of South Huntsville,” Roark said. “We like it here. It’s closer to our customer (various entities at Redstone Arsenal). It’s convenient. It’s comfortable. … And if it helps the community, that’s an even better reason to be here.”
Bill Roark grew up in a small town called Mozelle, Ky., a no-stoplight burg on Highway 421 in the coal mining region of southeastern Kentucky, where his father was a school teacher and his mother ran a grocery store.
He attended the University of Kentucky (UK) as a freshman but promptly found himself being more concerned with the pursuit of a girlfriend (now his wife, Brenda) than the pursuit of academics. He left UK, transferred to Cumberland College to be near Brenda, then returned to Kentucky for his masters in physics.
Roark is a physicist by education, but a businessman by experience. He helped run the family grocery store, then managed the dairy department at a larger store while in high school. He “spent several years flipping burgers” at McDonalds, immersing himself in and learning from that company’s efficient management philosophy.
He moved to Huntsville in 1984 for a low-tier job at Nichols Research Company and rose to level of president of one of the company’s divisions.
Fifteen years ago, after a departure from Nichols and a brief stint at Camber, he was inspired to create Torch Technologies.
Roark is a renaissance man of sorts who has embraced the craft beer culture of Huntsville, investing in and helping grow Yellowhammer Brewing. He’s a soft touch for mentoring embryonic businesses and was eager to meet with the brewers to get some tips on home-brewing when he was initially approached for advice and assistance. Said Roark, “I never really learned how to homebrew. I don’t have the need to now.”
Fact is, Roark has been a grower and a tinkerer and fix-it guy all his life. He loves old cars, working now to restore a 1934 Chevrolet.
“I always liked to take stuff apart and build stuff,” he said.
What Roark began tinkering with 15 years ago has not only brought professional and personal satisfaction, it’s also changed the landscape of Huntsville. And through its generosity, assures that it will continue to do so.
Photos courtesy of Jeff White