November 16, 2011 In a quiet corner of Crestron Electronics’ cavernous Rockleigh, N.J. research lab, an aged engineer hunches over a chaotic assembly of plastic tubes, spinning motors and wire. He flips a switch and an exhaust pipe spews a plume of white mist. “This is my Rube Goldberg machine,” says George Feldstein, with an impish grin. “I always have to keep my hands busy. Not bad for a CEO, huh?”
At 70 the founder of Crestron Electronics—maker of myriad home automation devices—is as fit and energetic as a man half his age. He’s also a tireless tinkerer, with 14 patents to his name. His latest project—a more efficient humidifier—has been in the works for over a year. Typical evaporative humidifiers require water tanks (breeding grounds for bacteria), while the steam-injection variety gobble electricity. So Feldstein invented a system that pressurizes a small amount of water and pushes it through tiny nozzles, atomizing it into vapor. When he tested it in his home last winter, the mist left a dusting of salt all over the furniture. (“My wife nearly threw me out,” he says.) With any luck the boss’ latest invention will hit the market next year.
Feldstein doesn’t just create gadgets—he creates jobs. As protesters, pundits and politicians bemoan corporate America’s addiction to cheap overseas labor (the manufacturing sector now employs 11.8 million people, down nearly 40% in three decades), Crestron has added 500 people—20% of the company’s workforce—in the last five years.
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Feldstein owns 100% of Crestron, which could very well make him a billionaire. (He won’t comment on his personal fortune.) Based on sales of similar companies over the last few years, Crestron, which carries no debt and pulls in $500 million in annual revenue (on its way to our list of largest private companies), could be worth at least $1 billion. Yet somehow Feldstein has attracted little attention outside of the trade press, even as he provides new jobs by the hundreds in a prolonged downturn.
“I have great belief in American enterprise,” he says. “When the economy went south we brought everything in-house and paid more for it, rather than lay people off. People don’t realize the importance of the continuity of labor.”
Translation: This isn’t about patriotism—it’s about strategy. By manufacturing 80% of his products—1,500 in all—in the U.S., Feldstein says he is able to build technologically complex devices in low quantities with few errors. Hiring at home also allows him to develop the kind of long-term, committed help he needs to keep expanding. Even with the company’s latest growth spurt, Feldstein estimates around 15% of his workforce has been on staff for at least a decade. “We bring in people, and we give them a profession,” he says. “It’s one of the most important things about a job: It should provide a career for people who want them.” And by keeping Crestron privately held, Feldstein doesn’t have to answer to pesky analysts and shareholders who might have him cut costs by shipping production overseas.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering: Crestron isn’t for sale. “To anyone who asks, the answer is no, not how much,” barks Feldstein.