Class of 1960, BS
“Every opportunity I had to stand up and talk, teach, or make a presentation, I took it,” recalled John Lemons when reflecting back on his life that started in Beckley, West Virginia.
The reason for his precocious behavior, starting as a first grader, was due to a problem he had formulating words. His mother worried about the five year old’s ability to tell someone where he lived and almost prevented him from starting school on time. She, along with Lemons’ older sister, worked with him nightly on his diction. A generous, but not wealthy neighbor also pitched in, rewarding him with a precious nickel for every clear word he pronounced.
Later on during high school, his diction problems turned into a severe case of stammering. As a result, Lemons created the John Lemons Enrichment Fund at Virginia Tech to provide support services for students with disabilities, primarily to focus on students with speech difficulties.
Today, the serial executive of a trio of major companies, who was able to retire at the age of 57, said he remains “very deliberate in my speech, choosing my words carefully, and always thinking ahead about what I am going to say.”
His strategy for enhancing his communication skills worked. Eighteen years before his retirement, he became the youngest company president of Teledyne Semiconductors in 1976, just 16 years after obtaining his bachelor’s degree. After seven years, he was named the president and CEO of Faraday Electronics, a five-year stint. His pinnacle appointment, revenue wise, was the presidency of Portola Packaging from 1988 until 1996.
“His career spanned an unusually broad spectrum in which his leadership qualities were displayed first in the semiconductor industry, then as a seasoned company CEO/president of high growth, start-up, turn around, acquisitions, leveraged buyout, and public corporate ventures,” said F. William Stephenson, dean emeritus of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and an admirer of Lemons’ talents.
Lemons’ father, a maintenance engineer for a local hospital that provided the family with housing and food as part of the salary, was an eighth grade graduate. So was Lemons’ mother, a homemaker. But they managed to send all three of their children to college where they each obtained a master’s degree.
Lemons considered a career in medicine, but realized that the educational requirements were too costly. As the top technical student in his high school class of 333, his adviser, after determining Lemons preferred tinkering with small things, counseled him towards an electrical engineering curriculum. Lemons selected Virginia Tech, a university he described “as the only cost effective institution” his parents could afford, including his in-state West Virginia University.
His parents drove him to the Blacksburg campus, dropped him off on a curb with a map and his cardboard box of belongings that, of course, contained the traditional slide rule and mechanical pencil for engineering studies in the 1950s. He was quickly measured for his Corps of Cadets uniform, a lifesaver for someone with few clothes.
The math and science wiz excelled as a Hokie electrical engineering student and as a member of the Corps of Cadets. Among his honors over four years, Lemons earned titles of corps scholastic officer, distinguished military student, cadet captain, and cadet senator. He was a member of the Regimental Color Guard, the Pershing Rifles Society, the Arnold Air Society, and Scabbard and Blade. He was inducted into two honorary scholastic societies, Eta Kappa Nu and Tau Beta Pi. As a result of these honors and more, Lemons earned a position on the Commandant’s personal staff as an upperclassman.
After completing his ROTC commitment by serving three years as a lieutenant in the Air Force, Lemons received a job offer from Motorola as a product-line manager for its transistors and integrated circuit products. During his seven years with Motorola, the company paid for his master’s degree in solid state theory at Arizona State University.
After seven years, Lemons moved to the fastpaced Silicon Valley as the director of engineering for American Microsystems, where he was deeply involved in the pioneering efforts of very large integrated circuits. One of his end products was the Hewlett Packard-35 engineering calculator.
1976 was pivotal year for Lemons. He had set a personal goal of managing an enterprise before he turned 40. With three months to spare, Teledyne Corporation provided him his opportunity at age 39, albeit a scary prospect. This semiconductor company was losing a quarter of a million dollars per month or $3 million annually with its decreasing sales. Undaunted, Lemons as president restructured Teledyne into a technology-oriented growth enterprise, with more than $50 million per year with high profitability. “Teledyne was my hardest challenge,” Lemons acknowledged. “The company was to be managed for ‘cash to corporate’ with no stock options. Hiring and retaining employees was almost impossible.”
Lemons seized the opportunity to enroll in Stanford University’s Executive Institute, a 24/7 two-week intensive training period that prepares senior leaders in the technology industry for success in the global marketplace.
So when a start-up company, Faraday Electronics, became his next challenge as the seventh employee hired by the firm, he was ready to test out his new skills in a very explosive marketplace.
The personal computer (PC) business was showing strong signs of acceptance, and Faraday was the first non-IBM company to design, manufacture, and market IBM PC compatible board level computers. The 1983 marketplace was ripe, and the fledgling company, with sales of a mere $100,000 when Lemons took over was sold for $50 million five years later to Western Digital. “By then it was a rapidly growing, profitable, and debt-free company,” the Cupertino, California resident said.
In fact, he led the company into becoming the first supplier for Michael Dell’s startup company and the first to license MSDOS from Bill Gates for a board level computer.
Lemons immediately transitioned to the presidency of Portola Packaging in 1988. He repeated his earlier successes, only this time growing annual sales from $22 million in 1988 to $150 million within eight years. He also added two plants, a research and development department, and new products for the world’s then largest producer of tamper-evident snap-on closures for the packaging of food and beverages. Lemons took the company public, raising $120 million in public debt to finance its acquisitions and to support growth.
In 1994, Lemons led Portola’s acquisition of its largest competitor, NEPCO, through a $45 million management buy out debt financing arrangement. Again Lemons worked his magic. As president and CEO of the new acquisition, and within one fiscal year of the takeover, Lemons moved its sales from $35 million to $50 million.
In 1996, Lemons took a sabbatical from full-time executive management. “I had a horizontal career path with many companies and many products. I wanted the experience in all disciplines — marketing, finance, production, engineering, and more. And I needed to change companies to do so,” Lemons explained.
When Lemons retired, he spent some time using his acquired talents in management to consult. He volunteered with SCORE, the nation’s largest network of free, expert business mentors. He branched out to become a director for the Hogue Family Foundation that aids families in crisis. He also spent time as a volunteer director for the non-profit Potter’s Clay.
He also made the 3,000-mile trek back to Blacksburg quite often, serving on the Advisory Board of the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, including a stint as its vice-chair. He is also a member of the College of Engineering’s Committee of 100.
While a senior at Virginia Tech, John married his high school sweetheart, Beverly, and was blessed with a daughter, Sheri, and a son, Steve. For the past 48 years, he has been married to Mary Ann whom he met at Motorola. They have two daughters, Julie and Sara. John is blessed with eight grandchildren whose varied interests range from playing the bassoon to soccer.
Class of: 1960
Year Inducted into Academy: 2016