Today Alpharetta is known far and wide for its posh commercial districts, its stately gated communities and its thriving tech industry. But 38 years ago, the business climate there was a very different deal.
I would know, because my father helped start the first tech company in Alpharetta – at least the first that we know of, in 1979. They broke ground on 10 acres off Hembree Road and built a printed circuit manufacturing company called Proto Systems. In case you don’t know, printed circuit boards are those green boards you see inside of your remote controls at home. They were originally developed to take the place of a nest of wires, and back in 1979, were considered high-tech hardware.
The company secured contracts with what was then Scientific-Atlanta and other contractors, including many in the defense industry. They became known for being able to build product quickly – sometimes overnight. But they were known for another thing: they were the shop surrounded by a pig-farm.
Clients always left his plant with stories for their co-workers, especially if the wind was blowing just right. They made circuits for some of the most high-tech machines on the market. Their product went to NASA and were installed on one of the Space Shuttles, and to Raytheon to go in early forms of the Patriot Missile.
Being the first tech company wasn’t easy. The workforce back then wasn’t really prepared to supply skilled workers. But being the creative and energetic soul that he is, dad didn’t worry about that. He always said that he looked for good people, not decorated people.
Back then, one of the largest industries north of the river was chicken farming. If you wanted to build a chicken-processing plant, you would have no problem finding skilled labor. But if you wanted to build circuit boards, you had to make do. So Proto Systems hired people away from processing chickens and taught them how to build circuit boards for NASA and Raytheon. During one interview, he asked someone what her job title was at the chicken plant: “I cut out the bad parts,” was her answer. Needless to say, word spread quickly throughout the chicken plants and they never had much trouble finding applicants for new jobs.
I was young, but I remember them as really fun times out there. Being out in the country, and being 38 years ago, on Fridays many of the employees would hang around the plant after work. That lasted up until they had a really good time one evening, and someone tried to show everyone how they could jump their Trans-Am over a ditch and into the pig farm. They had to reign in the after-hour activities after that.
For a couple of years they were North Fulton’s largest employer, until North Fulton Regional Hospital and the Roswell Kimberly Clarke campuses were built.
Over time, Alpharetta grew up all around the plant. After the fiber-optic cables were planted all over the city, class A offices and high-tech data centers sprouted up along Old Milton Parkway and Windward Parkway. Today, the old Proto Systems buildings sit across from what is now the Alpharetta Public Works Department and the Roswell Department of Transportation – both of which sit on what used to be the pig-farm.
The area around the old plant is really the last remaining industrial area of Alpharetta. It’s not quite as glorious as the new Microsoft office rising up over the pristine avenues of Avalon. But it did earn the company a place in Alpharetta’s new Alpharetta & Old Milton County History Museum. The museum opened last week and sits on the first floor of the new City Hall. It goes way back to the early 1800s and has real artifacts and items that take you from the time the Native Americans roamed its hills, right up to when the tech boom started – which apparently was in 1979 when my father, Gary Smith, helped break ground on 10 acres across from a pig farm.