Robert Boschert has worn some pretty crazy hats over the years, both literally and figuratively. But this 73-year-old has worn them all proudly.
Boschert is most widely honored for wearing the electrical engineering “hat” that resulted in the invention of low-cost, volume- usage switching-mode power supplies. These devices are now essential tools in every electronic device in our homes and businesses. They’re responsible for smaller electronic products that cost less and run more efficiently than possible with the prior linear-style power supply.
“Until we came along people did not believe switching power supplies would ever become the mainstream over linear, but it certainly has,” says Boschert. “The attitude in those days was switching power supplies were smaller and more efficient but were more complex and would never be cost competitive.”
He proved them wrong.
Boschert’s invention evolved from an inner drive. “I was always interested in cost in any project I worked on,” he says. He also had the right experience for it, as he had helped develop military switching supplies and worked on gigantic power supplies filling 100-square-foot rooms at Emerson Electronics.
Fortunately for the electronics world, another hat fit Boschert even better than engineer, that of the entrepreneur. “I was always interested in starting a company, but I didn’t understand what that urge was,” says Boschert. He thought he was meant to be an engineer. “They say I was playing and taking things apart when I was still in the crib.”
MR. ENTREPRENEUR HAT
To start his own company, Boschert knew he’d have to leave his 50-hours-per-week job at Microwave Associates in Sunnyvale, Calif. The ultimate motivator came when he became the custodial parent of his children. Boschert Inc. was formed in 1970 as he entered the consulting field. “I was designing power supplies to make money so we could eat,” he says.
He was working in his kitchen developing power switching systems while really trying to design ways to automate a machine shop, similar to how General Motors had automated car assembly, remembers Boschert.
The right opportunity came for the breakthrough power-supply system when a company wanted something to power a printer, says Boschert. It had used a 20-lb linear power supply. “I bid on the project, but my 3-lb design was more expensive than the linear one. I said I’d do whatever they wanted, so I came up with a linear design, but that was more expensive than my switcher. It was then that I realized that when my switching power supply got into volume production, it would be cheaper than the linear style,” says Boschert.
He began production of the new power supplies in 1974. The advantages of this new design initially took some explaining for his first premium customers, but eventually they came on board. “I told people I was riding the horse I was looking for but could not see it because I was sitting on it,” says Boschert with a laugh. His entrepreneur skills paid off. Boschert Inc. quickly grew from five employees to 650 in six years, and his bank thought his monthly financials were for a whole year!
SUCCESS: TECHNOLOGY AND THE RIGHT TEAM
“The success of the company was less than half because of the technology and more than half because I was very interested in the people aspect, in building a team. I enjoyed putting together a group of people that could do outstanding things,” he says.
He learned the value of a team from someone he worked with early in his career. “The man would come up with a dozen ideas, but couldn’t tell which one was the genius product, but I could tell which of the 12 ideas was a genius idea and make it happen,” Boschert says.
Basically, a company president must be good at multiplechoice tests, explains Boschert. And that’s what he was good at. “Your job is to pick the right solution,” he says.
Boschert also enjoyed “understanding people and what made them tick,” he says. “A big thing I discovered is you are born an accountant, or a teacher, or a salesperson, a manager or an engineer.” And each is often mutually exclusive, which is why the bad engineer often ends up the division manager, explains Boschert. “He wasn’t an engineer. He was born a manager,” he says.
“It would have been helpful to understand all that while in the midst of my career. I would have been less stressed about what I should do and had a better understanding of where I was headed. I only understood it after I was retired. I did a lot by instinct,” he says.
MR. MOM HAT
Boschert was also blessed with three boys and two girls. When he was granted custody of them after two divorces, Boschert put on his Mr. Mom hat.
“Those divorces were the worst experiences, but good came out of it. The first time, I started my company, and the second time, well, I wouldn’t be in the place I am now with so much activity here and I would not be doing Mr. Science stuff,” he says.
The “activity” Boschert refers to involved the kids, now nearly middle-aged, who were part of his unofficial youth center. His large lot eventually also had an auto shop, wood shop, plastic shop, electronics shop, and aquarium assembly shop.
“The boys loved the auto shop. Supposedly they came to work on cars—typically there were 23 a night. They would do some work, but mainly it was a place they came when they didn’t have much to do and knew their other friends would be here. All you need for a youth center is a safe place to gather,” Boschert says.
“We went through an ungodly amount of food then! Many of the guys, now in their late thirties, still come around and still check out the fridge! They still think it is home.”
What advice would he give to those youth if they were young teens today? “I think Popeye the Sailor Man was pretty smart when he said, ‘I yam what I yam.’ What you are is what you are and you need to pursue what you like, follow your heart if you will. Don’t try to be something you are not just because you would make money or someone pushes you into it,” he says.
“We all have known someone pressured by family or friends to a ‘higher’ profession than that in which they would be most happy,” says Boschert. “While at the company, I saw several people who resisted these pressures, stayed in jobs they enjoyed, and were much happier.”
MR. EDUCATOR HAT
Boschert still enjoys being around youth. These days he strives to stimulate children’s interest in engineering and the science fields. Much of it is done as Mr. Science as he works with students at the Museum of American Heritage camp to build major science projects.
These projects have included a fiberoptic receiver, a Van DeGraff static electricity generating machine, a Tesla coil lightning generator, and a Therimin musical synthesizer that makes science fiction sounds. He’ll also go to nursery and grade schools and high school science fairs with toys, magnets, and gizmos he made to demonstrate science theories.
“I have a good time there and I have a great time building the stuff with the kids. Just last week I was at the Santa Cruz County Fair. In a 20-foot square space you could not get another kid in there to do the experiments. Kids kept coming back with their parents to show them what was done. I’ll spend more time there next year,” Boschert says.
If you don’t find Boschert at a science fair, you might catch him at a flea market, hunting for items for his next student science experiment.
MR. BOOKING AGENT HAT
Or you might find him out “in the boonies” building a mini hydroelectric power generator as he’s done several times or maybe wiring an 1850s school house in an old gold mining town. Or you might call him if you’re booking a children’s party and need someone to do face painting.
“I have a granddaughter, who along with a friend has some learning disabilities. I was searching for a way for them to have an income and learned they can do face painting,” he says. “Now I’m their booking agency and transportation!”
MR. SPEARKER HAT
Or he could be talking to a group of small business owners. He warns them “the skills to start a company are mutually exclusive to those needed to run a large company. Inevitably, if you are the guy who starts a company and it is successful, you must leave,” he says.
Looking back, Boschert said although his switching power supplies were the biggest engineering achievements for him, other activities were more exciting. “The most important part of my career was the people aspect, but the time as Mr. Mom was the most rewarding,” he says.