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One-on-One with John Rockwell

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — John Rockwell is a man of many interests. He is friendly and pleasant, with a smile that can immediately set a person at ease. But the nonthreatening persona masks a shrewd, self-made business man.

Rockwell is president of two companies: Marpac Medical Devices and Sierra Peaks, which deals with specialty product for government agencies.

Marpac focuses on medical devices like tracheostomy collars and braces to hold tubes used for patients, but that isn’t all it does. It also makes specialty clothing for sports teams, baby clothing and women’s clothing. Claim to fame: The company made clothes for the “The Lone Ranger,” a film released in 2013 and shot partly in New Mexico.

If it seems like Marpac is exceedingly diversified in its products, that’s because it’s a reflection of its president.

Rockwell says he “tend(s) to buy things” and businesses are his main love. He will buy just about any business with the hope of turning it around. Most times he is successful, but not always. For a man who has failed many times and picked himself back up, failure has become just a part of success.

What were you like as a teenager? Were you a troublemaker?

Yeah. Wait, why did you pick that? (laughs).

It seemed like the most interesting option.

(laughs) I spent a lot of time skiing, a lot of time hunting, a lot of time hiking (in Idaho).

Doesn’t sound like too much of a troublemaker.

Well, I can think of a few times when the vice principal said, “If you don’t do this right, I’m going to throw you out.” I failed PE because I was hounding (the teacher) all the time. And if I hounded him, he would send me to study hall, where my girlfriend was, and that worked out fine. But it was a good school.

When did you start your first business?

It depends on how you want to label that. I got a paper route when I was 10 … and that was my first business. It’s not that my parents were forcing me, I just thought it was a good thing to do.

John Rockwell in his office. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

How long have you been in New Mexico?

I’ve been in New Mexico since the end of 1978. What’s that, almost 40 years? That’s a whole bunch. I was a young kid when I came out here, and now I’m all grown.

Tell me more about your background.

I grew up in Idaho. I went to the University of Idaho and got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. I started ROTC at the University of Idaho, and then finished it up doing a master’s degree at Duke University in North Carolina. My first assignment was at Wright-Patterson (Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio) doing research and development for about three years. Then I moved out here to do research and development on big laser weapon systems. And I haven’t left since. I’m kind of liking the sunshine.

What did you do after working on big laser weapon systems?

After that, I worked for Atlantic Richfield development company that was doing some research here. Then I started a company called Proa, and I built a couple of automated tools for assembling solar cells. This was in the early ’80s. I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s why that business didn’t last. Machines ended up working, but financially, I didn’t know what I was doing yet.

Was Marpac the first of the companies that you own today?

Yeah. So basically … it (became) clear that I needed to be in business my own self. So I went looking for a business that was manufacturing that I could afford. I bought Marpac. Marpac was two girls sewing at the time and a gal at the front taking orders, and she was on her way out. And so I bought that.

Turned out I bought almost half of it, (although) I thought I was buying half. A year later, the current owner came in and said, “You are changing so much stuff, either you (have to) buy it, or I (have to).”

So that was in 1996 that I bought Marpac. In 2000, I bought Sierra Peaks. It was about 20 people at the time. It went down to eight within about eight months. Since then, it’s been pretty prosperous. We’ve been as high as 110 people. Today, we are about 100 between the two businesses. I tend to buy things.

What exactly does Sierra Peaks do?

Sierra Peaks does government contracting. We build special systems for special groups in the government. That’s about as well as I can explain it.

Did you get to go out to the “Lone Ranger” set?

No, we didn’t go to the set. But when the movie came out, we took everyone to the movie. We rented out the whole theater. That was about the end of the profit there, but it was a fun project to do.

What do you do for fun?

Well, at this point, I probably would say travel. Travel and visit, I love good discussions. I do some hunting.

Where have you gone lately?

Well, I’ll be in Europe on Sunday. I’m going to go over to Switzerland and Italy and tour around where my wife’s grandfather came from. He was from Sardinia. So we are going to go over there and see what Sardinia is. But I travel the Northwest quite a bit, Maine, Washington, D.C. Pretty much all over the place.

What’s the coolest place you’ve visited?

That’s a good question. I suppose the place I have enjoyed the most is probably Alaska. Fishing and then if you ever go to Alaska, you want to take a little plane ride. It’s amazing. You leave Anchorage. Anchorage is on a big flat, and it’s pretty much gray. You get in a little plane, and in about five minutes we are going up a valley and the pilot says, “There’s a bear over there. There’s a mountain goat over there.”

Do you still ski?

No, I haven’t skied in a few years. Arthritis is killing me. It’s changing my ways. I can remember times where I was really good. And it was really fun. Right on the edge of control all the time. And that’s the exciting thing about skiing. I kind of live life on the edge, and now it’s lost some of its fun for me (because I can’t push the limits).