The Man Who Brought Olympus to San Jose
Sitting in his office, Eddie Garces reflects on Olympus’ move to North San Jose 40 years ago. “When I first came out here there were orchards all over the place,” he says. “Coming from New York City it was quite the contrast. When we would give directions to visitors, we would reference things like ‘turn right at the big eucalyptus tree.’”
Now Garces, the man who was instrumental in the company’s decision to build its medical equipment repair facility in San Jose—an operation spanning three shifts a day and employing more than 700 full-time technicians—is retiring after 43 years with Oyumpus.
Born in Ecuador, Garces grew up during a period of heavy political unrest. As a kid he had dreamed of becoming a doctor, but at the time there were few running hospitals and even fewer job opportunities. At the local post office, he noticed a postcard with the Statue of Liberty on the front, which sparked the idea of coming to the United States. At age 19, Garces found himself in New York City.
Olympus had been growing quickly, and Garces’ stand-out work as a photography technician in the camera division led to the company asking him to move into its fast-growing medical group. The division was using the company’s coveted camera technology for the emerging field of gastrointestinal imagery—a life-saving technological development that had yet to be commercialized at scale.
As the market grew, the company quickly realized that it needed a dedicated domestic repair facility, quickly servicing customer devices with new parts from Japan and shipping them back promptly to the customer. California was a logical choice because it had easy shipping routes to and from Japan.
After some consideration, Olympus selected San Jose as the best choice. The City’s Foreign Trade Zone, ample real estate, and skilled workforce were factors. But according to Garces, it was the San Jose culture that led him to believe it was the right place. “What really sold us is the people,” he says. “Everything we saw indicated that the people here were willing to go the extra mile, to learn and contribute.”
And so Olympus made its launch into San Jose with just five employees and a commitment to being a good neighbor to the community. The company’s grand opening in 1979 was attended by then San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes and Santa Clara County Supervisor Rod Diridon. Translation between company representatives from Japan and their US counterparts was handled by Byron Honda, father of long-time US Congressman Mike Honda, who was hired early on as an interpreter for the company.
Today, Olympus’ repair center is fast-paced, with employees working seamlessly with a high level of autonomy. If you were to walk out and think you had just been in a manufacturing facility, that is exactly Garces’ intent. “I wanted to apply the same lean manufacturing principles to the repair of the devices as was used for their assembly,” he says.
Using these methods, Garces and his team were able to reduce the average service time for an endoscope from weeks down to just two days. Many of the biggest productivity improvements were identified by the employees themselves. Other divisions caught wind of what was happening in San Jose and began sending people to see Garces to learn from the process his team had created. Even the manufacturing center in Japan took ideas from the San Jose repair facility to improve its processes.
Garces recalls the feeling of pride when the San Jose operation moved from a cost center to a profit center for the company. “It was a validation of our lean manufacturing approach to service and the desire to always improve,” he says.
In a region where hopping between companies is common practice, Olympus has managed to retain its employees in a remarkable way. The company’s senior management has an average tenure of more than 20 years. Nametags at technician workstations reveal that most of the employees have been with the company at least 10 years, with many going back even farther. “We treat people with respect, provide them with opportunity to grow, and invest in their development,” says Garces. “If I can emphasize one thing, it is the people that we have here that make us successful.”
This notion was solidified when a sales rep at the company accidentally scheduled a customer tour on Labor Day, a paid holiday for the company. Garces told the rep to not cancel the meeting, opting instead to ask for volunteers who could come in on their day off. “I was expecting a handful of people,” he says. “118 showed up.”
In many ways, Olympus’s San Jose operation is a microcosm of the city as a whole. There are 28 different languages spoken on the repair floor. Its leader is himself an immigrant, proud of his heritage and grateful for the opportunities that this country has given him. “We celebrate our cultures and learn from each other,” says Garces. “Our diversity is our strength.”
After a long and successful career, Eddie is most proud about raising a family and becoming a US citizen. “I remember looking up at my family and being overcome with joy,” Garces recalls emotionally of the day he was finally obtained his citizenship. “It was the American dream.”
On September 27, Garces retired with a special ceremony held by the company, where he was presented with an Honorary Community Service Award by District 4 Councilmember Lan Diep. Garces plans to spend some time travelling with his wife before returning back to San Jose. “This community is special to me,” he says. “San Jose will always be my home.”