By Mike McKenzie
By definition, it’s easy to refer to Grace Borsari as a Renaissance Woman (one with many talents or areas of knowledge).
Early on, Grace was a professional photographer in homeland Switzerland, running a vacation resort’s photo business at age 20. Later, she co-founded Alpha Technologies—a company that morphed into a global enterprise as the Alpha Group, and also was CEO of her own manufacturing company within that conglomerate, Altair Advanced Industries (AAI).
She continues, since the sale last Fall of the Alpha Group, as an executive—CEO of AAI, managing properties and testing facilities in Bellingham and commercial real estate in Alpharetta, Georgia.
In Vancouver, B.C., she became a certified ski instructor. And, after moving to Bellingham, a certified aviatrix. A tale: The first time I met Grace was over lunch. I’d invited her to meet at The Beach Store Café on Lummi Island to convince her to let me write about her (she’s reticent about public attention). “How about Roche Harbor?” she said. Roche Harbor? For lunch? “We’ll go in my helicopter.”
Me: “I’m terrified of helicopters! She: “Oh, many people say that, and then they fly with me and they don’t say that anymore.” Oh. She’s the pilot. I hadn’t even met her yet and I didn’t know, until we rallied around the chopper, that she’s no bigger than the minute it took to write this sentence. And she was right (if you don’t count a few white-knuckle moments and deep breaths).
When Alpha Technologies and AAI moved from the Haskell Business Center into buildings near Bellingham International Airport, that’s when Grace became interested in learning to fly. She became instrument-certified to fly all aircraft except hot air balloons, with commercial ratings. She piloted her own plane on business trips to Alpha Group sites in Phoenix, Atlanta, and all over Europe.
For this article, we met once again in a restaurant, and Grace painted a remarkable picture of her path to excellence and success.
The core of 30-plus years of business leadership can be extracted from her humble upbringing in a tiny village in Switzerland, where, she said, as a child of the late ‘50s she learned probably her most valuable lessons. “We were poor,” she said. “I shared a room with my two older brothers until I was a teenager.”
They lived in a 750-square-foot apartment, just 4 kilometers from downtown Bern, the capital city. “We’d walk 45 minutes to town on Saturday nights to go dancing, just to save the 50-cent train fare,” Grace said. “But I have only good memories of my childhood.”
She speaks proudly of her father, who earned a meager but steady living as a masseur with the International Red Cross. He knew sign language and read Braille—which inspired Grace to learn multiple languages, just as he had.
And, dare we add fashion designer to her curriculum vitae, albeit non-professionally? Her mother, an amateur artist, taught Grace life skills, such as sewing. “We learned to be frugal,” she said. In a twist of irony, she told of wearing many silk clothes, even pajamas, because her father would salvage leftover skeins of silk from Red Cross donations, from which Grace and her mother would create impressionistic garments.
“We didn’t look poor,” she said. “Sundays in church, people would say, ‘Look at the Borsaris—my, how well they dress.’ I still have two of those silk dresses. My mother and I also would take clothes handed down from relatives, take them apart, and remake them on a loom. Sometimes we had to repair the loom with Bazooka bubblegum (laugh). We also knitted our own sweaters; I still have some of them. And I still sew.”
Grace said she acquired adaptive skills and mental toughness from her brothers, and lessons that later benefitted a woman doing business in an era of ‘glass ceilings’: “My brothers and I were a team,” she said. “But I learned early on, you play with boys by their rules, and if you don’t like it, go play with your dolls. I grew up in a man’s world. No snitching, either. If you tell mom, it’s punishable.”
Grace said that in school she was “a little different from the rest of the class of 25 or 30….I rode a bicycle that I bought with money I’d earned, instead of walking to school with other girls. I did become class treasurer, and a Girl Scouts leader—I took a delegation to Sweden when I was 13.”
Grace worked at odd jobs as a teenager, among them: Ironing napkins in a laundry. (“I hate ironing to this day.”) Picking grapes. (“You could eat all you wanted.”) Filing in an office. (“Really? You get paid for that?”)
She attended a trade school in Bern. She began in art and soon turned to photography, including an apprenticeship where she learned French. Her first job was in the Swiss Alps, two hours away. “I had the dream job at Gstaads, a prestigious resort,” she said. “But I had bigger dreams. “I wanted to visit all the continents and learn English. (She already spoke four other languages from her work so near to France, Italy, and Germany.)”
A world out there awaited her arrival. “I had obtained an immigrant visa to Canada, because it was easiest to obtain.” She quit at the resort and took off, never to return permanently.
“It was hard to leave,” Grace said. “Lots of tourists bought my photos like there was no tomorrow. I shot, developed, and packaged the photos, and sold cameras. I ran the whole thing—I was my own boss at 20 years old!” But, dreams and ambition superseded the resort job.
She lived at the YWCA and thumbed the Yellow Pages in search of a photography position. A portrait studio hired her. “I retouched four-by-five black-and-white negatives, got rid of wrinkles that showed up, and got really good at it,” she said, laughing. “But it became the first time, and only time, I got sacked. And next I learned another lesson. I applied at the Vancouver Sun newspaper, and they said they loved me, but I didn’t get the job. They told me, ‘We were looking for a male.’”
While working at another photo lab, she befriended Fred Kaiser. “He was an electrical engineer for a company in Vancouver (B.C.),” she said, “and a friend asked him if he knew how to make backup batteries for his cable TV company that required them by law. Fred said yes, and he taught me how to build circuit boards.”
She would shop for the parts and put the circuit boards together for batteries that still can be found on upwards of 90% of the cable TV poles in the world. The friend’s company closed down and Kaiser began to find other customers for the product. “In 1976, we realized we really needed to be in the U.S.,” Grace said. “More business, less hassle with U.S. Customs, etc., and we moved marketing, sales, soldering, everything, and rented a building in Bellingham.”
Again drawing from her roots, literally, Grace designed the Alpha logo and a flip chart with detailed drawings of how to build the backup power supply. She also registered GB Enterprises, the contracted manufacturer for Alpha Technologies products. In 2004, that became Altair Advanced Industries. Orders poured in, including contracts with Cox and Comcast.
Grace’s company that began with five had grown last year to more than 450 employees and about $250 million in annual revenues. Alpha overall became the largest privately-owned business based in Whatcom County, with more than 1,000 employees worldwide and $800 million in revenues.
They grew by adding divisions, buying related companies, and creating backup for other large entities that require uninterruptible power. They also created in Bellingham the only testing facility north of San Francisco with seismic tables for folks like McDonald’s, hospitals, traffic signal providers, fire departments, factories—“anything that uses power and must work uninterrupted in heat, cold, rain, snow, and storms.”
Grace points with pride at how, since the very beginning, Alpha has operated in the black. “We always financed ourselves,” she said. She learned to operate frugally. Some examples: “I figured out that nail polish would hold a part in place cheaper than red sealer…, that we could make $150,000 extra every quarter by selling used pallets, instead of burning them or (laughing) making a treehouse out of them…, adding a stainless steel option over nickel-plated parts for added income…, (and) we could work off of purchase orders requiring 50% down, rebating a customer 2% for paying in 10 days, and earning 18% from the bank while sitting on that money.”
Smiling, she spoke of another business window she opened from knowledge gained as that younger sister: “There were legal advantages for a female-owned business, which gave me a foot in the door, but I also was playing with big guys and I knew how to play by their rules.”
Lending her part to the Kaiser-Borsari Educational Trust, Grace also has demonstrated a full-on commitment to giving back to the community. The trust has given more than $2 million over the last 22 years toward some 150 scholarships at Western Washington University (WWU) and other institutions, covering athletics, engineering, and diversity. Grace, whose company is nationally recognized as a Women-Owned Business Enterprise, targeted many scholarships toward women studying computer sciences and materials.
In 2015, Grace personally donated a $1 million grant to WWU’s Institute for Energy Studies, which named its electrical engineering lab in Alpha Technologies’ honor. “It felt great to help make it possible for the Institute to grow here, at Western,” she said. “It’s not just about being book smart and technical, but also about interacting and teamwork. You don’t always get to learn that at school.”
Additionally, Grace serves on the board of directors for the Innovative Resource Center, a nonprofit incubator that assists entrepreneurial startups.
This year Grace has transitioned, she said, “from CEO to landlord.” Formerly she was involved in operations across Europe, Australia, Africa, Central America, Mexico, and Cypress, which led to a popular Alpha slogan: “The sun never sets on the Alpha empire.” But in the sale, GB Enterprises retained six buildings, most still occupied under lease to Alpha, and nine aircraft.
The sun, obviously, hasn’t set on Grace Borsari as a Renaissance Woman.
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD RECIPIENT: GRACE BORSARI, AVIATRIX
As part of the purchase deal with EnerSys as it absorbed the Alpha group of companies headquartered in Bellingham last winter, co-founder Grace Borsari—our 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient—retained numerous company properties. Included: eight airplanes and a helicopter.
And she is certified to fly them all!
“Once we moved the original company, Alpha Technologies, to Bellingham and I built my manufacturing facility (Altair Advanced Industries, or AAI) so near the airport I decided to take lessons,” Grace said. “My business partner (co-founder Fred Kaiser) was a pilot in a flying club in Canada, mostly Piper Cubs, and I thought, ‘Hmm, I’d like that—it looks kinda exciting.”
Grace had become professionally trained as a photographer and as a ski instructor earlier in her life before helping develop the Alpha group in Bellingham, moving from its origins in British Columbia. Flying became just one more adventuresome undertaking for her, like her backwoods extreme skiing and rock climbing.
She took lessons locally and the first plane she bought was a light, single-engine, four-seat Cardinal, the Cessna 177, which she still has.
Over time, she accelerated her learning curve in Seattle aviation school and became instrument-rated for everything except the hot-air balloon. She flies every year to Wichita, Kansas, to update her ratings.
“After getting my pilot’s license, I then got rated on twin engines, then commercial. I just kept going and going—from prop to turbine to jet. I got a glider rating in Phoenix. And finally, the helicopter. I could fly the big jets, because it’s not about the size or weight. It’s the speed. Everything happens so much faster.”
Her company, AAI, now counts among its holdings two mid-size Gulfstream jets, two Cessna Citation (C-Jet) business planes, a Cessna cargo plane (“basically a truck with wings,” she said), an L-29 Delfin jet, an Amphibian, and the Cardinal.
Typically, she has piloted the Citation on business trips to Alpha’s site in Phoenix and her AAI plant near Atlanta, and she has flown the C-J3 on business trips to Alpha sites in Europe. Plus, on a clear-weather day, she loves to jump up and go take the helicopter for a ride.
“Just like in rope climbing, I can get away from everything when I’m flying,” Grace said. “Up there I’m never upset or nervous. I can concentrate totally on flying and it puts me in a different world, totally relaxing. I love being up in the clouds.”