By Geoff Giordano
When a roomful of past presidents, board members and faithful staffers gathered at Miami’s Hyatt® Regency recently to honor Peter Baker’s 25th year as executive director of the Laser Institute of America, the genuine respect and admiration for his visionary and resolute leadership was palpable.
The reception, held during the 32nd annual International Congress on Applications of Lasers & Electro-Optics (ICALEO®) in October, was characterized by the typically harmonious blend of brilliant minds and personalities Baker has orchestrated since he was elected to lead LIA at the fifth ICALEO in 1988.
Having built his first laser in 1970 — two years after LIA was founded — he went on to work at several laser firms in various positions, including president and CEO. His wealth of experience, gleaned as he helped laser technology emerge from its infancy, gives Baker the requisite perspective to oversee an organization that unites the top players in a cutting-edge industry vital to manufacturing, medicine and more.
“Not everyone in his position knows the laser business quite like he does,” said LIA Treasurer Stephen Capp, CEO of Laserage Technology in Waukegan, IL. “I am very appreciative of what Peter has brought to our society and what he has done to make it such a credible industry.”
An Inquiring Mind
A career that has spanned everything from working in the UK’s aerospace industry to building spy cameras for ITEK Corp. in Lexington, MA, began with an innate curiosity about what makes things tick.
“Learning and teaching have always been fascinating to me,” says Baker, who pursued his passion as a boy “to study science and get answers as to why things worked, moved, appeared and disappeared.”
The London native caught the attention of his teachers, and attended a school where he was able to pursue his curiosity. He went on to earn an undergraduate degree in physics with special honors from London University.
Baker was tapped by ITEK in 1966 as the Vietnam War was escalating and the company sought to create night-vision equipment.
“Here I am a physicist and I am called into the big boss’ office and was asked what I knew about lasers,” Baker said. “My answer was honest. I said, ‘Not much, really.’ ’’ His supervisor sent Baker to the library to bone up on laser technology. “I did my research,” he recalled. “I came back and told him I knew a lot more about lasers now, and he gave me the project.”
The Road to LIA
After moving from Boston to Nairobi, Kenya to teach physics and math for a couple of years, Baker returned to the States, joining a California company called Quantrad as marketing manager. After raising sales 73 percent, Baker was promoted to president.
“We were making laser engraving systems, which were brand new in 1980,” he explained. LIA invited him to speak at the International Conference Laser Material Processing which preceded ICALEO, which led to an offer to serve as the organization’s treasurer — and then executive director.
“This job scratches all of my itches,” Baker enthused. “I get to visit labs all over the world and learn what today’s experts are working on.”
His unique combination of science savvy and social skills serves him well at the helm.
“We have been blessed by the guidance and support of leaders in our field,” Baker noted. “All of the people who serve on Team LIA’s board volunteer for the good of the cause. They are not only smart beyond measure, they are unfailingly nice.”
One of the first things Baker did in the role was move LIA from Toledo, OH, to its current base in Orlando. He and his wife, Sunny, opened LIA’s new office and ran it together until hiring Jeannette Gabay, who now serves as chief financial officer.
“I’ve marveled at our organization’s growth and expanding reach,” Baker wrote in 2010 in recalling LIA’s history and his tenure. “It is fascinating to see how new research, reported at ICALEO transitions into superior methods for Advanced Manufacturing.”
While acknowledging the lag time typical in the adoption of new applications, “perseverance pays. Look where we are today. Lasers are everywhere, performing powerful functions in shipbuilding, medical devices, photovoltaics, and the automotive and aerospace industries.”
Baker’s single-minded focus on keeping LIA at the forefront of laser safety and application advocacy never fails to impress those who work with him.
“Peter is the core, the center of LIA and the outer bracket simultaneously,” said Prof. Dr. Reinhart Poprawe, the immediate past LIA president. “He deserves my greatest respect and recognition for his efforts and his continuous commitment. (He is) a main pillar in the US laser community.”
Added current LIA President Klaus Löffler: “Peter is a wonderful leader. He is always open to new ideas from the executive board and puts things in perspective with his experience. His endurance has formed LIA and built it into today’s excellent professional society. He understands the needs of our individual and corporate members, is still fascinated by the laser business and keeps the financials steady. To me, Peter is much more than just the executive director of LIA — he is such a great friend.”
Another former LIA president, Raj Patel, noted Baker’s “ability to put someone at ease when he talks to them. Peter has the great ability to take a loosey-goosey idea, get the right peoples’ input, massage it and create a concrete plan to execute it. And his white beard is a secret to his success.” LIA Marketing Director Jim Naugle concurred: “Peter is a forward thinker. He takes the talents of his staff and encourages them to move outside the box.”
After yet another busy year that saw the creation of LIA’s newest online learning portal Laser U and continued refinements to leading industry events like the Laser Additive Manufacturing (LAM®) Workshop and the Lasers for Manufacturing Event® (LME®), Baker is far from satisfied.
“My work here is not done,” he asserted. “I still have some things I’d like to accomplish (and) more projects to launch.”