Don Green Reigns as the Don of Optical Networking

Red Herring, 30 September 2001

In the rough-and-tumble world of optical networking, all fibers stop at Don Green. He may not have the cachet of Vinod Khosla or George Gilder, but Mr. Green’s influence and effect on the telecom industry is infinite. In Petaluma, California, a city of 50,000 located 35 miles north of San Francisco, the shy and reclusive Mr. Green is a revered figure.

He is the chairman of Advanced Fibre Communications, a publicly traded company in Petaluma with $417 million in sales last year. But shunning publicity, Mr. Green would rather talk about the new Donald & Maureen Green Music Center he is helping to build at Sonoma State University in nearby Rohnert Park than discuss his involvement with the telecom business.

His reticence belies the contributions he has made to the telecom industry and the development of “telecom valley,” the region north of San Francisco that extends from Novato to Santa Rosa alongside Highway 101. While the excesses of the past few years may have taken the wind out of telecom’s sails, Mr. Green is confident that telecom valley will continue on its course.

You can find his entrepreneurial DNA in many of the area’s startups, like Turin Networks, Network Photonics, and Cierra Photonics–where he sits on the boards of directors–and in Mahi Networks, founded by his former partner, John Webley. Mr. Green was also an early backer of Fiberlane Communications, which eventually split into Cerent and Siara Systems, two startups that together sold for more than $12 billion to Cisco Systems and Redback Networks, respectively.

Mr. Green’s current perch at the top of the networking ladder is a far cry from the early days when he used to climb telephone poles to fix wires for British Telecom, in order to pay his college tuition. Born in Liverpool, England, Mr. Green immigrated to Canada in 1956, and then to the United States in 1960.

Soon he was working for RCA Standard Telephone Cables–at that time, one of the few companies where an impressionable scientific mind could find answers. “I loved the telecom business, but I did not want to be a bureaucrat,” he says. “This business is too interesting and intense not to take part in it. You can call it a love affair.”

At the end of the ’60s, Mr. Green founded Digital Telephone Systems (DTS) in San Rafael, California. At the time, he couldn’t get a dollar from VCs. “When I started off, no one was willing to fund a company that was going to compete with AT&T and target the regional Bell companies as customers,” he says. DTS, which developed digital local loop equipment for phone companies, was sold in 1974 for about $25 million to Farinon of San Carlos, California, and later merged with Harris Corporation, a communications equipment company now based in Melbourne, Florida.

After six years at Harris, he took the plunge again and started Optilink in 1986 with numerous friends from DTS. Four years later, when Texas-based DSC Communications acquired Optilink (and was later acquired by Alcatel), Mr. Green retired. But within 18 months, former colleagues and DSC alumni John Webley and Jim Hoeck persuaded him to cofound Advanced Fibre Communications.

Mr. Green has developed the capability of translating technology within picoseconds into viable business ideas, says Mr. Webley. His Rolodex has been compared to a master key to all the locks in the telecom business, and that makes him special for any startup getting off the ground. The British emigrant spends nearly four hours a day dispensing advice to the half-dozen startups he is involved with. “I’ve learned a lot, and if startups want to listen, I can help them avoid some of the pitfalls and obstacles that you tend to run into,” he says. No wonder Mr. Green is considered the don of optical networking.

Write to [email protected]