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Agilent split creates new future for Santa Rosa company

  • Production tech support Justin Miller works on an Agilent PSG signal generator at the Agilent Technologies facility in Santa Rosa on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. Agilent Technologies is splitting into two separate companies, with the Santa Rosa facility becoming part of the new electronic measurement company. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/Press Democrat)

For the second time in 14 years, the workers at Agilent Technologies in Santa Rosa are about to be cut loose from the mother ship.

The company's million-square-foot campus in the hills overlooking Santa Rosa got its start four decades ago as a Hewlett-Packard plant that made testing equipment for a host of electronic devices. But in 1999, the Santa Rosa facility was spun off with other H-P test and measurement plants to become Agilent.

The split allowed Hewlett-Packard to focus on its then-sizeable computer and printer business.

Now, the Santa Rosa facility is being cleaved away once again, becoming the headquarters of a new, yet-to-be-named electronic measurement company with $2.9 billion in annual sales. Meanwhile, Agilent will go its own way next year, staking its future on the growing life sciences market.

To many, it is ironic that the electronic measurement division — the historic core of a company founded almost 75 years ago by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in their garage — has been spun off twice by newer businesses that sprung up around it. But the 1999 split showed that investors wouldn't hesitate to push the electronic measurement division aside in a quest for bigger opportunities.

“It's been the red-headed stepchild ever since,” said Mark Douglass, a senior analyst with Longbow Research in Cleveland. “It's just not the latest and greatest thing.”

Nonetheless, Douglass is one of the analysts who see the spinoff as a plus for the future of Sonoma County's largest high-tech employer.

So do many Agilent workers in Santa Rosa, who look forward to no longer having their division's hard-earned revenues siphoned off to acquire some new life sciences company.

Others, however, worry privately whether the new company can navigate the inevitable ups and downs of the tech business cycle without downsizing — a painful part of Agilent's history in Sonoma County — and without becoming a target for acquisition.

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