Electroimpact’s founder confounds critics, defenders

By Paul Archipley | Dec 19, 2018
Photo by: Paul Archipley An employee at Electroimpact works on the fiber placing head of a robotic arm, part of the Automated Fiber Placement technology developed by the company for composite manufacturing.

If Peter Zieve should ever give you a personal tour of Electroimpact’s campus in Mukilteo, skip your workout that day.

Zieve walks at a quick pace, skips the elevator when moving from floor to floor, and is intent on showing you every floor of every last building, of which there are many.

He also seems to know every employee by name and, often, about their families as well.

It’s a long way from the company’s beginning in 1984. Zieve launched Electroimpact in a garage adjacent to the University of Washington – where he earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering – and began manufacturing tooling for aircraft assembly. Zieve said some people from Boeing came to visit one day and told him, “You need to move out of here.” Their needs would require a much bigger operation.

Zieve found a vacant warehouse across from Traxx on Chennault Beach Road, right next door to Boeing, of course, and began building a powerhouse that today is the largest integrator of aircraft assembly lines in the world. Its customers include Boeing, Airbus, Spirit Aerospace, Northrop-Grumman, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and other major manufacturers.

Today, Electroimpact has about 500 employees, mostly here in Mukilteo, but also with offices in the U.K. and Australia. Zieve said annual sales range from $100 million to $200 million.

Highly regarded in the aerospace industry, Electroimpact has more than 60 patents, and Zieve isn’t afraid to share his company’s knowledge with the world.

“What’s unique about Electroimpact is we put hundreds of technical papers on our website,” Zieve said. “I heard a company in China downloaded it all.”

All of the company’s engineers are listed on Electroimpact’s website as well.

Whether or not that approach is good for business, Zieve would rather be open about Electroimpact’s work than not. “It’s America,” he said. “We’re much more about ‘Let the light shine through.’”

It’s ironic, then, that Zieve first became known to many Mukilteans for an anonymous postcard he sent to residents in 2016 warning about the possible dangers of allowing a planned mosque to be built here. He said it could become a “breeding place for terrorists.”

In fact, Zieve reminds one of Winston Churchill’s famous statement about Russia in early WWII. Churchill said, “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

When recipients learned that Zieve was behind the postcard mystery, condemnation was swift. Zieve apologized, explaining he was caught up in the fear of terrorism that gripped the country with the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, the self-proclaimed caliphate in the Mideast whose leaders encouraged terrorism against the West.

Public opinion was further aggravated in 2017 when the state Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit amid allegations that Electroimpact discriminated against employees and applicants on the basis of religion and marital status. That case was settled when the company paid a fine of $485,000 and removed Zieve from its hiring process.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson described the alleged conduct as “outrageous” and “shocking.” Zieve said he was being persecuted by overzealous state bureaucrats.

He acknowledges that some current and former employees have found the company culture uncomfortable, too. But he’s unapologetic, suggesting there are plenty of other companies they can work for. Political correctness isn’t his cup of tea.

Zieve is an outspoken conservative in a region that regularly sends Democrats to local, state and federal offices. He has donated tens of thousands to Republican candidates, including $1 million to a super PAC that supported Donald Trump for president.

When Zieve decided to run for the Mukilteo City Council in 2017, the postcard fiasco, the state lawsuit, allegations of domestic violence, and more made him a target of many angry residents. Despite allegations of his own personal troubles, incumbent Bob Champion easily defeated his challenger.

Yet, stories of Zieve’s generosity are legion as well. He donated $200,000 to the Mukilteo Boys & Girls Club for the new facility that will open in the near future. He also granted the use of vacant property for a parking lot for the new club.

Electroimpact launched a STEM program that continues to this day, donating equipment and space to students who are welcome to stop by after school to refine their science and math skills.

He opened his home to a Muslim woman and her children last summer after she fled her own home in an alleged case of domestic violence. Six months later, they’re still living with Zieve’s family.

Due to ongoing legal issues and a wish to protect her children, the woman asked that we not identify her. But she wants people to know that, as a Muslim, she has known only kindness and concern from Zieve. She forgives him for the postcard incident, saying she could understand the fear that many were feeling during that period.

“Peter is the kind of person that, when someone is in need, he never says no,” she said. “He has such a big heart and an open hand.”

His wife, Maria, is equally supportive of her husband. She said people who don’t know him have mistakenly labeled him a bigot.

“There’s so much misconception about Peter,” Maria Zieve said. “He’s a perfect husband.”

He’s also generous to his employees, she noted, providing bonuses, profit-sharing and other perks on a regular basis.

Zieve is undecided whether he’ll dip his toe into local politics again. He feels he’s been unfairly persecuted, but is seemingly unwilling to accept that many of his wounds were self-inflicted.

Meanwhile, Electroimpact continues to grow, building automated, robotic tools that help make the aerospace industry hum. And, no matter what locals think of the company’s founder, it has been a major, positive force in Mukilteo’s job market and economy. “It’s a myth that automation eliminates jobs,” Zieve said. “It creates jobs.”

Churchill would probably agree; no enigma about it.

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