Walter J. Zable dies at 97; founder of Cubic Corp.

Walter J. Zable, the founder and chief executive officer of San Diego-basedCubic Corp.during six decades of innovation in electronic technology for national defense and the civilian market, has died. He was 97.

Zable died June 23 at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla of natural causes, the company said.

Zable, known as a hands-on, detail-oriented executive who loved quizzing employees about their recent work, founded HR Electronics in his garage in Point Loma in 1949 on a $5,000 investment and a belief that the electronics industry would play a major role in the post-World War II economy and the growth of San Diego.

Walter Zable: An obituary in the June 30 LATExtra section of Walter J. Zable, who founded the San Diego-based technology firm Cubic Corp., identified one of his survivors, Stefanie Zable, as his wife. She is his daughter-in-law.

Today, Cubic, the name selected in 1951, has 7,800 employees and sales of more than $1.2 billion a year, with an array of products for national security and civilian transportation systems. The Cubic fare collection system is used in public transit systems in 40 major markets from the London Underground to the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District.


Cubic develops simulation systems to train ground troops and aviators for combat. One of the first such systems was used to train fighter pilots at the Navy’s Top Gun school.

At an age when most executives would enjoy retirement, Zable remained at the helm. He shrugged off the idea of resting on his corporate laurels.

“When you have all this knowledge,” he said, “you can’t just sit there and do nothing.”

Zable was a financial patron of the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Symphony and the cancer center foundation at the UC San Diego Medical School. He endowed a chair in the UC San Diego engineering department and funded the installation of a state-of-the-art theater at the Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park.

Walter Joseph Zable was born in Los Angeles on June 17, 1915. When he was 7, his family moved to Boston, where Zable’s father was a steelworker. At an early age, Zable found his life’s passions: sports and electronics.

In high school he excelled in football, baseball and track while taking classes at night at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He built a crystal set radio but lacked the money to buy headphones; in a story he delighted in repeating to interviewers, Zable said a truck drove by his parents’ home and, as improbable as it seems, a pair of headphones fell off.

After graduating from high school in 1933, he attended the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., on an athletic scholarship. At 6 feet 3 and 180 pounds, he was a star receiver and wingback and was named honorable mention All-American in his senior year. He also lettered in baseball, basketball and track.

He graduated in 1937 with a degree in physics and played a season with the Richmond Arrows football team in the Dixie League. He then enrolled at the University of Florida, where he received a master’s degree in physics and mathematics in 1939.


In the 1940s, Zable worked for several firms, most involved with developing electronic innovations for defense, including Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (Convair) in San Diego, where he specialized in developing aircraft antenna technology for the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber and the PBY Catalina flying boat.

Unlike many successful corporate innovators, Zable did not feel the need to expound at length on his philosophy of business. But when pressed by a reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2001, he said simply, “If you work hard and move to seize opportunities, you can make something out of yourself.”

Cubic, which went public in 1959, has pursued a two-pronged business strategy: develop its own innovations and look for small companies to acquire. Cubic’s product for measuring long distances revolutionized oil exploration and the pipe-laying business.

In 1964, a Cubic satellite enabled a geodetic survey of the Earth; Cubic innovations were used in the Hubble Space Telescope and Apollo spacecraft. There were also down-to-earth innovations: the nation’s first electronic scoreboard (installed at San Diego Stadium in 1966) and technology for passenger-controlled elevators.


In 1981, Zable was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1990, he donated $10 million to the College of William & Mary for scholarships, graduate student aid and other programs; the college renamed its football stadium for Zable.

Zable is survived by his wife, Stefanie, of Rancho Santa Fe; son Walter C. Zable, a Cubic executive; daughter Karen Cox; and five granddaughters. His first wife, Betty Virginia Carter Zable, whom he married in 1942, died in 2007.