Electronic Theatre Controls turned 25 last Christmas Eve — and kicked off celebrations near its Madison, WI, headquarters by illuminating the lakeside exterior arches of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center over the holidays, with 14 ETC Irideon AR500s employed for color washing (pictured). CEO Fred Foster was a college student when he and three of his classmates challenged themselves to build a lighting console better than anything then on the market — which ultimately gave rise to a company that now employs 600 people worldwide, had revenues of more than $108 million in 2000, and plans to build a newer and larger HQ in Dane County, WI, within the next two years. Here, Foster speaks about ETC's past, present, and future.
In the 25 years that ETC has been around, what are the best things it has contributed to the industry?
There have been a few revolutions that we might claim credit for — the Source Four, Sensor dimmers, the Obsession console — but I feel that the most significant achievements are under-sung. These would include our role in changing the expectations of service, support, and delivery in the industry. For example, 10 years ago, a set of submittal drawings for a project would take six to 10 weeks to get out of the factory. This has been set to less than two weeks nowadays. There wasn't a concept of 24-by-7-by-365 service with a guaranteed call-back in 15 minutes when your lights blinked; now it is the expected norm. In 25 more years, this change will be looked on as more important than the technology we have brought to the market.
1b. On the other hand, there must be a dark side to ETC — what hasn't worked, what did you do wrong?
Well, this list might be a fair sight longer. Luckily, many of our really bad thoughts didn't get past our own doors.
One of the most recurrent “challenged” products might be the Idea console. In 1985, we followed our philosophy of naming consoles about aspects of the thought process. An “Idea” was one half of a “Concept.” While we saw some success in the market, we only made about 50 of them, and they could have been more reliable. To add to the story, about eight years later, we came out with a new “Idea,” which answered the needs of many more customers, but wasn't really that much of a step forward. The good news is that these products gave us a chance to prove how good our service was.
On a broader front, the lesson we learned from all the misfires we had was to always learn from them. If we made our dealers mad at us by a new pricing policy, we listened to them. If we didn't understand a market, and blew our entry into it, we made it right.
In the next 25 years, will ETC produce a moving light? (The question has often arisen in the last 25.)
You are right, this is often asked. The glib answer is that we have been making moving lights for some time, since 1998, when we bought Irideon. The real answer is “not until we can bring something new or revolutionary to the market.”
The blend of entertainment and architecture continues as a trend. How is ETC positioned to capture more of this market?
Well, let's consider if this market is truly a growing one or not. Obviously, the value of lighting in architecture and environmental design is increasing in importance, but is the sector as it is currently defined really growing as a trend? I believe that the biggest challenge to the successful implementation of automated lighting and sophisticated lighting systems in venues that are not supported by trained technicians (read “live entertainment”) will rely on a simplified control interface and an increase in reliability. This is where we are looking.
Given what looks to be a slowing overall economy, how do you feel the lighting industry in general (and ETC in particular) will ride out a downturn?
The last “economic downturn” was in 1990-91, and to be honest, we didn't have a clue about what was happening. In fact, since we were growing so fast, we didn't really feel it. This time around, knowing what little I know about what I did the last time, I would say, “I don't have a clue.”
Yes, the global economy is threatened, and entertainment lighting might be one of the early sufferers of this, but it will also be one of the first segments to recover. So, who knows? But since we have made a little money over the years, and spent it wisely, I don't think we are in trouble.
Is there a secret to success in maintaining a company like ETC for a quarter-century that you could share?
Well, if it isn't loving what you do, and getting and keeping the best people, I don't know. If anyone has sorted it out, please let me know!