March 2001--Twenty-five years ago, Fred Foster and his brother Bill had a plan: to make an affordable lighting control console. From those early days, Foster and his company, the Madison, WI–based Electronic Theatre Controls, have developed not only a long line of award-winning consoles, but also dimmers and fixtures. The company’s growth in the last dozen years—from the acquisition of Lighting Methods in 1990 to development of the Source Four to its entry into the architectural market with the acquisition of Irideon from Vari-Lite in 1998—has been especially swift, and has positioned ETC as one of the pre-eminent lighting manufacturers.
Last December, ED editor David Johnson sat down with the loquacious Foster for a chat about the last 25 years. The following features more of the interview than was published in the print pubication.
David Johnson: Last time we talked, you mentioned the fact that you once fancied yourself a lighting designer.
Fred Foster: It happened in junior high school, when I stumbled backstage and did some musical, turning circuit breakers on and off. And then all through high school, my homeroom was in the auditorium, and I remember looking at a real theatre with lights up in the beam positions and saying, ‘Hey, this is really cool.’ I did the drama club thing in high school, but we didn’t have a drama teacher for most of my four years there. So I ended up running the theatre and getting keys to the building and directing a play.
After high school, I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison and started taking theatre courses. This was 1975, and Gilbert Hemsley was teaching, and so I took his courses. I was really much more into the technology and being an electrician, I think. I find that I can cue, I can do a light plot. But what ultimately is my downfall is color. Scientifically I understand color, but to this day my wife and daughter dress me.
Anyway, in one of the theatres at the college we had a Cue File, which was this English product Kliegl sold that had three racks of electronics, not even a microprocessor in it, and it cost a quarter of a million dollars. I said to my brother, who’s a couple years older than I am and was at that point a physics undergraduate student, ‘Bill, you gotta come down and see this really cool computer.’ His direct quote was, ‘Gack! We can do this for $5,000.’ It was right after the first AD-80 microprocessors came out.
So we got together with a couple of our friends and decided to build our own. Our nominal conception date for the company was at one of Gilbert’s parties on Christmas Eve in 1975. Gilbert’s parties were these wonderful, wild debaucheries where whoever he could bring into town—somebody from the Met, or Jack O’Brien—would be in his house, and graduate students and undergraduates would be there. He had gallons of Lambrusco and some kind of food cooked with a lot of garlic.
If you wanted to talk to Gilbert, you had to informally make an appointment and wait for your audience. Your audience with Gilbert would happen wherever, with whomever was around at the time. So I dragged the founders of the company—Bill, Gary Bewick, and Jim Bradley, and another friend of ours, Bob Gilson—over to this party to talk to Gilbert and propose that we do this. Somewhere well into the night, we went up and had the audience in Gilbert’s bedroom. Everybody listened to what we were going to do, and the general response was, ‘Yeah, sure. You can’t do a Cue File.’
So we started buying parts or scrounging parts from the physics department, using the labs in the physics department or the basement of my apartment, and put this thing together through the course of that year. It generally broke down that my brother was writing software, Gary did the hardware, Jim did text editing and some things around the edges, and I was the theatrical input into it.
We didn't know what we were doing, and we didn't have a penny to do it. Sometime during the next year we needed to buy a disk drive. Disk drives were 8" floppy drives that held 150 kilobytes of data. They cost $1,500, and we all had to come up with money. We decided we'd each throw in $300 or $400, and get a quarter of the company. We still weren’t really a company at that point, but we were partners. We got a Protech floppy disk drive, so I went out to Bobby Gilson's shop and welded up the box to put it in, cut the crease panel out of a sheet of aluminum in my father's basement with a saber saw. My hands were bleeding from filing it.
We went back to Gilbert’s on Christmas Day of 1976, a year and a day later. There was another party, and he had a big ham out on the table for the Christmas dinner. We put a 3' x 1' box with a monitor built into it that ostensibly did everything a Cue File did, right on the table. The reaction was, ‘Oh, shit.’
DJ: When did the rest of the world get a peek at it?
Foster: Gilbert at that point was very close to Joel Rubin, so our next concept was to sell the idea to Kliegl, which was the pre-eminent company in the business at the time. There was a USITT conference down in Washington, DC, so my brother and I put Mega Cue in a box and went down. We showed the board out of our hotel room. It was like turning tricks. We would go down to the trade show floor and go up to Century or Kliegl and say, we’ve got a light board to show you, and bring them up to the room. And empty the ashtrays between each trip. (Laughs) The inevitable happened—when one trick was leaving, the other was coming in.
DJ: Those awkward moments.
Foster: That was the same year that Kliegl was introducing Gordon Pearlman’s Performance system, which was kind of the same piece. So we got to the show thinking we were going to sell it to Kliegl, but we went to the Kliegl booth and just were completely deflated. Oh, we were despondent. Bill and I didn’t know what to do. But eventually we worked out a deal with Ken Vannice at Colortran, and there was an opportunity to turn Mega Cue—we call it Neander-Cue now—into a real product. There's a great Colortran story. At one point my brother and I were out in their offices in Burbank; Bill was programming and I was just kind of hanging around, and it was 11 or 12 at night. I was wandering around the engineering section, and I came across a file cabinet that said memory system. And I said, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ I looked around to make sure Ken wasn't watching me, and I opened up the drawer and I found a folder that said ETC, and I thought, ‘This is even more interesting.’
I pulled out the folder and found an internal memo that referred to us as ‘the flakes from Wisconsin who would rather be sailors.’ I just thought this was hilarious. So we had pens printed up that said ‘Electronic Theatre Controls ... we'd rather be sailing.’ We had sailboats put on our invoices and our checks, our letterhead had a sailboat on it. And it was just a howl for us, because Colortran didn't know how we found out about it.
DJ: What you were more attracted to: the technology or the entrepreneurial side of things?
Foster: Oh, at that point we had no real idea of becoming a business. We could just barely make the product. Bill had graduated from UW and moved on to Harvard, so we would race sailboats in the summertime and have this business on the side. We would wait until we were six weeks late on delivering a product; initially we built them in my brother’s bedroom at my parent’s house. So Ken Vannice would call up, plaintive. We were dodging his phone calls, but he’d get my mother on the phone, and she would be apologetic and say ‘Oh, Ken, I’m so sorry about this. I’ll see if I can get the boys to call you back.’ (Laughs)
DJ: You were what then, early 20s?
Foster: Yeah, I was 18 or 19 when I started, so it was right around 20.
DJ: So it’s not like you were talking the business side of things very seriously.
Foster: My parents will tell stories. My mother did our bookkeeping initially. We had a checking account, and when she took them over she said to my brother Billy, ‘There’s no balance in this checkbook. How do you do this?’ He said, ‘Well, I kind of eyeball it.’ (Laughs) My mother kept all these letters over the years. She was going through her files a few years ago and found a letter in my handwritten scrawl to her saying that the insurance settlement from a car accident that I was in had come through and I got $750. So now I didn't have to borrow the money from them for my share of the company. A real fly-by-night operation.
DJ: It sounds like Colortran had their hands full.
Foster: We got through about the first 18 months of the contract with them, and then we didn't think the economics of it it was quite right. We would sell something to them for $5,000, they'd put a $1,000 box around it and sell it for $30,000. We didn't seem to think that that was very fair, so we said ‘We’ll re-up the contract, but you have to pay us $60,000 in development fees." Which they didn't think was very fair. Because, quite honestly, we had a deal that didn’t involve that.
Well, there was this big flaw in the contract where there was a performance requirement. Because they were afraid of us going out of business--quite rightly so--we had to put all of the technology, the drawings, the circuit board, artwork, the source code, etc. in an escrow account out in California. So if we went under or didn't perform they could take the technology and produce the console.
They were allowed to order up to 15 units in a 30-day period, and if we didn't deliver in that 30-day period, technically we were in default and they could get the escrow package. And everyone knew we couldn't do this. The negotiations weren't going very well and we were dealing with this guy, Ken Broder, a Harvard MBA who was running Colortran at the time. Not only was a Harvard MBA, but he was captain of the goddamned football at Harvard. Chiseled features, ice cold blue eyes type of thing. And here we were, a bunch of 18-20-year-old kids.
DJ: Uh, oh.
Foster: We had received a Telex at Gilson’s Telex machine from Colortran, because we didn’t have one, ordering 15 units, which was what would be required to put is in default. A short time later Jimmy Bradley and I flew out to negotiate the contract, we went into the conference room and Broder walked in, dropped a copy of that order on the table, and said, ‘You know that we can drive you out of business.’ And Bradley, not really thinking about it, said ‘Go ahead. I'd rather go sailing in the Mediterranean.’ And I said ‘I can run lightboards on Broadway and make a damn sight more than I'm making now.’ And it was amazing. Broder's face looked like one of those wax faces in a horror film. It just decomposed in front of us. Because the Harvard Business School plan is you threaten a small business with driving him out of business and he'll capitulate.
Foster: We basically said, ‘Go ahead, make my day.’ He turned red, and walked out. We were thinking, ‘What just happened?’ He walked back into the room five minutes later, threw the signed contract down on the desk, on the table, and said ‘Okay,’ and walked out of the room. We got on the airplane and tried to figure out what had happened. And we realized that we had called his bluff not knowing we were doing it.
But it was a rocky time in Color Trend, and we still weren't that happy with the way it was going. We did a project with them in 1979 for the lighting control systems for Disneyland in California, where we did all of the work and they sold it. We got to know a bunch of Disney Imagineers at the time, and their next project was to do the entertainment systems for Epcot, in Florida. And a group of them hired ETC directly to do a consulting project on a gloried plate control system.
We also got a contract through John Hope to develop an entertainment lighting board. And we said, ‘Sure, we’ll do this.’
Disney worked two ways at that point, with us at least. One was it all of our expenses on the consulting contract and owned all of the intellectual property. The other way on the light board was to give us an order that was large enough to justify doing the development, but then we retained all the rights to the product. They got what they wanted, but we retained the rights. And that volume was six consoles at $18,000 a piece, which took us to be a ground-up light board manufacturer.
So we developed the system for John and delivered the six units. And we had a product now that we weren't obliged to sell to Colortran, one that we needed to sell as ETC.
DJ: Were you even called ETC at this point?
Foster: My father made up the name in a discussion. And I think we needed a name. The earliest letter that I remember was probably from 1977, right when we incorporated. Obviously when we incorporated in the spring of 77, we needed a name. I think that’s when we came up with one.
DJ: Who have been your biggest influences over the last 25 years?
Foster: Gilbert Hemsley has to get a lot of the initial credit. And it was a mix of daring us to try, but also supporting us in the effort. And I think that he did a tremendous amount to open my eyes to what the real world of theatre was.
As far as growing the company, one of the current partners is Bob Gilson, who owns all the land and all the buildings that we’re in. He’s probably been my business mentor through a lot of this.
Then for product development and technology, Steve Terry has had a huge input. He’s a very demanding customer and really knows his stuff. He’s always fought to hold the bar that we have to jump over really high.
And Sonny Sonnenfeld. By the time I was born, in 1957, Sonny had been in our business for a dozen years. I don’t think that I have ever met a person who has kept up his enthusiasm and love of his career as strongly as he has. I have known him as a competitor, an employee, a mentor, and most of all, a friend. He can never stop telling us how to run our company, and when I am smart, I listen to him.
DJ: Tell me what you think some of the most important contributions that ETC has made to the industry over the last years. I assume the Source Four is a major contribution, but what else?
Foster: I think ETC has done a good job of carrying on some of the traditions that existed when we started in business, which were companies that were made up substantially of people who were of the business. We really haven’t gone the corporate route, and I think that’s because we’ve continued to hire people who have roots in the theatre, television, even architectural lighting.
One of the things that we discovered earlier was that if we had product in stock and we could ship it in stock and not build it to order, that that was something the market really desired. I think that since we started doing that in the late '80s with our consoles, the marketplace has really adapted to expecting that level of service. It got us business, but more than that it satisfied what was an inherent need of the business.
And also, probably the level of technical support that we’ve developed. We have extended this into our authorized service centers—there are roughly 150 of them around the country—and these are contracted, factory-trained technicians in our dealer base, who provide a spectacular level of service.
DJ: I didn’t mean to brush past the Source Four. I assume you think that’s fairly significant.
Foster: Yes. The Source Four is just a product that nobody expected to have such a pent-up demand. And as much as it pains me, I really have to give most of the credit to Dave Cunningham and Greg Esakoff for the technology behind it.
The combination of the resources that Dave and Greg brought forward, and what we were able to put toward the project, really made it so we could deliver a product that was that revolutionary, at a price point that wasn’t that much more than premium ellipsoidals at the time. We took it and showed it at LDI in 1992, which was also the same year that we introduced the Sensor dimmer and the Obsession console, and had this wonderful trade show booth that Duane Schuler lit. And it was a whirlwind from then on.
DJ: Speaking of developing new products, what does the future hold for ETC in terms of product development? Anything new down the pike we can expect—that you can talk about?
Foster: I don’t think it’s any great surprise that there’s another big hit to be done on lighting control systems. The evolution of memory lighting control systems for conventional lighting has kind of reached its peak. Then there’s an evolution of automated control that has evolved from a different angle, but is not right for conventionals. To get that right and to create a new paradigm of lighting control is the next big step. And I think it would be unreasonable to assume that a company in our position wouldn’t be working on that. It’s an area we’re spending a lot of time in, to not come out with a ‘me too.’ We don’t want to do the Wholehog 13, we don’t want to do the Obsession Four, but to come out with a new control paradigm that will really harness the power that microprocessors or microcomputers should be giving us for lighting control that they haven’t. And we’re continuing to work with Dave Cunningham and Greg Esakoff on luminaire development.
DJ: It seems like you’ve done it all at ETC over the last 25 years. What is your role these days?
Foster: It’s interesting. A few years back, when I nominally and actually attempted to run the daily operations of the company, it got to a point where that was not the right job for me.
DJ: I assume that has to be difficult, because this wasn’t something you ever saw yourself as doing when you started this, was it?
Foster: No. I functionally have no training to do this, other than the job experience. It’s also really difficult when you can walk through a company that you’ve started, and with a few exceptions, point to almost any job and say, I’ve done that. There was a time when I designed our products, there was a time when I punched the sheet metal and painted the sheet metal. Cleaned the toilet, swept the floor. With the exception of perhaps programming the codes that run in our machines and designing the electronics, I have done it all. And it’s hard to let go of things and not be convinced you can do them better than somebody else.
There have been a few points where the company has reinvented itself and my role has changed. Probably the most substantial one was when we restructured and Dick Titus became our chief operating officer, and the day to day operations of the company became his responsibility. At that point it was a very difficult transition for me. While it gave me an opportunity to get back connected to the market and connected to product development, it was really a challenge, because he would change something that needed to be changed, and I'd say, ‘Wait, that's not how we do it,’ and I would undermine him.
DJ: Oh, boy.
FF: Yes. It was a difficult transition. But fortunately at the same time we needed to replace Bill Gallinghouse as managing director of ETC Europe in London. So we looked around, and I think my way of telling it is I was the most superfluous person, so I went over to London and got to spend 13 months working in ETC London, which was just a fabulous experience. Because to a great degree it felt like the fantasy of going back to high school as an adult: that I could go back into a smaller ETC that felt very much like we did ten years before when it was a handful of people with really good products and very small market share. It also gave Dick an opportunity, with me out of his hair, to actually make a lot of the changes that needed to be made within the American part of our company.
But the next challenge was coming back from England and saying, ‘Okay, now what's my job?’ Because I came back to a company that wasn't really the same one I'd left. And what was interesting to find was that while it was in many ways a better company, much better organized, much more efficient.
But to give you a direct answer to your question, I think the most important thing that I do is help people to define and describe a vision to follow. And that doesn’t imply that they’re all my ideas or it’s my exclusive vision by any means, because it isn’t. It’s just putting it into a singular voice that is really important for the company. So the most rewarding time I spend is finding ways to learn more and more about the company, and explain to one part of the company what another part is doing. That is basically what I do.
Two or three things you may not know about Fred Foster: The youngest of three, his brother has a Ph.D. in physics who works at Fermi Labs and his sister is a marine biologist; Fred’s father was a law professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Fred once took all 500 Middleton employees to see Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace during work hours.