ETC has been a start-up for a long time


A first-hand account from founder and CEO Fred Foster about ETC’s past and future

ETC is a start-up…and it has been for more than 40 years.

In 1975, four UW students — Gary Bewick, James Bradley, my brother Bill and I — came up with the idea of using the then-new 8080 microprocessor to create a theater lighting control system.

We were four kids who didn’t know that we couldn’t do it. We had no resources and no money. We didn’t even have a garage. To buy an 8-inch floppy disc drive, we each had to pony up $300 (for years our initial capitalization was listed at $1,200).

Today, ETC is a company with 1,200 employees and operations in 10 countries. We manufacture 90 percent of our products in Wisconsin, with our headquarters in Middleton. We bucked the trend of offshoring by creating a unique, vertically integrated manufacturing process that has shortened lead times for new orders to hours instead of days or weeks. We have found a way to make manufacturing work here at home.

So how did this happen? Every time we faced a new challenge, we found a way to overcome it, with change as our guiding star. Maintaining an innovative environment can be difficult as a company grows, and there have certainly been times when ETC became overburdened by organizational baggage.

It has been our challenge to keep ETC’s entrepreneurial spirit alive as we have grown.

Innovation is frequently conflated with technological advancement, but innovation is necessary in all aspects of an organization. To react to changes in your customer’s expectations, you have to improve your service model. To respond to new market trends, you have to be willing to evolve.

So how do you cultivate an innovative company? It is impossible to mandate or demand innovation – you need to create an environment, both physical and cultural, that allows each person to explore his or her own passions in a direction that helps the entire company. This allows everyone to have fun at work and contribute to something that they believe in.

It is hard to be creative in a Dilbertian sea of cubicles. As we have grown, we’ve had the opportunity to create unique creative environments for our employees, embracing our theatrical roots. When you walk into ETC’s headquarters, you step into lower Manhattan in the 1940s. The designs of the theming are inspired by Edward Hopper who is best known for his “Nighthawks” painting of a desolate diner in NYC.

Currently, we are in the final stages of construction on a 50,000-square-foot addition, filled with 40 shipping containers modified into offices. These containers are arranged in “neighborhoods” each serving a product type that we develop and manufacture, bringing personnel from across the company together in a single space. This reorganization will improve communication between departments and speed up the development cycle. This is a great example of how innovation can extend far beyond technical developments.

By prioritizing and embracing change in all of its forms, ETC has maintained its culture and identity as a perennial start-up company.

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