MIDDLETON — The lights dimmed for commercial lighting design company ETC in February when co-founder and longtime chief executive Fred Foster died of cancer at age 61.
With Foster at the helm, ETC became a worldwide force for more than 40 years, lighting stages from Manhattan’s Broadway theaters to Madison’s Overture Center, illuminating the faces of the tycoons on ABC’s Shark Tank, the coffee concoctions at the world’s largest Starbucks in Shanghai, and controlling artwork displayed in colorful light designs on the face of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart (now known as theMART).
Today, ETC, Electronic Theatre Controls, still focuses its spotlights forward, with some new arcs: Longtime company president Dick Titus is CEO, an industrial-chic building addition opened in December, and the company’s management team is pondering ETC’s next targets — perhaps in the growing market of sports arenas.
The commercial lighting industry already had been grappling with technological sea changes, including the massive switch from incandescent lights to energy-efficient LEDs and the transformation of control systems from large consoles to an app on a mobile phone.
The transitions don’t rattle Titus.
An ETC employee since 1990, Titus has led day-to-day operations since 2002.
He dresses in a short-sleeved shirt and casual slacks, his office all-business except for the plastic duck’s head on his mini-fridge that quacks when the fridge door opens. “I keep it turned off or it would drive everyone crazy,” he said.
Titus, 69, was born in Trenton, New Jersey; his family moved to Minneapolis and then to Menomonee Falls, a northwestern suburb of Milwaukee. After he graduated from high school in Sussex, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was lucky to survive.
Titus was sent to Vietnam in 1970 as a member of the 101st Airborne Division, an Army assault unit with a renowned history that dates back about 100 years.
The mission for Titus’ eight-man team: To jump out of a helicopter and hunt down North Vietnamese guerrillas in the ancient Vietnamese capital city of Hue. The U.S. soldiers had no parachutes and no ground cover as they dropped onto hills that had been cleared of trees.
“If you don’t jump, they push you out,” Titus said. “People are shooting at you while you’re jumping. ... We’d roam around in the jungle and look for the enemy.”
Sometimes he didn’t make it that far. He was shot in the chest, leg and arm. He points to his left arm, still embossed with deep scars.
“I lost my arm; they put it back on. ... I ended up being a good target,” he said, with self-deprecating humor.
Once, a MedEvac helicopter was 10 feet up, hauling Titus in, when the chopper exploded from a rocket blast. A second helicopter buzzed in and took off quickly, with Titus still dangling below.
The injuries he suffered during four months in the division left him hospitalized for six months and earned him two Purple Hearts. He never found out if any others on his team made it home alive.
The experience “changes your perspective,” Titus said. “Things have been much worse. ... There are things that matter and things that don’t.
“I describe myself as ‘The Rock.’”
With help from the GI bill, Titus earned an associate’s degree in accounting from Waukesha County Technical College and then a bachelor’s degree in business management from Carroll University (then Carroll College) in Waukesha.
He held management positions with several manufacturing companies before he joined ETC, first as a consultant, then an employee. At the time Titus was hired, ETC had about 25 employees. Today, it has 1,362, with 967 of them at company headquarters at 3031 Pleasant View Road and at the Mazomanie production center, and the rest spread among 11 sales and support branches around the world.
The company is family to him in more than the usual way — Titus’ sister, Susan, chairman of the board, was married to Fred Foster.
“We were pretty close,” Titus said, of Fred Foster. “Every now and then, I think he walks by.”
A home-grown powerhouse
ETC is a prime example of the high-tech, advanced manufacturing in the Madison area.
Founded in late 1975, the company got its start making lighting consoles for theaters. Then came lights and lighting controls for all sorts of venues, including museums, places of worship and theme parks, and rigging systems for hanging the lamps.
In recent years, though, the industry has embraced LED lights instead of the traditional tungsten. LED sales were 22% of ETC’s revenue in 2014. By 2018, they represented nearly 40% of revenue, spokeswoman Rachel Frederick said.
ETC used to make its own patented tungsten lights; now, an Amsterdam company, Lumileds, is its main LED supplier, Frederick said.
ETC still makes the rest of its systems, though — the fixtures, housings, riggings, software and circuit boards — amounting to about 90 percent of the products it sells.
“In 2018, we manufactured just over 800,000 circuit boards here at ETC and the number will be about 10% higher in 2019,” Frederick said.
Employment has grown from about 800 in 2014 to 1,362 today, with another 60 open positions to fill. Starting pay in the factory is $12 to $13 an hour, while jobs such as engineers and software developers are paid substantially more. (The company would not disclose those figures.)
A relatively new market for ETC is sports arenas, where owners are trying to lure fans to the stadium instead of watching the games at home. They want to control all of the arena’s lights — from the locker rooms to the playing field, the restaurants to the restrooms — in one central location.
The Atlanta Falcons football stadium is a recent ETC installation; Madison Square Garden, in New York City, has been a long-term project.
“Three years ago, we had none. Now, we’re doing a lot of them,” Titus said. “They’re adding activities, events, restaurants.”
Chinese LED manufacturers — “of which there are hundreds“ — may charge less, but ETC focuses on entire system packages and on its service, said Titus.
“They don’t do a lot of things that we do,” he said.
ETC anticipates revenue of $360 million for 2019, up from $345 million in 2018. Privately owned, the company allocated 33% of its stock to employees in 2016.
ETC is known for its stylized headquarters lobby, designed to look like Midtown Manhattan in the 1930s, with an outline of the Empire State Building, a theater marquee and a reception desk that looks like the old-fashioned diner depicted in the Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks.”
New to the Middleton headquarters is a 75,000-square-foot addition on the north side of the building with offices made from 40 shipping containers — corrugated steel cargo carriers that have transported goods across the ocean, just once.
Most of the containers are 40 feet long, eight feet wide and nine-and-a-half feet tall — big enough to house up to four individual offices. Glass doors are cut into one side, and the carriers, painted on the outside, are cozy inside, carpeted and equipped with ETC lights that can dim or change colors.
“We knew we wanted something creative,” said ETC architect Frank Miller.
Around the U.S., steel shipping containers have been used for all sorts of purposes — storage, housing, offices, and even schools and stores.
Miller said he thinks ETC’s container set-up is the first of its kind in Wisconsin and the largest, “possibly in the Midwest.”
Designing the project took two years, with help from Sketchworks Architecture in Middleton.
The units are stacked two-high, connected with metal walkways and organized in groupings that allow open courtyard areas equipped with tables and chairs for meetings or lounging or with equipment used to test new concepts. A third floor built above the containers is designed to mimic their appearance.
About 170 members of ETC’s research and development and marketing staff occupy the new addition; eventually, it can house up to 250.
“We’ve got great light, great energy in this space,” said David Lincecum, vice president of marketing, who’s been with the company for 25 years.
The $16 million project got a boost of $3.6 million in tax incremental financing from the city of Middleton that will be repaid through the higher taxes ETC will pay on its headquarters, now expanded to 403,000 square feet. The Mazomanie factory is 355,000 square feet.
The company also recently built new facilities in Orlando, Florida, and Burbank, California, and will be starting construction projects in Holzkirchen, Germany, and London.
“Environments have always been important to us,” Lincecum said. “They engage employees, and they really engage customers.”
There are touches of whimsy throughout ETC’s building — rows of bobbleheads or action figures on office shelves, a mannequin dressed in a red-and-white striped shirt and hat standing in a hallway, patterns of colored lights shining against walls, the Mona Lisa with a photoshopped mustache, on a conference room wall.
Plans already are in the works for the next construction project — an interior remodeling to add offices and training rooms, set to start in 2020.
But first, there will be a retrenching, CEO Titus said, “to figure out who we are.”
“We want to keep growing the company so we can provide more opportunities for our employees,” he said. “If we are stagnant, the good people will be the first to leave.”
ETC is one of the 15 biggest employers in Dane County, according to the Wisconsin State Journal’s 2019 Book of Business.