Profiles - A Light-Hearted Look at Industry Personalities

Fred Foster

CEO Electronic Theatre Controls (ETC)

No. 189 in a continuing series

Fred Foster

Caricatures by

David Lewis

Fred Foster, the 51-year-old CEO of ETC, grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, in the midwestern United States. One of three children to a law professor father and a mother who also worked in the university, he was, he says, a "university brat".

His love of Europe developed during a mind-broadening upbringing, travelling the continent with his parents as his father researched a book on the civil rights movement. His father wrote much of the enforcement code behind the US's Civil Rights Act of 1964 - the part that denied federal funds to authorities which refused to let black and white children go to the same school. Six months were spent living in Hampstead, London: "I was 11 and went to Fitzjohn's Primary School with all these people who had funny accents." He recalls an incident where he lost a fight after someone picked on him for his funny accent. "There are valuable things that a kid can learn by travelling. Americans especially tend to be isolated, and need to understand how varied things are. Within an hour in Europe you can be in different country - travel an hour in the US and, more often than not, you'll still be in the same State."

Back in the States, Fred got the theatre bug at school, at the age of 13: "I ran lights for a musical which simply involved turning circuit breakers on and off. I have no idea what the show was - I remember it was some terrible musical written for 13 year olds to perform!" He only took part because he had a "huge crush on the leading lady" -but was terrified of acting.

By the age of 17, he was directing plays in high school, having taken the place of the now-departed drama teacher. "This," he says, "was my one and only turn at acting. We performed The Fantastiks, which was - and still is - my favourite musical."  Having sold his car to the class clown at a knock down price to inveigle him into performing, there was still one part left which Fred took. Unfortunately, half way through, he forgot a line - "the longest 20 seconds of my life!" It put him off forever.

Having obtained a credit in stagecraft from his English teacher to graduate from high school, even though he'd not actually studied the course - his teacher apparently believed he almost knew enough about the subject to teach it - Fred began a lighting design degree course at the University of Wisconsin. He ended it by dropping out, having designed and sold a lighting control desk with his physicist brother Bill and two school friends. When he set up ETC, he was still working as a unionised stage hand.

Fred met his wife Susan when he was a production electrician on a show of hers at university, and "she hated me. It was a couple of years before I met her again, while working professionally at the theatre. We worked together and found that we could actually co-exist, so I asked her out for a drink - and the rest, as they say, is history."

Although he'd sailed boats on Lake Mendota, the largest of the four lakes near Madison, as an 11 year old in London Fred had been fascinated by pond yachting, when "old coots" would sail model steam ships round the lake in Kensington Gardens. Returning to London in 1998 to help run the UK office, his son wasn't in the least interested but he was reminded of how interested he'd been, and now owns a model yacht ready for racing whenever he gets to visit - four or five times a year. "It all gets unreasonably serious," he says, adding, "it also helps to keeps me out of the pub on the Sunday morning."

Asked to describe himself, Fred naturally starts to talk about himself in terms of his baby, ETC. "I perceive myself as less autocratic than I actually am," he says, having perhaps forgotten about his ‘white glove' test where he goes round to people's desks and leaves post-it notes if they need dusting or tidying. "I think that the success of ETC is that we can draw the best and brightest people and keep them. I've been ‘fired' several times by my management colleagues, who have had the foresight to tell me when I need to step aside. I used to think I was the best but over the course of the 30 years I've been doing this, it's been proven time again that there are people even better at it - I can sit back and focus on the products and being the public face of ETC." He may be referring to himself when he admits: "Of course, we all know that the best people are not always the easiest to work with."

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