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ETC co-founder and CEO Fred Foster dies

February 9, 2019

Fred Foster, co-founder and CEO of Electronic Theatre Controls — a Middleton company whose products light venues from Madison to London to Abu Dhabi — died Friday.

Foster was 61. He had been fighting cancer since 2015.

A Madison native and nearly lifelong area resident, Foster was a student of renowned lighting designer Gilbert Hemsley Jr. at UW-Madison. Fred and brother Bill and friends Gary Bewick and Jim Bradley teamed up to start ETC in the basement of a Madison apartment in 1975.

Under Foster’s leadership, ETC has become one of the biggest worldwide providers of lighting fixtures and lighting control systems for entertainment and architectural markets, most of which are built at ETC’s big facilities in Middleton and Mazomanie. It is also one of the area’s largest employers — the two factories employ 910 people.

Worldwide, ETC has 1,300 employees, including sales and support offices in New York, Orlando, Hollywood, London, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong and Holzkirchen, Germany. The company had $345 million in revenue in 2018.

ETC has lighting installations from Disneyland to the Bronx Zoo, and from Radio City Music Hall to the Royal Festival Hall in London to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. In Madison, ETC lights Monona Terrace and the Overture Center.

The company’s Middleton headquarters, at 3031 Pleasant View Road, is a showpiece itself, with a lobby — known as Town Square — designed to look like Manhattan in the 1940s, featuring a lighted theater marquee and a company reception area and café fashioned after the classic Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks.”

Foster was known not just as a product innovator in his field but as a hands-on leader, pedaling an ice cream cart around ETC offices and handing out ice cream bars, and quietly helping employees with their personal needs.

He and his wife, Susan, founded two philanthropic organizations — to help performing groups and to assist with food and shelter needs. They also decided in 2016 to reward employees by giving them a 33 percent ownership stake in the company.

ETC president Dick Titus has been named interim CEO.

“We are deeply saddened by this loss. Fred leaves behind a legacy of a company that has impacted the lighting world in countless ways. We will continue to honor his spirit of innovation and community,” Titus said.

Mike Davis, Middleton city administrator, called ETC “a pillar of the Middleton and Wisconsin economy” and Foster a visionary leader.

“Fred was a hero of mine — a CEO who truly cared for his employees and even gifted a major portion of the company to them a couple years ago. He told me many times that he could have followed the trend of other major companies and sent jobs overseas to have a better bottom line, but Fred was not made that way. He kept the jobs here because he recognized quality work, and he wanted to keep it,” Davis said.

Foster’s wife and their children, Kate and James, are all ETC employees.

Plans for a memorial will be announced at a later date.

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