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ETC: Community During Crisis

This article contains opinions and/or editorial content.

This article was edited to correct the title of David Lincecum

Many of you have never heard of ETC–Electronic Theatre Controls.  Others may know it as “That place that makes lights for Broadway”.  That’s true, but it’s so much more.  And during this time of crisis, ETC is showing that it’s not just a company; it’s a community, and a family.

ETC By the Numbers

  • Envisioned in 1975 by (then) 19-year-old UW student Fred Foster (1957-2019) and 3 colleagues
  • 2 manufacturing facilities–Middleton & Mazomanie
  • 6 offices in the US
  • 6 other offices world wide
  • 1200 employees world wide
  • 1000 in the US (primarily in Middleton & Mazomanie)
  • Annual revenues of approximately $370M
  • Privately held, but as of 2015:  33% employee-owned

Handling Crisis

You may question why the Lodi Valley Chronicle is featuring a company in Middleton.  For two reasons:  1) a significant number of Lodi residents (including me) work there, and 2) they are an example of how companies should behave in times of crisis.

A Culture of Communication

David Lincecum, VP of Marketing, explained the philosophy behind their actions:

ETC’s culture goes back to our founder, Fred Foster.  He always had a very open and honest dialogue with employees at all times.  There’s never been a big movement towards controlling information.  [In the current situation] we’ve been exercising that same philosophy of … actively communicating what’s going on.

From the very beginning, the executives at ETC took COVID-19 seriously.  CEO Dick Titus and COO Julie Cymbalak sent out company-wide e-mails explaining what decisions had been made, which decisions were likely to be made next, and what the range of possibilities were.  As the situation–and our required response to it–changed rapidly, Titus made sure to keep things in perspective.

These types of changes will require us to be flexible and patient with both government authorities and each other. So, let’s make sure we give each other a break, because we definitely deserve a break today. Thank you all for helping to make this as pleasant as possible with your great attitudes during this period of intense change.

What Has Changed

While many people are focusing on much-needed ventilators, ETC took a different approach. As soon as possible, ETC shifted part of their production line from assembling lighting equipment to making person protective equipment (PPE)–in this case face shields for healthcare workers.  This shift was something that could be done quickly and efficiently, using the equipment and skills within the company.

VP of Professional Services, Sarah Danke, explains how it started:

ETC has always worked to help our community in times of crisis, and now is no different. [On March 19th] St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, WI, contacted us asking if we could make 500 face shields for their employees who were in desperate need. That was all we needed to hear. In a week’s time, a few creative and industrious employees found a design for a face shield to protect medical personnel dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. We are now manufacturing and shipping this personal protective equipment.

With the closing of the factory for two weeks to do a deep cleaning, one section has remained open where a small group of employees–mostly managers–are assembling an estimated 3,000 or more units per day.  Those face shields are being shipped out and put into use as fast as they can be produced.

What Hasn’t Changed

While ETC has had to make decisions that are best for the business, they understand that part of that requires doing what’s best for the employees–the “ETC family”.   As soon as possible, they started shifting to a work-at-home footing where ever possible.  As this progressed, it became possible for more and more people.

As the business realities hit, work was reduced to 50% for all employees.  It was made clear, however, that not only would nobody lose their jobs, nobody would even see a reduction in their insurance benefits. If the ETC family is going to recover, it needs to remain healthy. As COO Julie Cymbalak states:

Our top priority has always been our employees.  The challenge for us is walking the tight rope to keep them safe and healthy whether at work and home as well as to try and preserve their jobs with the company in this unprecedented crisis.  To do this, we are looking at everything daily, sometimes hourly and making the best decisions we can with the information we have before us.

A Bright Spot in Uncertain Times

Under the supervision of compassionate and dedicated executives like Titus, Cymbalak, and Lincecum, and following the moral guidance of Susan Foster–Owner of ETC and “Mom” of the ETC family–ETC continues to find new ways to be a beacon of light for its community and its employees.   From a small garage in Madison to offices around the globe, they’ve never forgotten that you become a great company because of great people.  And you get great people by being good people.


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