Masters Week honored alumnus Kurtenbach encourages students to 'raise yourself up'




Masters Week honored alumnus Kurtenbach encourages students to 'raise yourself up'

Calendar Icon Nov 20, 2015      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed RSS

Daktronics founder Al Kurtenbach, who received a master's degree in electrical engineering from UNL, speaks to students in the ELEC 121 class during Masters Week in early November.
Daktronics founder Al Kurtenbach, who received a master's degree in electrical engineering from UNL, speaks to students in the ELEC 121 class during Masters Week in early November.
When Al Kurtenbach started his company in 1969, he knew little about running a business.

However, having engineering degrees prepared him for anything that was to come as he and a partner were struggling to make a success out of Daktronics, their fledgling electronics manufacturing company.

"In college, most of my work was engineering-oriented. I took only one business class – Personal Investing," Kurtenbach told an ELEC 121 class taught by Jerald Varner, associate professor and undergraduate advisor of electrical and computer engineering.

"My role was to put the business plan together and find some funding. I studied, went to the library, and read up on finance and on marketing and on organizational operations. What I learned was (having) a background in mathematics and engineering that it's really straightforward to read literature in other areas and raise yourself up."

The College of Engineering's honored guest for Alumni Masters Week in early November, Kurtenbach said being on campus reminded him of when all the hard work paid off when Daktronics finally broke through and found a niche.

What it required was the ability to change career paths, something Kurtenbach said was made easier because of his engineering background.

"We started out thinking we could build instrumentation for medical applications. However, the amount of money we were able to raise was not near enough to take a product to market in those markets. So we quickly decided to change gears," Kurtenbach said. "So we started looking for ideas we could crystallize that would provide service to smaller markets."

That led to what Kurtenbach called "very small, comfortable market" – designing and building voting systems for state legislatures – a market with only 99 potential clients in the United States.

"For about 10 years, that was our bread-and-butter product and we were able to generate enough cash to make payroll," Kurtenbach said. "In doing business, making payroll is very important. Otherwise, people don't tend to come back to work."

About that time, Kurtenbach met Warren Williamson, then South Dakota State University's wrestling coach, for a cup of coffee. Williamson had just returned from the 1970 NCAA championships and was unhappy with the scoreboards used in the arena.

"He said they were totally inappropriate for showing the information that the fans wanted and sometimes blocked the view of the matches on the mats," Kurtenbach said. "He wondered if we could do something about that."

Daktronics turned the project over to some of the college students it employed and came up with a three-sided pylon scoreboard that would sit beside the mat, not interfering with the action or a fan's sight lines. Kurtenbach was still teaching classes at South Dakota State in those days and employed college students to provide work opportunities and provide the company with a ready and willing work force it needed.

That commitment to young workers is still important to Daktronics, which Kurtenbach said currently employs about 250 students among its 2,500 workers worldwide.

"We completed the fabrication of the first 20 units by the first of February in 1971," Kurtenbach said. "We were asked to come down and provide scoreboards for the Nebraska state high school wrestling tournament. On my way to the class today, we passed by the Coliseum. That was a kind of special trip for me because I realized that is kind of where we got our start."

From the successes with the wrestling scoreboards, Daktronics has grown into the international leader for display boards – including gigantic scoreboards in Olympic, professional and college sports arenas, information boards in airports and train stations, billboards in New York's Times Square and roadside signs that provide travel information.

Now a major international corporation that holds a nearly 30 percent share of the international market, Daktronics wouldn't have likely succeeded if it weren't for its leaders having the flexibility to adjust their plans. It's a skill Kurtenbach said he owes to having an engineering degree.

"When I was advising students, mostly juniors and early seniors, they'd be concerned about whether they made the right choice to take engineering," Kurtenbach said. "I'd say 'just get your degree, complete your program. That's a measurable milestone that society values.'

"With an engineering degree, can decide what direction you want to go in. You can change careers as you go through life or change your areas of emphasis. You can find people that have engineering degrees in all walks of life."