Belden, a St. Louis maker of cable and networking equipment, scooped up the television equipment maker Grass Valley last year for $220 million. It has since invested $3 million to renovate the company’s labs, offices and conference rooms at its Sierra foothills location.
This sizable investment shows how the laser focus of one visionary entrepreneur can bring the world to the door of one sleepy hamlet, in this case the town of Grass Valley. That entrepreneur was Donald G.C. Hare, a man whose employees addressed him as “Dr. Hare” not because of his doctoral degree from Stanford University, but out of respect for his intellect.
Hare held 29 patents in the field of oil-and-gas exploration, according to “The Inscrutable Dr. Hare,” a biography written by his business associate Bob Robertson. During World War II, Hare was instrumental in developing an airborne detector that identified submerged submarines and gave the Allied forces an advantage in the seas.
In 1959, Hare would begin fashioning a tiny tech startup in Nevada City, known as the Grass Valley Group Inc., into a desirable brand in the television industry, said Scott Murray, the head of operations for Belden’s Grass Valley site.
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“You can go to South Africa and go to a television station and walk in and say you’re from Grass Valley, and they’ll say, ‘Whoa, great, we’ve got your stuff right over here.’ They don’t even realize it’s a city. It’s equipment to them,” said Murray, who has worked for Grass Valley off and on since 1984.
Murray recommends reading Robertson’s book (H&H Publications, 201 pages) to gain an understanding of Grass Valley’s importance. The biography describes a tech genius who predated Steve Jobs but whose personal struggles and professional drive seem eerily similar.
The Group, as it came to be known, barely eked out its payroll in the beginning by developing state-of-the-art tape drives, audio equipment and a few other products for television, radio and government use. Hare knew he needed a proprietary product that would give the Grass Valley Group a technological advantage.
To get ideas, he picked the brain of a former business colleague, and it was that friend, Harry Jacobs, who brought Hare his big break in 1964. Jacobs told him that ABC was going to broadcast the Republican National Convention from the Cow Palace in San Francisco but that its usual supplier couldn’t deliver the video equipment it needed.
The network wanted processing and distribution amplifiers. Could Grass Valley deliver them in time?
Hare responded: “Sure we can do it. But what the h--- is a processing amplifier?”
Jacobs explained that the equipment would restore and clean up the video signal so it would appear sharp in TV monitors. Hare got that call on a Monday. By Wednesday, he and his engineers had purchased a television, taken it apart, figured out the technology and developed a processing amplifier of their own. They invited Jacobs to come and have a look.
He arrived Friday and called ABC headquarters in New York to tell them Grass Valley had done it. That order – and its attendant notoriety – put The Group on the map. Eventually the company would go public and employ as many as 1,500 people in Nevada City.
Hare always demanded that his employees listen to customer needs and provide solutions as readily as they had when ABC first came calling. Grass Valley’s equipment now televises everything from the evening news to the FIFA Women’s World Cup, but Grass Valley employees still go on site to get customer feedback.
“When NASCAR comes to Sonoma, we get a big group of engineers to go out there and see the production because it helps them to develop what goes in the pipeline,” said Patti Leonard, who works on Grass Valley’s quality assurance team.
As Grass Valley Group grew in size, Hare spent fewer hours on the tinkering he so enjoyed. By 1973, he decided to sell the company to Tektronix, based in Beaverton, Ore. The company has changed hands a number of times since then, and while new owners have shrunk the team in the Sierra foothills – now at about 170 – none closed it. Hare died in 1984.
All told, the Grass Valley Group and its successors have amassed 20 Emmy Awards for technological advancements in broadcasting. And, since Nevada County gained a reputation for innovation, AJA Video Systems, Telestream and other companies – some founded by former Grass Valley employees – have successfully located their headquarters there.