Aelred J. Kurtenbach

Chairman Emeritus and Co-Founder
Daktronics Inc.
PhD ’68 (Electrical Engineering)

For his exceptional contributions as an entrepreneur in visual communication systems, and for his extraordinary support of education.

A Family Decision

Aelred Kurtenbach received his first training in electronics from the military. “I served time in the Air Force before I went to college and worked as a radar technician,” he says. “I came to like electronics, learned a little bit about the engineering profession, and decided that would be a good avenue for life.”

When he left the service, Kurtenbach went to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology to study electrical engineering, but a summer job soon changed his mind about immediately joining the workforce. “I worked for General Electric during the summer between my junior and senior years of college and got a chance to see engineers in practice,” he says. “I noticed that those who had master’s degrees had a leg up on those who didn’t.” After receiving his BS, he returned to school at the University of Nebraska for his master’s degree.

Kurtenbach began working in education to benefit his family. “After I finished at Nebraska, I initially planned on going into industry,” he says. “My wife and I had one child and were expecting a second, and we thought they should know their grandparents a little better.” They decided to rejoin their family in South Dakota, but Kurtenbach’s plans of working in industry had to be set aside. “The job that was available at the time was to work as an instructor at South Dakota State University.”

The chance opportunity to teach changed Kurtenbach’s life. “I taught for three years, and decided that if I was going to be in education, I needed to get a doctoral degree, so I conned my wife into letting me do that,” Kurtenbach laughs. He took a leave of absence from South Dakota State and came to Purdue. “It was definitely a family decision. We drove to Indiana with our station wagon and a U-Haul trailer. The most important consideration really was to get the family properly situated.”

The Go-Go Years

Kurtenbach got the idea of opening his own business while working on his doctorate at Purdue. “While I was there, I took an undergraduate class in personal finance which touched on investing and evaluating personal statements,” explains Kurtenbach. “A number of graduate students from electrical engineering took the class, and there was a lot of discussion about entrepreneurs among the students at Purdue.”

After graduation, Kurtenbach returned to teaching and, shortly after, founded Daktronics. “The ’60s were what we were calling the go-go years,” he says. “There was a lot happening in the world of electronics, a lot of change taking place. When I got back to Brookings, I met a gentleman named Duane Sander, a colleague from South Dakota State University. We became friends and decided to start a company.

“We started looking for areas where we had sufficient funds to bring a product to market,” he continues. “There were two areas: one was scoreboards for sports, in the area of wrestling in particular, and the other was developing voting systems for state legislatures.”

Daktronics began producing voting systems and quickly expanded. “It was a very small market,” he says. “During the ’70s we sold a number of those voting systems to various state legislatures, which provided cash flow for expanding our scoreboard product line. By the end of the ’70s, we had scoreboards for almost every sport. We then started building marquees for displays in front of businesses for commercial applications.”

Today Daktronics designs, manufactures, markets, and services large computer-programmable displays (primarily scoreboards and large-screen video systems) on a global basis. Their offices span not only the U.S. but also the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and China. Some of Daktronics’ more famous works consist of the Coca-Cola Spectacular in Times Square, signs for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and, of course, several scoreboards for Kurtenbach’s alma mater, Purdue, including the four-sided custom video display in Mackey Arena.

The Secret of His Success

Throughout Daktronics’ growth, Kurtenbach has maintained his dedication to education, serving on the Brookings School Board for 12 years and on the South Dakota Board of Regents from 1984 to 1986. In addition, Daktronics currently employs more than 600 college students.

Recently Kurtenbach returned to Purdue as part of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s TechMakers lecture series, where he credited his success to his willingness to take risks. “People in society tend to stay in their comfort zone,” explains Kurtenbach, “and if somebody moves out of their comfort zone and is not totally successful, they tend_to be criticized by society.”

Kurtenbach says that for engineers to be successful entrepreneurs, they need to move outside of their comfort zone: “Many engineers say, ‘Well, I’m trained as an engineer; I don’t know anything about how to make a presentation,’ and in essence they hide behind this stigma in society. In order for us to expand, we needed technically competent people who were willing to go out and be exposed, to get away from their desk, so to speak.

“There are all kinds of opportunities for the graduating engineer,” he continues. “People should not limit their expectations. They should look at the world as a broad entity to live in and enjoy, and keep trying new things, try to utilize all their talents.”

2002–03 Interim Dean of Engineering, South Dakota State University
2001 Outstanding Electrical Engineer, Purdue
2000 Outstanding Electrical Engineer, Purdue
1994 South Dakota Executive of the Year, University of South Dakota School of Business
South Dakotan of the Year, University of South Dakota School of Business
Entrepreneurial Success of the Year, Small Business Administration for South Dakota
1992 Inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame
1990 SDSU Distinguished Engineer Award
1984–86 Member, South Dakota Board of Regents
1968 Chairman and Co-Founder, Daktronics Inc.
1968– Professor, South Dakota State University

BSEE ’61, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
MSEE ’62, University of Nebraska
PhD ’68, Purdue University