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Grass Valley goes back to the future

Grass Valley has gone through several changes of ownership in the past decade or two, but it is once more an independent company -- with a veteran name at its helm. Tim Thorsteinson departed as president and CEO in 2001. Now he is back, in the same role: David Fox caught up with him at IBC.

Grass Valley has gone through several changes of ownership in the past decade or two, but it is once more an independent company — with a veteran name at its helm. Tim Thorsteinson departed as president and CEO in 2001. Now he is back, in the same role: David Fox caught up with him at IBC.

For someone who grew up an hour from Grass Valley, it is most definitely a return home: “For most of us, the business is not just a business. I’m very glad to be back. We’ve got supportive ownership (I’ve run this and Harris under eight different owners), which makes life a lot easier,” he says.

After his first stint at Grass, he was also president/CEO of Leitch, then president of the Broadcast Communications division of Harris Corporation (after Harris bought Leitch in 2005). Before rejoining Grass Valley he was also president/CEO of Enablence Technologies.

Thorsteinson has made a career out of being adaptable, a quality shared by Grass Valley. As he points out, there are very few companies in the technology sector that have been around 52 years. “Virtually every technology transformation the industry has seen, we’ve been a part of.”

Has there been much change since 2001? “It’s become a much more global business than it was when I was first at Grass Valley.” For example, on one day at IBC, there were customers from 72 different countries with demonstrations being done in many languages.

 “It’s a great business from that perspective. Very interesting.” A lot of its customers are now talking about second screen applications, social media and 4K, and Grass had a good IBC, with more than 300 customer appointments — all of whom had budgets to spend. Indeed, he has noticed a marked improvement in the broadcast market recently. “It’s stronger than it was a couple of years ago, around the world.”

However, any investment is happening in a very different broadcasting environment to when he was at Grass first. “As appointment TV has gone away, the consumption of content has changed so much. Where people are investing is live sports and that’s good for us, certainly half of our business if you count OB vans.” Beyond sports, its biggest focus is news, where its software-based workflow systems are winning orders from the likes of CNBC.

Over the 12 years while he was away, Grass has transitioned from being “mostly a hardware company to delivering most of our products in software. It means customers can keep the same essential system and just upgrade underlying hardware and software.” This move has been driven by broadcasters, who increasingly demand standard hardware. It suits him as it means other hardware suppliers provide some of the support, “so it’s not us on the hook for their hard drive replacement.”

Harnessing the power of graphical processors has been a major aspect of making the most of IT, and Grass is using GPUs to do live work for its new GV Director nonlinear production system. “As the processing power increases, so will use of that technology,” he says.

However, as processing power rises, broadcaster demands for higher quality have increased even faster. “4K is not easy. If you’d asked me at NAB about 4K, I would have said it was far off, but today it seems a lot more pressing.”
Because Grass is already doing a total refresh of its technology platforms, such as having moved to CMOS from CCDs for its cameras, it will be able to move to 4K “pretty quickly. We will show some things at NAB,” he says.

“Timing is really important. Ultimately everyone will do 4K, but whether it will be a year from now or five years, we can’t say.” Sports production, in particular, is seeing great interest in 4K, and he sees the Tokyo Olympics of 2020 really pushing the technical boundaries.

It already does 4K on its Edius nonlinear editor, and cameras will probably be next. “4K super slo-mo will be a really interesting prospect,” although it will mean surmounting “a complex set of problems,” he adds.

Switcher platforms
Thorsteinson likes to think of Grass as being “in the business of solving our customer’s challenges. We’re very technology focused. I think we’re really a bridge between traditional technology and the future.”

However, one of his key aims is rebuilding on its past strengths. Grass intends to bring out three new switcher platforms in the next year, mainly aimed at new markets, or, to be more accurate, returning to some markets it used to be in. “We have nothing at the low end — 1M/E switchers and educational institutions — and there is a big market down there. There are a lot of people who want to switch video on the same technology as the big guys. We have a good brand in that space and we want to make the most of it.”

There will also be a new server and transmission platform soon, and new infrastructure products (routing, conversion and distribution applications). “We’d like to be in a position where people can buy pretty much anything they want from us,” he says. “Our biggest growth will come from integrators and distributors around the world. That’s a big part of our business that we think has been neglected.”

Now, other than in Australia, the company is out of the integration business, but it has taken a year to convince systems integrators, its ‘natural partners’, that it is no longer in competition with them. “We are now doing 35% of our business indirectly. We hope to get it to 50%.”

Grass has already done well since his return in January. The second quarter, to the end of June, was its biggest ever. “We’re profitable now, and expect to remain so. There was a significant amount of restructuring to be done. We’re now adding people, particularly engineers. Things are never stable, but we’re done cutting,” he states.

Grass now has about 900 employees, more than a quarter of whom are engineers developing products (on which it spends $45m a year), with a similar number doing support.

Some of its engineers have been with the company for more than 25 years, but it has a lot of new entrants too, although he believes the move to more IT-based infrastructures will take another three to five years. “I get a good vibe out of the business. I ran a fibre optics company for a couple of years. That is a tough industry. Compared to some other technology companies, this is nice,” he says.