A Little Luck, A Lot of Work:
Gary Kuck '76
|Gary Kuck, '76
Photo by Ashley Washburn
Company: Centurion Wireless Technologies
Number of Employees: 1,300 in Lincoln, hundreds more in other locations
Offices: Lincoln, China, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Sweden, Taiwan and the United Kingdom Distinction: At one point, Centurion made approximately 60 percent of the world’s supply of antennas for portable handheld devices.
Awards: Kuck won the Corporate Leadership Award in 1998 from the UNL College of Business Administration and the Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 1993 from the UNL Center for Productivity, among others.
Chances are if you’ve owned a cellular phone or walkietalkie, Centurion made the antenna. Gary Kuck and his wife, Susan, started the company in 1978. For the next 27 years, Centurion was the world’s leading manufacturer in original equipment antennas and battery packs for professional two-way radios and wireless devices. Its customer base included Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, Panasonic and Mitsubishi. In April 2005, Kuck decided to sell Centurion to Laird Technologies. Now retired, Kuck is working on his next venture—Kuck Motorsports, a showcase of his personal collection of nearly 70 vintage automobiles.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
I always had a burning desire to be one. I really don’t know why. … I started my own company because I didn’t have a job. I was working for Hy-Gain Electronics and they got into trouble financially at the time I was doing international business for them. When I started Centurion, my big war chest was $3,870 in American Express bills from my old company that hadn’t been reimbursed.
I have a funny story about trying to get customers. Early on, we had a customer come by to see us. It was very quiet because business was still slow, so my wife was pretending to be the receptionist. While I was talking to the customer on the other side of the cube wall, I overheard Susan taking three calls from big-name companies. I almost couldn’t wait for the customer to leave. Well, it turns out that nobody had called! My wife had called her sister and told her to call every 10 minutes during my meeting so Susan could pretend to be talking to other companies and make us look credible.
How did you turn a local company into
an international one?
It seems strange now but in the 1970s, very few Midwesterners did international business. My first customer was a Japanese firm. The Tokyo police force wanted an antenna that was more durable than those black flexible ones that were popular at the time. They asked me to source some products for them. I couldn’t find anyone to make it so I found some job shops and we made the products ourselves. My first order of 2,000 antennas took one month to make. By the end, we were building that every minute. … Of course you have aspirations of being successful, but the desire isn’t as high in the beginning as it becomes over the years.
How did you adapt to changes in your industry?
The real leg up I had from day one is that I understood the international marketplace. I didn’t have a fear of doing international business. Business is a common language; it breaks down barriers.
What was the best business advice you received?
Establish your presence in the Far East, which we did in the early ’90s. Of course, many of the people giving the advice had never done it. Trying to understand business in Shanghai in the early ’90s was a rude awakening. … The government didn’t really know how to end communism yet.
Many of the workers had wonderful technical skills but they were 1) lacking experience, 2) lacking an understanding of business as a whole, and 3) never wanted to make a decision. It was a cultural thing.
Why did you sell Centurion?
We were filing an S-1 with the SEC to go public. Initially we were planning to go public in late 2000 but then the tech market crashed and all the technical companies got drug in with them. It just wasn’t a good time to become a public company. In early 2004 we filed the S-1 again. A company from London found out and was bound and determined to buy us rather than let us go public. From our standpoint, they (Laird Technologies) made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.
I decided not to stay on even though I was the founder. Anytime you have an existing company, they want to bring in their own people and mentality. I can’t complain. Laird did very, very well, and my wife and I did very, very well.
Are you enjoying retirement?
People say, ‘You’re retired from a multimillion-dollar company— what do you do now?’ I don’t know where the time goes, but I’m busy. I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m sitting at home watching Oprah.