LBA Celebrates 50 Years – From 1963 to 2013: LBA Group’s Founder and CEO Reflects on the First 50 Years
LBA Group, Inc. started as Lawrence Behr Associates, Inc. in 1963, providing RF consulting and maintenance services to local radio broadcasters. Since those early days, LBA has added LBA Technology, Inc., the manufacturing unit of the company and most recently LBA University, Inc., providing online and on-site safety training.
LBA Group, Inc. started as Lawrence Behr Associates, Inc. in 1963, providing broadcast station RF consulting and maintenance services to a North Carolina regional clientele. Since those early days, LBA has added LBA Technology, Inc., the manufacturing unit of the company and most recently LBA University, Inc., providing online and on-site safety training. Lawrence Behr Associates services today are oriented to wireless industry infrastructure support and RF risk management. All the companies now serve a worldwide clientele.
Company founder Lawrence Behr recently sat down and reminisced about the path he and LBA have taken since the official beginnings of his company in 1963. A young Lawrence Behr was destined to launch what became a global authority on various radio frequency (RF) issues and a provider of numerous technical services and products. The LBA story actually begins in Cuba in 1956. Behr’s Hispanic father sent him there to further his education. The plan didn’t fully materialize as dictator Fidel Castro moved into power, but while Behr was in Cuba he made the acquaintance of the commander of a Cuban Navy electronics group.
“He was a radio Ham and I got absolutely captivated by radio, which had not really occurred to me before that.”
It was at this point where Behr got the “bug”. He returned to the United States and began immersing himself in the world of radio and all things RF. At age 14 he became the youngest person ever to hold the highest level license the Federal Communications Commission offered for broadcast engineers, the First Class Radio Telephone Operator’s license. Many called it the First Phone back then.
“It was unique enough that the engineer in charge of the Norfolk field office where I had to sit for the examination wasn’t sure he could license me at 14 years old, but we worked through that and that’s what brought me to the actual profession.”
It was at this time that he also obtained his amateur radio “ham’ license. He remains an active ham with an Extra Class license and call sign K4JRZ.
Behr’s first big break came at age 15 when East Carolina University in Greenville, NC hired him to be the chief engineer at WWWS, the University’s new 24-hour FM radio station. This job presented opportunities to attend industry conferences in great cities like New York. He had to travel by train since he was not old enough to drive. As Behr looks back on it, he describes it as kind of bizarre. Even while he was in high school he audited a number of college courses at East Carolina University (then East Carolina College). These included many physics, science and math courses. He was also getting involved with other local radio stations.
“The chief engineer at one of the stations was Bill Covington who later went on to a very important engineering position with Voice of America. Bill mentored me very much and recommended me around and soon I found that I had a whole coterie of radio stations in Eastern Carolina that were calling on me to make adjustments and check antennas and one thing and another.”
Behr continued his studies at East Carolina and also began taking some classes at North Carolina State University. While still maintaining his budding career in radio broadcast technology and going to school, Behr partnered with good friend Jasper Tripp who was working toward a civil engineering degree at North Carolina State University. The two launched a fried chicken business in Raleigh, NC called The Drumstick.
“We chopped up and cooked more chicken than I ever want to face again in my life, but at the same time, I got involved in the Raleigh broadcast scene and got to know many of the broadcasters there, and learned a lot about running a business, to boot.”
He and Tripp later sold the fried chicken business, but in that process Behr made the acquaintance of a young attorney in Greenville who was just setting up his practice. His name was Jim Vosburgh. He later became a prominent attorney and a judge.
“Jim talked me into formalizing my business in the broadcast/technology area. He helped me with the incorporation and I rented a little office right above his. I was on my way.”
This was 1963 and it marked the formal beginning of Lawrence Behr Associates, Inc. Today this company is still the technical consultancy arm of LBA Group, Inc.
That early LBA office was simple but rustic and full of charm. It’s called the Skinner Building and it still stands across from the Pitt County, NC Courthouse. The structure is one of the oldest buildings in Greenville and holds the distinction of being on the national register of historic places.
“I started up there with one room, eventually occupying half of the building before I moved on to other places. It’s a lovely old antebellum building.”
Those early years before and immediately following the formalizing of his business in 1963 brought a plethora of experiences that are the building blocks and foundation of what LBA is today. Behr credits a series of good breaks early in his business life. One of those breaks came when a young Lawrence Behr met a colorful former pilot in the Royal Air Force who had moved to the United States and started a radio consulting firm in Washington, DC. Behr met John Battison at a gathering of consultants in Washington. The two hit it off immediately and quickly found they had similar interests and ways of thinking. Among Battison’s many accomplishment was founding the Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE). Behr also became a founding SBE member, but this is not the most significant part of the story. Battison had a project to build 500 watt 2 tower directional WHVL-AM in Hendersonville, North Carolina and he invited Behr to lead the project.
“I had never actually built a radio station much less one 300 miles away but somehow John talked me into doing it. I went over, repeated trips back and forth; we got the radio station built.”
The project did not come without some challenges, including a flood that wiped out the facility in the middle of the build-out. The experience of building a radio station from the ground up introduced Behr to a number of technology areas that have become important parts of LBA’s business over the years. Following the WHVL construction experience, Behr met another gentleman who was president of a consulting and manufacturing firm based in Rockville Maryland. The firm served the broadcast and military sectors. John Mulaney persuaded Behr to leave Greenville and bring all of his clients with him.
“He took me under his wing and I spent the next about seven years working with John Mulaney Associates and Multronics and that was a real eye opener. It brought me into all sorts of military communications systems.”
As these years passed Behr focused heavily on the military business that Multronics was involved in while business from the stable of clients he brought continued growing. Mulaney eventually sold the company. Behr decided to go his own way and took his original client base back to Greenville. While he was working for Multronics in Rockville, he was appointed project manager for the Multronics’ NORD antenna systems that were being deployed in the Pacific to provide low frequency communications for the Polaris subs. These were huge low frequency antenna systems. Behr admits it was quite an exotic experience.
“While I was out in Hawaii working on the NORD System I even had the opportunity to have my own Navy ship for two weeks. That’s pretty good when you’re like about 24 years old. I was privileged to sit in the skipper’s chair when he wasn’t on the bridge because I was the civilian commander of the mission to measure antenna performance at sea.”
Behr has racked up a number of unique accomplishments and unforgettable experiences over the years, including building a multiple tower directional AM station in Brainerd Minnesota in the middle of the winter. He recalls temperatures being 20 to 40 below zero. At the time, the FCC required all experimental work and test work to be carried out between midnight and 6 AM.
“It was so cold that the trees would actually explode in the cold and you’d be out working at the station and you’d hear what sounded like rifle shots all around you. There were just trees bursting in the cold. That was an interesting project.”
Behr has worked on some of the largest antenna systems in the country. At one point, he was field project manager for the updating of the very powerful two mile long US Navy Lake Kickapoo Spacetrack antenna. He also invented and patented antennas for US Navy Blue Eagle flying command posts used in Vietnam through work with Lockheed and others.
“We had a number of the planes flying in Vietnam and other places for intelligence and psychological warfare and those became my babies.”
Behr holds a number of other patents on technical devices, antennas and antenna systems. For decades Behr’s company has been on the cutting edge of medium wave broadcast systems. This has led to several opportunities to present issues in front of the Federal Communications Commission.
“That was a very substantial part of our business for years as we worked on behalf of clients to present cases to the FCC.”
Being the perpetual entrepreneur, Behr was also founder and part owner of two television stations. He designed one that was among the most powerful TV stations ever built in the United States. The 10 million watt station was in San Antonio, Texas. He has also been involved with several other television network deployments and development projects.
As time moved on, a technology called cellular began to emerge. Behr already had experience with the mobile communications sector before it was called cellular. His days of working with Multronics gave him the experience of working with Motorola as they petitioned the FCC to allocate frequency spectrum from television to mobile services. This spectrum was later allocated for cellular communications use. Behr’s company has certainly evolved over its 50 year history. He recalls that in the early 1970’s when he returned to Greenville from his experience with Multronics in the Washington, DC area, he was focused on making his company a southeastern regional firm. LBA now serves customers worldwide. Just recently an LBA field rep was conducting work on a project in Oman.
LBA has not only been in front of technology with the products and service it offers, but also in how those products and services are delivered. Behr is a licensed pilot and for many years the company utilized its own airplanes to deploy personnel. At one point there were a couple of company pilots on staff. LBA was one of the first companies in Greenville to have a computer. The machine would be very archaic by today’s standards but it was the wonder of the day at the time.
“One of our senior employees is Kathryn Tesh and I hired Kathryn out of the East Carolina University’s Computer Science program to come and run the computer for us. It took somebody fulltime to run it in those days. She was advised against that because East Carolina didn’t see any future in small computers. At the time, ECU felt that if it wasn’t an IBM filling several rooms, you were wasting your time and your talents.”
Kathryn made the decision to join LBA and has been a key contributor to many of the company’s milestones over the years.
“We even let the administration at ECU use our computer once because things they wanted to do they couldn’t do on the big one. We kind of consider ourselves rightfully as pioneers.”
Building on its computer expertise, LBA began a pioneering presence on the internet. It set up its website http://lbagroup.com/, one of the first companies to do so, in 1996. It has grown and adapted to become a product technology showplace and marketing tool for all the LBA Group companies.
Early on, it developed a presence in the “blog sphere” at https://lbagroup.com/blog/ where thousands of visitors access hundreds of technical and informational articles each month. To further inform and engage its client base and other interested parties, the LBA companies maintain strong social media positions on Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, and other platforms. As LBA reached the mid-70’s the company was being asked to design and manufacture various technical solutions for antenna systems. The company began doing a high volume of this kind of work, so much so that it evolved into a business of its own. That’s when Behr created LBA Technology, Inc. This unit of the company has built specialized antenna systems principally for AM broadcast stations. This has resulted in LBA contributing to some of the more powerful broadcast stations in other parts of the world.
LBA Technology has continued to grow and evolve and not only still designs and manufactures broadcast diplexers, ATU’s and other antenna equipment, but also manufactures proprietary RF shielded test enclosures, portable lightning masts, cell/AM collocation systems, and cell tower detuning systems. It is also the exclusive North and South American distributor of Trewmac TE3000/1 RF network analyzers and COMMconnect VSWR and power meters; and distributes vacuum capacitors, shielding materials and lightning dissipaters from other manufacturers.
In the later 1980’s, LBA Technology entered the Latin American market with custom antenna equipment for AM broadcast. CEO Behr was a frequent speaker to Latino professional organizations. LBA continues today to take an active part in the region through a corps of representatives in key countries. In the early 1990s, following the Gulf War, the Kuwaiti government commissioned LBA Technology to manufacture fly away antenna systems for their AM broadcast infrastructure. They wanted to be able to set up AM communications immediately after removing Iraq from the country. The Kuwaiti government sent people to LBA’s Greenville headquarters to train on how to set up the equipment.
“On the consulting side they also retained us to do a survey of what was left of their communications after the Iraqis literally hauled much it the way in the back of trucks. That was a project that I went over there on and that we backed up here with all sorts of other services.”
The year following this project Behr was invited to a special dinner hosted by the Kuwaitis at the National Association of Broadcasters meeting. LBA was among about 20 others presented with the Kuwaiti Medal of Freedom for its contributions to helping the country get back up and running following the war.
“That was one of the most interesting things that I’ve done. The damage the Iraqi’s did to the Kuwaiti broadcast stations was unbelievable!”
As the demand for technical services related to mobile communications grew, so did LBA. This was a sector that Behr says seemed orphaned in the beginning. Many people didn’t see a great future in cellular as the 1980’s rolled around, but as Behr and his company had done many times before, LBA positioned itself as a resource even before the cellular technology emerged. A large television group that was also owned by a newspaper wanted to explore this infant technology and LBA was given the green light to investigate it for them. Subsequently, LBA did technical and marketing research in over 50 cities to prepare and file cellular applications for the group. The company worked very closely with Motorola which was really pushing the technology at that time.
“AT&T was trying to make a complete monopoly out of it but Motorola was promoting it on the private side. We ended up doing a great many cellular applications all around the country and advising on how these facilities might be set up and pursuing the effort in front of the Federal Communications Commission.”
This early cellular work formed the basis for what Lawrence Behr Associates, Inc. does today. This is the technology consulting unit of Behr’s company which also provides project management and deployment services to the wireless industry. In past years, it has acquired and handled many implementation details for hundreds of cell tower sites for AT&T, Sprint, and others. Just recently, LBA successfully met the challenge of making FCC filings, acquiring sites, signing customers, and providing equipment, installation and commissioning for over 20 microwave paths in seven states – in under six months. A follow-on current project is extending similar facilities to several South Pacific islands.
The company was founded in 1963 as Lawrence Behr Associates, Inc. LBA Technology, Inc. was formed in 1975 and in 2012 yet another unit was added to the LBA Group, Inc. umbrella after the company had been called upon on several occasions to provide training on radio frequency safety. This is certainly an area in which the company has a substantial amount of expertise. Since the first Federal Communications Commission rules on RF safety in 1977, Lawrence Behr Associates worked with broadcasting clients, and later, with wireless industry companies to assure compliance with regulatory standards. It provided RF safety expertise in assisting the siting of new wireless towers, industrial heaters, and even in the oil patch. LBA University, Inc. was created to offer onsite and online training and the first course offered was on RF safety. Course offerings have since been expanded to include a number of different types of RF safety, depending on the needs of the client. LBA University also offers other general safety training courses in Global Harmonization System (GHS) and Outdoor Safety just to name a few.
“It’s been very successful and we’ve trained several thousand people in the last year or so and gotten an excellent reputation and that group is rolling right along now.”
There have been some bumps in the road along the way and one of those came from Mother Nature in 1999. That’s when Eastern North Carolina endured Hurricane Floyd, the single greatest disaster in North Carolina history, which brought torrential rainfall on the heels of another rain drenching hurricane just weeks before. The rains caused widespread flooding over a period of several weeks. Nearly every river basin in the eastern part of North Carolina exceeded 500-year flood levels.
“We had three buildings in one part of Greenville that were occupied by LBA Technology and they were under 9 feet of water. That completely wiped out that operation. Our main offices are supposedly above the 500 year floodplain, yet we had we had about 18 inches of water in them.”
Company employees could not travel from one side of the Tar River to the other much less to any of LBA’s facilities. LBA personnel were literally making a mile and a half trip by canoe to get to the company’s main offices. Current computer backups and other materials that had escaped the water were retrieved by making several trips in and out on a canoe.
“We ended up setting up in a local hotel and basically taking over a floor and using that for almost two, maybe three months while our main offices were recreated and we could finally get back in here. It was a real touch and go situation.”
The flood took out all of the company’s file archives; so much of the company’s history with customers was wiped out. One flooded LBA building housed a virtual museum of equipment from the 1950’s and the 1960’s which was going to be donated to a broadcasting museum. All of this vintage equipment was lost. The good news was that much of LBA’s current computer backups were saved. The period following the 1999 flood was challenging, but using technology, determination and perseverance the company survived. Behr credits quick action by LBA staff members to save critical materials using nearly any means possible.
Time moves on, technology continues to evolve and so does LBA. Behr believes that the key to staying ahead of technology and remaining relevant and current is to maintain quality communications with clients. An example of this is LBA’s recent rollout of its 4G LTE Interference Rapid Response Team. Another example is its increasing involvement with the railroad industry where its services are employed to resolve positive train control (PTC) interference and communications issues, and to facilitate the collocation of other broadcast and wireless facilities involving rights-of-way. LBA believes that it is important to anticipate clients’ needs for services before they know they need them. Thus, Behr also makes every effort to keep his company involved in the industries it serves by attending and presenting at webinars, conferences and seminars where appropriate.
“We’ve recently started changing some of the services that we’re offering to the wireless carriers and the tower companies to provide solutions to challenges related to the continued rollout of LTE. There are some pain points for them and we’re aware of those. We’ve had very good acceptance of some of the new services that we’ve introduced to help solve some of those problems.”
Behr’s creative mind and entrepreneurial spirit is at the heart of LBA’s success over the past 50 years. Many small businesses don’t ever come close to reaching that 50 year mark. There are some important lessons to be learned from Behr’s experience.
“I think flexibility is a key to long-term success. We’ve essentially reinvented our business several times on the fly. You have to understand the markets that you’re attempting to the move into and to service. Awareness is very important too. You must know what’s going on professionally and in the marketplace around you as well as knowing what’s going on in your organization. We have some very good people who really function quite autonomously and very effectively, but I still find my role, is in good part, to just have a feel for what’s going on and not to direct heavily. I think that’s very important.”
LBA has been named a Top 50 Hispanic Business in North Carolina numerous times. The company has made the Inc. 5000 list and Mr. Behr holds the distinction of being an RCA Fellow and an SBE Fellow. Behr was named Small Business Leader of the Year – 2012 by the Greenville – Pitt County Chamber of Commerce, and is past president of the NC World Trade Association, Coastal Carolina, a director and treasurer of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, and served 12 years as a commissioner of the NC Agency for Public Telecommunications. He served 20 years as a director of professional certification body the International Association of Radio, Telecommunications and Electromagnetics (iNARTE).
LBA closed out its 50th anniversary year with sights set on the second 50 years. 2014 and beyond comes with a strong focus on RF risk management, which includes the concepts of RF safety, RF strategy and RF management. Safety, compatibility, interference and security are all critical as it becomes more challenging than ever to address RF issues. LBA also continues growing and improving its expert consulting services to the wireless industry in the areas of regulatory compliance and interference remediation. This is the focus of company units Lawrence Behr Associates, Inc. and LBA University, Inc.
“Today the focus more and more is on how we live with RF devices that are increasingly surrounding us, so that’s why we are putting our emphasis in this area of RF risk management.”
LBA Technology, Inc. continues expanding its current product offerings in areas such as professional RF test equipment, RF safety monitoring devices, commercial grade lightning protection and radio frequency shielding. To keep up with all of the conversations taking place at LBA on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/LBAGroup and https://www.facebook.com/LBAUniversity.