An original thinker and visionary who paid little heed to conventional wisdom, Klaus Gueldenpfennig carved a solid niche in an industry dominated by far bigger players.
Even on its home Rochester-area turf, Redcom Laboratories Inc., the Victor company Gueldenpfennig founded with his wife, Brigitte, in 1978, is hardly a household name. That’s exactly the way Gueldenpfennig, who died Friday at 85, wanted it.
“If we stay under the radar, our competitors won’t know what we are doing,” Gueldenpfennig explained in a 2009 interview. “We are a niche provider, and once a niche gets big, every Tom, Dick and Harry moves in.”
Redcom’s core business is telecommunications equipment. Privately held and family owned, the firm has been headed for several years by Gueldenpfennig’s daughter Dinah Gueldenpfennig Weisberg. Brigitte Gueldenpfennig served as the company’s chief financial officer. Gueldenpfennig’s daughter and wife are, as he was, holders of advanced technical degrees.
The nuclear Gueldenpfennig family formed a tight unit that his friend, former Rochester Institute of Technology president Albert Simone, once described as “one of a kind.”
The firm he founded continues much in the mold Gueldenpfennig cast. Redcom is not a big company. Its staff fluctuates roughly between 150 and 200. But Redcom has an impressive client base of government, military and industry customers in this country and in far-flung corners of the globe.
The niche Gueldenpfennig staked out for the company—digital telecom systems—is not unique. Far larger firms compete in the field.
Gueldenpfennig focused Redcom’s research and product development on designing equipment that is not only functional but durable and scalable. When he and Brigitte started the company, he identified demand for such equipment as a niche largely unfilled by multibillion-dollar competitors.
Gueldenpfennig, who personally held scores of patents, insisted that Redcom equipment be interoperable as much as possible. Older products could be plugged into new ones and unlike five-year-old computers or cell phones did not become obsolete.
Such features helped the company make inroads with government and military customers. Unlike products like iPhones, which are designed to have a relatively short operative life requiring replacement every few years, Gueldenpfennig’s idea was to design and build products that as the erstwhile Timex watch ads had it, could take a licking and keep on ticking. In addition to military and government clients, some of the company’s most loyal customers have included operators of remote facilities in places like Arctic wastes and distant island nations.
Because Redcom equipment made communication with the larger world possible in such locations, “Klaus is treated like a god on some of those islands,” Simone once observed.
Gueldenpfennig applied his design skills and unique perspective to the company’s Victor headquarters as well. Like component panels of Buckminster Fuller’s Bucky Balls, Redcom’s Victor headquarters is built in a series of hexagonal pods, a design Gueldenpfennig chose to make expansion easier. A feature in which Gueldenpfennig took particular pride is a skylighted tropical greenhouse replete with a pump-operated waterfall that sits at its center that is an unusually lush employee break area. It also serves as a humidifier to keep down static electricity in the electronics assembly area.
While perhaps not as widely known as some area entrepreneurs, Gueldenpfennig was a recipient of local honors including the Herbert W. Vanden Brul Entrepreneurial Award in 1990 and a 1992 accolade as inventor of the year from the Rochester Intellectual Property Association.
Gueldenpfennig was born and grew up in wartime and post-World War II Germany. His parents, Otto and Gerda Gueldenpfennig, were physical therapists. Gueldenpfennig and Brigitte, also a native German, met as teenagers in Berlin when they collided with each other on a subway. Fault for the collision, for which each claimed to blame the other, remained a subject for mock disagreement between them long into their 58-year marriage.
After earning a B.S in telecommunications and electrical engineering in 1961 at Berlin’s Beuth University of Applied Sciences, then called Technische Fachhochschule Gauss, Gueldenpfennig first worked for the telecommunications firm Deutsche Telephonwerke A.G. & Co KG. and later for the radio and television company AEG Telefunken.
Brigitte and the infant Dinah remained in Berlin where Brigitte was finishing up a college degree, while Telefunken had stationed Guldenpfennig several hours away in a small town near Stuttgart. Brigitte, who swore that she would not live “where there were chickens walking in the street,” had no interest in making that town her home.
When a friend of Gueldenpfennig’s told him about an opportunity to land a job at Telefunken’s U.S. subsidiary in New York City, Gueldenpfennig was uncertain about relocating to a foreign country. But when his wife was adamant, he relented. The family relocated, taking an apartment in Queens.
Finding a daily subway commute to Manhattan particularly distasteful, Gueldenpfennig didn’t like the U.S. job. He started looking for a different position and ultimately landed a job with General Dynamics’ Stromberg-Carlson unit in Rochester.
When General Dynamics decided to shut down the Rochester unit, the company offered Gueldenpfennig a job in Florida. He turned it down; instead, along with his wife, foundinghe founded Redcom. The company at first was modestly located in shopping center office. Brigitte’s salary from a job at a bank and money Gueldenpfennig was able to bring from occasional consulting fees helped keep the company going. As Redcom developed products and hired staff, the firm moved first to larger quarters in Fairport and in 1986 to its present location in Victor.
While Gueldenpfennig was steering the growing Redcom, he continued his education, earning an M.S. in electrical engineering in 1974 and an MBA in 1997 from RIT. Brigitte and Dinah Gueldenpfennig are also RIT alumna.
The Gueldenpfennig family has been a benefactor to RIT, donating in multiple years. Gueldenpfennig, who helped the school start a telecommunications program, served as an RIT trustee from 1992 to 2006, when he was granted the title of emeritus trustee. In 1988, the school named Gueldenpfennig and his wife as distinguished alumnae.
In 2000, Redcom sued a large competitor, alleging patent infringement. By the time Redcom sued, the patents had expired, but Redcom maintained violations took place while they were still in force. Gueldenpfennig decided to pursue the case because he saw the competitor, as it was portrayed in the company’s court complaint, as a bully that felt free to take advantage of smaller, less deep pocketed competitors like Redcom.
Redcom won favorable rulings without ever having gone to trial five years after the case was filed. The parties settled the case in 2006, striking a confidential agreement that Gueldenpfennig later conceded he saw as unsatisfying,
“When David takes on Goliath, the one near-certainty is that it will become a war of attrition (as) this did. I think Klaus did well to stay the course as long as he did and to achieve an acceptable result,” Redcom’s lawyer in the case, former Harris Beach PLLC litigator Paul Yesawich, later said of the outcome.
Gueldenpfennig continued to lead Redcom until 2017, when his daughter, who started at the company as in intern in 1986 and progressed through positions in engineering and management, became CEO after assuming Redcom’s presidency earlier in the year.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Gueldenpfennig is survived by his son-in-law, John Weisberg; a sister, Doris Friedrich; and brother-in-law Lothar Friedrich and the Friedrichs’ daughters, Petra and Heike.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.