One day in 1969, Pasadena engineer Melvin Matthews bought his first color television set and eagerly plugged it in.
He was terribly disappointed.
For years, Matthews had accepted fuzzy pictures on his black-and-white set as part of life in the hilly Kinneloa Canyon area. But after investing several hundred dollars in a new color television, he wouldn't settle for anything less than crisp, vivid colors.
"That prompted me to find a solution," said Matthews, then a test engineer for Rockwell International Corp. Because no cable company was willing to wire up Kinneloa Canyon just to attract 36 households, Matthews did it himself.
From the handful of neighbors who first paid him $5 a month to share his antennas 20 years ago, Matthews has built a cable-television business that now serves 3,250 customers in three communities.
He started out with Kinneloa Antenna Service, selling and repairing television sets and installing antennas for hotels and apartments. He now owns KTS Corp., which operates two cable systems. Kinneloa Television Systems serves the Kinneloa Ranch area and parts of Altadena, and Duarte Cable Communications holds the cable franchise in Duarte.
Kinneloa and Duarte Cable are among the few owner-operated mom-and-pop cable systems in Southern California's highly competitive cable industry.
Matthews and his wife, Donna Reed Matthews, plan to keep it that way.
"We are very satisfied in keeping small," said Matthews, 44.
Staying small allows the company to offer more personalized service. "We don't like to keep anybody on hold," Matthews said.
"Being small, there's not too many departments for a customer to go through." Together, the Pasadena and Duarte offices have nine employees, all of whom are trained to handle several jobs, he said.
Staying small also means that Matthews must wear half a dozen hats. He juggles duties as chief engineer, customer service representative, president, maintenance worker, bookkeeper and payroll clerk.
"That was the attraction, initially, to do a lot of things," he said.
Despite its growth, the business has remained a family affair. Donna Matthews helps with the bookkeeping, and his 19-year-old stepson, David Reed, works part-time cleaning and repairing channel-selector boxes.
Housed in a one-story building on E. Washington Boulevard, the company's Pasadena office is within a mile of the Matthews' home and has become a family gathering place.
On a recent morning, 4-year-old Kristiana Matthews bounded into her father's office to say hello. A few minutes later, her mother came in to use the computer to plan a family reunion. Darren Reed, 8, occasionally strolled in to hand writing assignments to his mother, who has chosen to teach him at home.
Surrounded by his family, Matthews looked pleased and relaxed. Being his own boss allows him flexibility in his schedule, he said. But it also means 11-hour days, few lunch breaks, work on holidays and being on call 24 hours a day.
"I'm ultimately responsible for keeping the system going," Matthews said. "Even though I'm president, I still go out to fix the cable when it breaks down."
Matthews said he has no plans to switch careers.
"We have had various companies offering to buy the system, but we were concerned about who the buyer was," he said. "The only reason to sell out is if you don't want to wait 10 or more years to get profits out." But Matthews is in no particular hurry.
"If we sold out, I'd have to go and look for another job," he said, explaining that selling his business would not bring financial independence. But it could mean he'd lose control over reception quality, which was what got him into the cable business in the first place.
"If we sell the system, then we'll be just a cable customer like everyone else," he said.