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Gleason Corp.: Family members were pioneers and leaders

Gleason Corp. began as a small family business, and family played—and continues to play—a central part in its history.

The founder, and then his grown children, controlled the company for nearly 100 years.

A brief look at four members of the Gleason family who played important roles at the company follows. Many of the details of their lives, used for the profiles below, are documented in the 2010 book, “The Life and Letters of Kate Gleason,” written by Janis Gleason, the wife of James Gleason, current chairman and former CEO.

William Gleason
When William Gleason was 12, his family made a six-week voyage from Ireland to the United States to escape the potato famine.

He struggled to find a good job. Working nights at a machine shop in Rochester, he once machined a new part to fix an engine. The foreman scolded him, but the owner overheard and promoted him to apprentice-in-training.

At 27, he followed a job tip to Hartford, Conn., only to find the company was not hiring when he arrived. Not willing to give up, William Gleason walked over to a lathe and started working. By the time he was noticed, he had done enough good work to impress the foreman and get himself hired.

He returned to Rochester in 1865 to open a machine shop. In 1874, William Gleason invented a machine that made it possible to mass-produce bevel gears.

As his older children grew, they joined the business.

In one letter, William Gleason wrote that his son “is working hard and while I have had a share of the hardships of life, having to deal with bad and willful children is not any part off (sic) them but on the other hand can be classed with the comforts of life and makes it truly worth living.”

At times, the business prospered; at times, he worried how to make payroll.

A fire destroyed the foundry in 1889; William Gleason, at age 53, lost all of his patterns and drawings. He started over and within three months had created drawings for an entire new line of lathes and planers.

He was friends with Susan B. Anthony and a lifelong supporter of women’s rights.

As he approached his 70s, William Gleason handed the business over to three of his children. He died in 1922 at age 86.

“He was a very innovative person, very determined, very hard working but also a very caring family man,” said Rochester Deputy Historian Michelle Finn, who has read Janis Gleason’s book and the family letters, which are available at rochestervoices.org.

Kate Gleason
William Gleason’s daughter, Kate Gleason, was 11 when the death of her older half-brother, Thomas Gleason, spurred her interest in the family business.

Shortly after the death, she overheard her father say, “Oh, if Kate had only been a boy!”

The next Saturday she walked to the shop and asked her dad to put her to work. He smiled, she later recalled, and gave her some bills to pay. It was the beginning of her long career as a pioneering woman in male-dominated fields.

Kate Gleason was the first female mechanical engineering student at Cornell University. She left before graduating, though, because her father called her home to help with the business.

She was the company’s bookkeeper by age 14; by her mid-20s, she was secretary and treasurer. She knew the business so well that she eventually became its chief saleswoman.

At age 28 she persuaded her father to send her on a cattle steamer to Europe to make contacts. Business was bad in the United States but Europe was not experiencing the economic downturn, and the trip was a success.

“In those early days I was a freak; I talked of gears when a woman was not supposed to know what a gear was,” Kate Gleason says in her biography. “It did me much good. For, no matter how much men disapproved of me, they were at least interested in seeing me, one distinct advan-tage I had over the ordinary salesman.”

Stories abound of men testing Kate Gleason’s technical knowledge, thinking she knew little about machine tools, only to be shocked and chagrined that she knew more than they did.

Her father attempted to pass joint control of the business to Kate Gleason and her two younger brothers, James E. Gleason and Andrew Gleason, with equal authority, but tension among the siblings ended in Kate Gleason’s decision to leave.

She started over at age 43, first rescuing a financially troubled machine company, then becoming a developer, manufacturer and bank president.

Kate Gleason relished being a pioneer and breaking through barriers.

Susan B. Anthony once wrote an inscription in a book, to “Kate Gleason, the ideal business woman of whom I dreamed 50 years ago.”

James E. Gleason
Like his older sister, James Gleason attended Cornell University but was called home to work before graduating.

By age 23 he was helping his father design gear-cutting machines. He improved on his father’s original bevel gear cutter by automating it.

He became general manager of Gleason Works at age 34.

While he was close to his older sister, he sided against her in 1913 when the rift between Kate Gleason and Andrew Gleason ended in an ultimatum, and she left the company.

James Gleason assumed control of the company in 1922 when his father, the founder, died. The company credits his technical innovations and leadership for its pre-eminent industry position today.

He died in his office at age 94.

James S. Gleason
James S. Gleason, Andrew Gleason’s grandson, joined the company as a production control clerk in 1959. He worked his way up to become president and CEO in 1981.

He had the difficult task of downsizing the company in the late 1980s and refocusing on its core mission.

“I know that when your name is on the front of the building, there’s an emotional impact (to downsizing),” he told the Rochester Business Journal in a 1997 interview. “It was tough.”

He also led the company through a merger in 2000 and the subsequent transition from being a publicly traded company to private ownership.

In 2002, at age 68, he handed the company over to a new president and chief executive, but James S. Gleason remains chairman today.

Julie Kirkwood is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

6/12/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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