Gleason Corp.’s international expansion began with an illness, a gamble and a woman.
In 1893, Kate Gleason, daughter of founder William Gleason, traveled unaccompanied to Europe. Armed only with $200 and one dress, she traveled to England, Scotland, France and Germany, selling machine tools and making what would become valuable contacts for the global future of the company.
“In 1893 Kate was not feeling well, and her doctor suggested that she take a vacation in Atlantic City,” said Janis Gleason, vice president of the Gleason Family Foundation, a non-profit based in Kentfield, Calif. “Kate, worried about the blanks in the company order books, didn’t know of any potential customers in the Atlantic City area.
“She opted instead for a restful cruise to Europe where she thought that she might find companies willing and able to purchase Gleason products because the Europeans were not experiencing the same business downturn as was currently underway in the United States. Kate turned out to be correct.”
Janis Gleason is married to James Gleason, chairman of Gleason. She authored “The Life and Letters of Kate Gleason,” a collection of Kate Gleason’s letters, photographs, sketches of her mechanical designs and details of her life.
“Kate was the trailblazer for Gleason’s global presence today,” Janis Gleason said. “But many, many people over the years have contributed to the end result.”
Today Gleason’s European operations have grown to more than 1,000 employees across three production facilities. Outside of Europe and the United States it has two production facilities in Asia with more than 400 employees and another in India with 70 workers. This year it will break ground on a new facility in Bangalore, India.
Gleason built on those inroads Kate Gleason made, particularly in Germany, beginning with the Hermann Pfauter Machine Tooling Co., founded in East Germany in 1900. The Gleasons were longtime partners with Pfauter and in 1997 all limited partners’ shares were transferred from the Pfauter family to the Gleason Corp., Gleason documents show.
In 1995, Gleason acquired another German company, Carl Hurth Maschinen und Zahnradfabrik, renaming it Gleason-Hurth, taking advantage of their already strong relationship and both companies’ need to expand globally.
Global expansion exploded beyond Europe in the 1970s, especially in China, in large part because of President Nixon’s efforts to open up trade.
“Our first look into China was in 1972. My colleagues there told me Gleason was among the first companies to sign contracts with China after the Nixon accord,” said Kelvin Harbun, vice president of Asia-Pacific sales.
Already working for Gleason, Harbun immigrated to the United States from England to assist with evaluating marketing in China and in 1984 made his first visit there.
“Up until that time the only way they could import product into their country was through a Chinese national import corporation and they decided what could be bought and brought into the country,” Harbun said. “But our management at the time had to believe that things were going to get much different and that we better set ourselves up to be able to market and sell our products in China. I came to Rochester to do that on a two-year assignment, and 30 years later I’m still here.”
“Gleason has developed in (the) Asia Pacific as those countries have developed and become major players in the market,” he added.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the auto industry was the biggest user of gears by volume and still is today, with much of the automobile manufacturing being done in China.
“Back in the early ’80s, when I was working in China, there weren’t so many cars at that time. People rode bicycles,” Harbun said. “Today they’re the biggest consumer of vehicles. So as the industrial growth within the Asian countries has grown, then Gleason business in that area has grown.
“We are a global company with a presence in all the major industrial areas of the world,” he said. “We have 300 patents issued and pending and are the largest global supplier of bevel and cylindrical gear production machines and related tools and services.”
Those patents are evidence of the company’s push for innovation in a global market.
“The biggest thing for us is innovation, new ideas, new processes and new ways of doing things,” Harbun said. “Mr. William Gleason was a great entrepreneur, and I think it’s the entrepreneurial instincts of Gleason to go places we haven’t been before, or feel maybe the future, with innovative ideas and products.”
Close to 70 percent of Gleason’s sales come from outside the United States. It has 20,000 machines installed in more than 50 countries. Other than its U.S. sites, Gleason has manufacturing operations in Germany, India, Switzerland and China, and sales and service offices throughout the Americas, Europe and the Asia-Pacific regions.
“The key markets are China, the Americas, Europe, but the last two years Europe was sort of slower than before so the key markets are China and the U.S., but in Europe it’s really still Germany,” said Udo Stolz, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for Gleason.
At Gleason business is always growing, officials said, with perpetual potential to grow more.
“Basically our presence is where our customer is or will be,” Harbun said. “So, as vehicle manufacturing moves to those areas and the gears required for those industries grow, then we need to get there and be ready for them rather than catching up because they’re there already.”
Pre-empting market trends and anticipating consumer needs are big drivers for the company to expand even further.
“We have true experts for different technologies all around the world (as well as) service expertise,” Stolz said. “We have really well-trained service people and sales people around the world. Our target is to become a cousin of our customers, and I think all of them appreciate that very much about Gleason.”
Today, Gleason is keeping a close eye on Southeast Asia, where it sees developments in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. Harbun said some 30 percent of its annual sales volume comes from developing nations.
For Harbun, Gleason has been a journey of sorts.
“When I interviewed for my job 40 years ago in England, one of the guys that interviewed with me celebrated 50 years with the company two years later,” Harbun said. “At the time, as an impressionable and young early 20s person, I was impressed that somebody could be working for a company for 50 years, never dreaming that I would finish up traveling the world and doing the same thing for over 40 years.
“It’s quite an institution. I think we’re proud to be what we are, and the community here in Rochester, as well as the global community, really has something to look to Gleason too as well.”
Lisa Maria Rickman is a Rochester Business Journal summer intern.
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