The always engaging Don Steele, Jr. is a man of many talents who has carved a multi-faced career for himself, first in the field of education where he served as Superintendent of Schools in Saginaw, Toledo, and Seattle districts; next putting his PhD in psychology to use as an optimal performance coach working with such organizations as the NFL & Microsoft; while always keeping his passion for songwriting and music alive working with such notable artists as Tammy Wynette and Willie Nelson down in Nashville.
Back in 2019 Don embarked upon the world of book publishing, co-authoring along with the late Jean Beach, a biography about the Shepler Family who started the Mackinaw Island Ferry Service, which has led him into a new career path of authoring Legacy books about family-owned and operated businesses that span multiple generations.
With the release of Rebel Without Applause, Steele turns the focus upon Saginaw inventor and entrepreneur Jon Hall, founder of the family owned and operated Saginaw company Glastender, Inc., which began back in 1969 when Jon invented the world’s first automatic rotary glass washer, which he called ‘Glastender’ as a play on the word ‘bartender’.
The company turned into a formidable manufacturing entity shipping products throughout the world, and the story of the Hall family is a fascinating one. “What I love about doing these ‘legacy’ books is the fact they preserve an important part of history. I look at it like a library that burns to the ground. If you don’t get there and document the creation and individuals that build these entities, it all becomes lost.”
When asked about the qualities that he feels distinguish Jon Hall the most, Steele references the book’s title, Rebel Without Applause. “Jon and I would walk to school together in the 5th grade and I always found him to be very bright. He didn’t show this in classes too much because he wasn’t interested, but I remember one day he showed up with this bike that had a steering wheel on it instead of handle bars and I had no idea how to do that!”
“He was always designing different things. Another time back in school he built a soap box derby car that secured first place one year, and he always had a very mechanical mind, continues Steele.
“He quickly developed an interest in hot rods and Jon’s collection of cars is impeccable. He doesn’t buy them to fix up and sell, but I think they represent his constant search for perfection. The prized baby in his collection has a flathead engine that he created in a lighter version, and he’s creating a production car and also working on a vintage Corvette by making it taller so people who are 6’3” tall can get into it. So like I say, he is very inventive.”
“Jon spent years working for his Dad fixing ice machines, and had an interest in knowing how things worked so he could assess whether there was a better way to make things perform. He’s always been very good at creating and extrapolating new things from existing things.”
In looking at the genesis of Glastender, Steele says the business faced a myriad of challenges along its winding path to profitability, so to overcome those challenges Hall partnered with Jay H. Kegerreis, a Wake University Business School graduate.
“The first big product invention that put Glastender on the map was their automatic glass washer that became a national sales item because rather than use brushes that would cause the glasses to come out smudged or dirty, you could wash a large batch of glasses and have them all come out clean. That really opened the door,” notes Steele. ,
“But Jon’s big weakness was that he was not strong at managing business, He’s the first to admit it and this is a problem shared by many good entrepreneurs,” continues Don. “One day he ran into a colleague at a manufacturing association workshop who had just built a nice home in Lake Tahoe because he thought Las Vegas would be a good place to sell bar equipment.”
“Jon had completed his prototype for the Glastender washer and told him, ‘All my life I’ve always worked half days, putting in 12-hours, and his soon-to-be-partner Jay Kegerreis was very similar to Jon in that sense. Jon talked to him and said, ‘You’re in Lake Tahoe and so busy you’re missing a lot of things, but if you come to Saginaw you won’t miss anything, which helped convince him to make the move to Saginaw because he appreciated Jon’s capabilities.”
“When starting the business they needed money badly and all the banks were turning them down because they didn’t have assets to underwrite the scope of the project,” notes Steele.
“Jay went to this one bank dressed impeccably with a portfolio of all the products they wanted to sell, and the banker that granted them the loan said they’d never seen a business presentation that well done; so Jay laid the financial foundation for getting it started. Sadly, he died of a brain aneurism very young and he was like a brother to Jon.”
With the passing of Kegerreis, to assure Glastender would remain viable into the second generation, Jon realized it was imperative for his kids to assume more responsibility. However, statistically only 30% of family-owned businesses are still viable into the second generation. Consequently, the continuation of the business would fall into the hands of Jon’s son, Todd Hall, his daughter Kim, and his son-in-law Mark Norris, which as fate would have it became a game-changing trio.
“One day when he was driving his son Todd back to the University of Michigan Jon asked, ‘Why aren’t you studying the business?’,” explains Steele, “so Todd shifted into the University of Michigan School of Business, graduating from there in 1991. “While Jon remains the lead design person, he has relinquished day-to-day management to the very capable hands of Todd and Kim, who are both very bright people.”
To Steele’s mind, the business known as Glastender that the Hall Family have built is ‘the Lighthouse of the industry’. “It’s very compelling to see how they adapt,” he reflects. “They invent things and then competitors will adopt it, so they have to keep improving the things they created. Jon has several patents and they always try to stay at the forefront of what they do. When the business went through the pandemic they took a pretty big hit because they couldn’t get steel to manufacture their products, and ran into a lot of problems, but they all managed to navigate the challenges and came out okay.”
“Jon sticks with inventing things and playing with his cars, but the entire family look at themselves as allies,” he concludes.
“A lot of companies say they are ‘family’ companies, but these guys truly are.”
Copies of ‘Rebel Without Applause’ are available through amazon.com.
Dr. Don Steele is a psychologist, coach, author, entertainer and the President
& CEO of Performance Learning, Inc. You can reach him through performancelearninginc.com.
9th February, 2024