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George Eastman and Thomas Edison (Photo courtesy of George Eastman House)

Innovation Icons

Invention runs deep in Rochester. The region's most illustrious businesses-companies like Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp., Bausch & Lomb Inc., Gleason Corp., Paychex Inc. and Wegmans Food Markets Inc.-all owe their success in large part to groundbreaking ideas. Rochester also has been home to many innovators whose names are not as well known. Here are some of our entrepreneurs and business leaders who have demonstrated the power of breakthrough ideas.

GEORGE EASTMAN

As a young man he studied accounting and went to work as a junior clerk at Rochester Savings Bank. But George Eastman's nights were devoted to experiments that led to the innovation of dry-plate negatives; for three years, he worked to perfect a formula he could patent.

In 1880, Eastman opened the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co. plant on State Street to manufacture dry plates for other photographers. Five years later he devised a film to hold light-sensitive gelatin and a method for rolling the film onto a holder. His Kodak box camera was unveiled in 1888, and with aggressive marketing, it became a household name. By 1927, his company-now named Eastman Kodak Co.-employed 20,000 people.

Kodak continued to grow after Eastman's death in 1932, reaching peak local employment of more than 60,000 in 1982. The list of the company's innovations-its "firsts" include successfully mass-marketed color film, the carousel slide projector and the digital camera-goes on and on.

JOHN JACOB BAUSCH AND HENRY LOMB

German immigrants John Jacob Bausch and Henry Lomb came to the United States in the mid-1800s. With a loan from Lomb, Bausch-who knew how to grind lenses and make horn-rim frames-opened an optical shop. After Bausch cut production costs by switching to vulcanite, a hard rubber compound, sales soared.

In 1860, Bausch and Lomb built the first spectacle-making machine in America. The firm expanded to make microscopes and other optical products. By 1903, the company employed 1,200 workers and annually produced 20 million spectacle lenses, 500,000 photographic lenses and 550,000 shutters. Bausch & Lomb Inc. earned a reputation worldwide for being in the forefront of technological innovation in optical products, with annual sales in the billions and employees in some 35 countries.

CHESTER CARLSON AND JOSEPH WILSON

Xerox Corp. was born of Chester Carlson's inventiveness. As an employee in the patent department of an electronics firm, he grew frustrated because there were never enough copies of patent materials. At home, the former physics major began experimenting with a new process using an electrostatic means of reproducing text. His work led to the successful development of electrophotography.

After more than 20 manufacturers rejected the chance to make a plain-paper copier, the non-profit Battelle Research Institute partnered with him to develop his invention under a royalty-sharing agreement. In 1947, Haloid Co., a small photographic paper manufacturing firm in Rochester, funded further research in exchange for commercial rights. Two years later, the first photocopiers were introduced.

Joseph Wilson headed Haloid Co. when the firm turned Carlson's invention into a plain-paper copier. Under his leadership, the renamed Xerox Corp. saw revenue skyrocket from nearly $60 million in 1961 to $500 million just four years later. The company moved to Stamford, Conn., in 1969, but it remains one of the largest employers in the Rochester area. Annual sales now top $22 billion.

KATE GLEASON

Born in 1865, Kate Gleason began working for her father's company at age 11; by the time she was 14, she was keeping all of the Gleason Corp.'s books. As a Cornell University student, Gleason was the first woman to study engineering there, but she left before the end of her freshman year to become a sales rep for the family business. The orders she booked in Europe helped build Gleason into the strong international company it remains.

Gleason pursued a second career as a real estate developer and invented a device for pouring concrete for home construction. In East Rochester, she built the Concrest community, a 100-unit development of small homes, a golf course, a clubhouse and a park. And as the interim president of First National Bank of East Rochester, Gleason was the first female bank president in the country.

MARTHA MATILDA HARPER

At age 7, Martha Matilda Harper entered the world of work. In her 20s, she moved to Rochester from Canada to find work as a domestic. Thirty years later, she ran a Rochester-based global salon business that counted the rich and powerful among its devoted clients. Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, the queen of England and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany were among them.

Widely considered the founder of the franchise model, Harper kept a sharp focus on customer service. At its apex in the early 1930s, the Harper Method had more than 500 popular salons in cities worldwide, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London and Paris.

FRANK GANNETT

Beginning with his purchase of a half-interest in the Elmira Gazette in 1906, journalist Frank Gannett built a communication empire that for decades was based here and today includes the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and America's largest-selling daily newspaper, USA Today.

One thing that set Gannett apart was his strategy of buying up newspapers in midsize cities where his company could dominate the market. He also embraced technological innovation. In 1929, Gannett invested in the development of the typesetter, which made it possible to set newspaper copy at remote locations.    He also equipped newsrooms with short-wave radio receivers to speed reporting of distant events.

In 1938, printing presses at Gannett Rochester newspapers were adapted for color. The Gannett media empire also expanded from its newspaper base to include radio and television stations. 

THOMAS GOLISANO

When he launched his business in 1971, Thomas Golisano had only one employee, a $3,000 line of credit-and an idea. It had come to him while he worked for a regional payroll processor for big businesses. His novel approach: offer this service to small businesses. In the early 1970s, firms with fewer than 100 employees made up more than 98 percent of U.S. companies.

The idea did not interest his boss, so Golisano ventured off on his own with a goal of reaching 300 clients. It took years to achieve, but today the business Golisano created-Paychex Inc.-serves hundreds of thousands of businesses, with more than $2 billion in annual sales. Golisano ranked 312th this year on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans.

Paychex has appeared on Fortune's lists of the world's most admired companies (this year ranking third among financial data services providers) and among numerous honors won the 2007 Innovations in Employee Ownership Award from the National Center for Employee Ownership and the Beyster Institute.

ROBERT WEGMAN

What started as a grocery shop run by his father and uncle became under Robert Wegman a supermarket industry titan. He built Wegmans Food Markets Inc. by remaining focused on a simple idea: that treating customers and employees right was key. At the same time, Wegman broke new ground in service and product selection, with stores offering a wider array of ethnic foods, restaurant-quality prepared foods and in-store cafes. And he was a strong proponent of new technology (for example, leading the push for a universal product code).

The growth of the Wegmans chain has been matched by its spreading renown. A supermarket industry expert told the Wall Street Journal in the mid-1990s: "We consider them the best chain in the country, maybe in the world." And for more than a decade, Wegmans has ranked near or at the top of Fortune's annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For.  

© Rochester Business Journal
 

 

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