Gene Lewis - AO & the Ivory Tower


I joined American Optical in February of 1977, where my first responsibility was to run the Scientific Instrument Division which I did for about 1 year. When I was then assigned the difficult task of improving the ailing International Division, I volunteered to move to Europe for what ever time it would take to learn the business inside and out.With this in-depth knowledge I felt I could turn this business around.What I didn’t know was that this knowledge would be invaluable when I was appointed President of American Optical one year later, in December 1979.


Having learned the European Optical business intimately, I was then able to more fully develop a relationship with American Optical’s employees. By that time , I had already moved back to the United States. As President, I moved into the 4th Floor Executive Office area of the AO Main Plant in Southbridge. Many of my immediate reports also had their offices in this lavish area high above the factory workers. These offices were just beneath the Clock Tower, and were considered Prime Real Estate.In these offices it seemed that the management of AO was out of touch with the employees of AO.


One incident related to these offices, that I vividly remember, occurred at an Annual Quarter Century Club Outing that took place in the Hamilton Rod and Gun Club in Sturbridge at a traditional AO Quarter Century Club Function. It was the summer of 1980, and I was eager to find out what others, especially the long service employees, believed to be wrong with AO which had been experiencing problems for some time. 


Late in the celebration, when several of us had consumed “a few beers”, I pushed to find the answer to this question by asking others “What is wrong with AO and how can we fix it?” After some hesitation, I was told “You and others who report to you can get out your Ivory Tower and learn what the average worker already knows”. That occurred on Saturday. I thought all week end about what I had learned from the others in their moment of honesty. 


There was no doubt in my mind what had to be done. When I entered the Main Plant fourth floor office area on Monday, I immediately asked the management staff to meet with me. I told them about my discussions with a group of employees at the Quarter Century Club outing. And then I told them that ASAP, everyone was to move out of their offices in the “Ivory Tower”, as the workers had cynically called it. Shortly thereafter we all moved down to the second floor office area and “Moth Balled” the Ivory Tower. More importantly, I stressed that all of us should get out of our offices and become more in touch with the people who continued to make the company great. I shall never forget the lessons learned from that experience.

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