Remembering Oscar Lasko

As Gary Smith looks on, Oscar Lasko, who died this week at the age of 96, accepts the Chester County Economic Development Council’s Hall of Fame Award in 2014.

This week saw the passing of Oscar Lasko, former chairman of home comfort appliance manufacturer and marketer Lasko Products.  Mr. Lasko died on April 2 at the age of 96.  Below are the remarks that Ed McAssey, Chief Operating Officer of Lasko Products, made at Oscar Lasko’s induction into the Chester County Economic Development Council’s Hall of Fame Award Ceremony in 2014.

As a teenager, Henry Lasko, Oscar’s father started repairing radiators after he got out of the Navy.  At the LM&W Company in Lancaster, the elder Lasko went on to work in the stamping and fabricating of steel and metal. Henry bought the M and W’s interest early on.

In 1920, Henry and his wife Sarah moved to West Chester and Oscar was born at The Chester County Hospital. Henry saw the business continue to grow, expanding into automotive radiators and government contract work as World War I concluded.

Oscar joined the company on weekends when he was 13 years old loading scrap steel when he was not attending school.  He attended, what is now Henderson High School, named after his principal who he most likely visited on more than one occasion and concluded his education at Malvern Prep. He enrolled at Penn and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering which was sped up because of World War II.  At that time, tuition at Penn was $300 a semester!

He briefly worked as an engineer at Auto Gyro and in 1943; Oscar joined the Merchant Marines where he was an engineer responsible for transporting supplies and fuel for the war. In the interest of decorum we will fast forward thru the Merchant Marine stories!!

In 1946, he rejoined the Company and his father Henry and older brother Harry.   At this time, the Company shifted more towards small kitchen appliances such as toasters, some fans and heaters at the 431 Gay Street location, in a series of buildings which are now considered “fashionable retro.” Lasko Metal Products as it was called then, continued to grow with appliances and government contract work. In 1962, that growth necessitated a second factory for the fan, heater and small appliance business.

Oscar selected a site in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville. At the time, it seemed unconventional, since it was primarily a farming community, without any real manufacturing. He selected it because it was the “demographic center” of the United States in terms of its proximity to the population and customer base for fans. Oscar found it simply by putting pins on a map of where their customers were located.   Twenty-five years later, General Motors probably paid millions of dollars to site consultants to determine where they should locate the upstart Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee which is about ten miles south. This was a good example of Oscar making a thoughtful decision that made him a pioneer.

Oscar Lasko is flanked by Gary W. Smith, President and CEO of the Chester County Economic Development Council and Roger N. Huggins, Partner at Gawthrop Greenwood during the 2014 Chester County Hall of Fame Awards Ceremony.

Lasko Products thrive today, employing around 300 people, making millions of box fans with over 1,300,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space. Our plant manager, Jack Markovich, who will retire in July, is here tonight.   Jack started with the Company on Gay Street in 1964 and worked the night shift while attending then, West Chester State. He advanced in the Company and has been in Franklin, Tennessee for over 40 years.

Growth continued in West Chester; the manufacturing operations moved to the current location at 820 Lincoln Avenue in 1965 making all kinds of products for the government and electric fans. The property was built in large part, by Oscar and employees, without a general contractor. The story goes that he even had everyone work on Mother’s Day to finish it. There were two other additions. Lincoln Avenue continues to today as the corporate headquarters and the manufacturing plant for our bathroom fan, range hood and industrial fans for our Air King customers. Over 230 people work in our West Chester operations currently and we are still hiring.

In 1966, Lasko bought a small motor manufacturer in Columbia, Pennsylvania which is located in Lancaster County, R&S manufacturing that made motors for the can openers and small fans. It serves today as a distribution center for our Air King Products in the United States. For a long time Oscar’s son Bill ran the motor operations which became a big reason the Company grew so rapidly in the 1980’s.

In 1976, Lasko expanded internationally buying Air King Limited in Ontario. It became the core of the growing, cooling fan business that was so successful in the US and introduced the company to range hoods, bathroom fans and humidifiers. Those manufacturing operations were moved to West Chester several years ago although there are sales, distribution and R&D operations still in Ontario today.

In 1972 and 1973, the Vietnam War wound up and we found there was a lot less demand for government defense contracts which had become the main stay of the West Chester operation.   Oscar travelled to Japan and entered into a partnership with Sanyo to produce oscillating fans in the United States at our West Chester operation. Up until then oscillating fans were very expensive and very few people could afford them as they were being imported from Japan. His hunch, which proved right on, was that, by making the bulky parts such as the blades and grills in the United States, along with the motor assemblies from Sanyo in Japan, the product could be more affordable and the US market would grow.  Today there are over 10,000,000 oscillating pedestal and table fans sold each year in the United States.

As the company became more vertically integrated and produced more of the components of the oscillating fan, the business grew and we opened another location in Fort Worth, Texas for the oscillating fans and other plastic fans. Today, this plant employs over 330 people and remains the only US manufacturer of oscillating fans.

In 2000, as Oscar’s son, Bill became president; the Company changed its name to Lasko Product Inc. to better reflect the diversified product t line. Presently over 70% of the products sold are made in the United States with the balance of the fans and heaters sold, being imported with the help of  an extensive engineering and quality team overseas. In the past thirty years, I have seen the sales increase almost five fold with sales extending throughout North and South America.  We are proud to have the fourth generation of Lasko’s working at the Company, Oscar’s grandchildren — Josh and Becky Hoffman.

In the time I have had the pleasure to know Oscar; I have seldom heard him say the word “I.” I can’t recall him taking credit for any of the success, and he constantly tells us how good of a job he feels we are doing. He tells you the root of this success is his ability to surround himself with hardworking and resourceful people. Even with all the growth that I have talked about, which has created hundreds of new jobs, our average tenure of the salaried managers in the company is 16 years!   We have with us tonight, his Oscar’s son, Bill, our president who has been with the company 42 years, my colleague, Jim Perella our executive VP of sales and marketing, with 27 years of service and eight other associates with an average of 33 years. One may conclude that Oscar has built a great working environment or that we are too lazy to get other jobs!!
We have over 950 people worldwide that are part of the Lasko team.

Oscar reinvested every year in the business with a very generous profit sharing and bonus program. He also very carefully invested in product tooling and automation to remain the leader in the field.  We hear a lot today about “lean manufacturing.”  Oscar invented lean manufacturing before the business guru’s.  He reminds us every day, that we are in a business of pennies, and that millions of pennies not wasted, add up to a lot of money. He has a tremendous ability to vision how ordinary opportunities can become smashing successes.

You previously heard a small piece of Mr. Lasko’s and the Lasko Family Foundation financial support for the community. Much of it, people will never know the full impact, because Oscar prefers it to be that way. There is also substantial support for youth education endeavors in Franklin, Tennessee and Fort Worth, in addition to vocational education for adults, and numerous religious organizations. The employees in West Chester follow Oscar’s example and are very active in sponsoring the Central Chester County’s Relay for Life for the American Cancer Society.

As you can see, the company has had to reinvent itself as markets changed over its 108 year history. The center of that leadership has been Oscar Lasko who we honor tonight as our Hall of Fame Award recipient.

In light of Mr. Lasko’s passing, McAssey noted that “Oscar was an exceptional visionary in home comfort that was always focused on providing the highest quality and value to the consumer. He treated all 1,000 plus associates as if they were his family. His incredible generosity to the communities we operated in was legendary.”

Mr. Lasko retired in 2016 following the sale of Lasko to Comvest Partners and JW Levin Management Partners.

Lasko was an active philanthropist. The Oscar Lasko YMCA and Childcare Center in West Chester, PA, bears his name. Lasko funded the Lasko Tower at the Chester County Hospital. He also formed the Lasko Family Foundation, which supports various Jewish charities and general vocational training in the Philadelphia area. Lasko received the 2014 Chester County Hall of Fame Award from the Chester County Economic Development Council (CCEDC).

“Mr. Lasko left his fingerprints throughout Chester County,” noted Gary W. Smith, CCEDC’s President and CEO. “From his corporate vision to his philanthropic giving as well as from his civic involvement to his business leadership, so many people and institutions were positively impacted by his guidance and generosity.”

Smith continued, “It was CCEDC’s honor to publicly recognize Mr. Lasko for the difference he made in the lives of Chester County’s citizens.  As the recipient of the 2014 Chester County Hall of Fame Award, he joined the ranks of those who not only have reached the pinnacle of success as distinguished business leaders but also have made a positive impact on the economic health of the county.  We express our deep and sincere sympathies to his family and know that his loss will resonate throughout Chester County.”

At the CCEDC Hall of Fame awards ceremony, a video tribute featured representatives from several organizations upon which Lasko has had an impact including:  Denise Day, President/CEO of the YMCA of the Brandywine Valley, Michael Duncan, President and CEO of The Chester County Hospital, Robert McNeil, Chairman of the Chester County Food Bank, and Leo Parsons, President and COO of CTDI.

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