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An Interview with Don Less

Interviewer: I want to thank you for meeting with me. I really appreciate your time and am excited to learn about GP:50.
Don: My pleasure. The story is really interesting!

Interviewer: Yes. I understand that you’ve been told you ought to write a book!
Don: Well, we’ll see.

Interviewer: Where would you like to start?
Don: Well, I started a company called Viatran 60 years ago with my brother-in-law, Don J. We’re both named Don. After 30 years, the company began to stagnate, and I felt it was time to go, so we went our separate ways. It was on good terms though.

I initially offered to buy the company, and he said, “No,” so I sold my half to him. I was going back into the same business, but a different market. There were 2 or 3 people I wanted to take with me, so we worked out an agreement for that. Don J eventually sold the company. I was 50 years old at the time.

Interviewer: Why the name “GP:50”?
Don: My hobby was racing.

Interviewer: Boats?
Don: Yes. 

Interviewer: So – “GP” for “Grand Prix”?
Don: Yes, Grand Prix, and then 50 for my age.

My ethnic background is Polish. Our name was originally Leszczynski and later became Less. Both families, my mother’s and father’s, lived in North Tonawanda. They actually lived across the street from one another – each family with 11 kids. Mom – Grazen for Grazenkowski and Dad – Less for Leszczynski.

Interviewer: Why did you choose Grand Island for a location?
Don: Because I lived here! Two children, Mom and Dad, and my Grandmother were all living in a 2-bedroom house in North Tonawanda before we moved to Grand Island.

My parents paid for my education for 5 years. I’m a graduate of Carnegie, got accepted at MIT, and went one more year for my MS. I wondered if maybe I should go for my doctorate, but you know, with each phase in education there’s a big step. From High School to College there’s a big step. Then from college to grad school there’s another big step. I decided not to take that step.

My first job was with Bel Aircraft. I was there 6 months. Then with Linde one and a half years, then Taber Instruments for 3 years where I spent time learning about transducers. From there I decided, “I can do this myself.”

For the next 3-4 years, I put everything into the business. I wanted a lifestyle that would allow me to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Even if I didn’t make lots of money – to work for myself is what I wanted. Always had a little bit of racing in my blood from my Dad. This would let me do both – work for myself and support my hobby.

I started Viatran in a garage. Did every step in the process myself. Welding, bonding, wiring through to taking it to the post office to deliver it to the customer. I eventually rented the Lucidol Plant on the west side of Buffalo on Sheridan and Military. We stayed there until I built the first edition on the Island.

I lived on Stony Point Road on Grand Island at the time. I built the house myself, meaning, I hired a contractor, not the actual hammer and nails.

I came across 5 acres that a guy was trying to sell, but there were legal issues which took 1-2 years to clean up. The first property was at 300 Industrial Drive. I got it from Ilona Lang.

Interviewer: Where GP:50 Melt Pressure Division is now?
Don: Yes. The location on Long Road is 45,000 square feet right now. A 15,000 square foot addition is in process for the beginning of 2018.

Interviewer: How do you see GP:50 different from its competitors?
Don: Many of our competitors are owned by publicly traded companies. I feel this strips out the entrepreneurs and focuses on just profit. They forget who the customer is.

There’s another thing I insist on – not to borrow money!  I learned that lesson. I had sizable debt with my first company, Viatran. You put yourself in a position where the banker looks over your shoulder. I didn’t like that feeling.

We’ve been fortunate at GP:50 to rarely borrow any money. It was very little when we did, and we paid it back quickly. Having no debt has helped us weather lean times. Being a private company, not public, we don’t have to be concerned about stock holders and the bank.

Interviewer: What do you want current and prospective customers to know about GP:50?
Don: Our desire – and ability – is to take whatever the customer wants and make it. We’re eager to work with them and solve their problems. We’re not just selling transducers, we sell solutions. I think we do pretty good at that. It’s the reason for our growth. Our technical development is of a caliber that is really unmatched. We’ve got many products that out-perform those of our competitors.

Like I said, we’re in process of adding on to the building, it will be used primarily for our aerospace group. I went to our COO awhile back and said, “Hey!  It looks like you’re squeezing space pretty hard! How come you’re not screaming at me for more space?” He said we could use it and I said, “Good! I’ll build you more space!” Of course, we needed to go through formal review to obtain approvals etc. first. Fortunately, we’re of a size and in a financial situation where I can say, “Do it!”

My original thought when I designed the current site was to have two separate facilities, but people said, “You mean you’re going to have us walk across this snow laden tundra in the winter to talk to engineers?!” So we have one building, and this new addition will be a build-on to that.

Interviewer: Is there anything you’d like to share which hasn’t been posed in the above questions?
Don: When I started the first company, Viatran, we were really the first ones to take a strain gage device and sell it to the industry. We designed them with a 30mV output, which wasn’t widely used at that time, but ours were pretty accurate and more reliable, so we had to convince industries to buy the equipment that could work with 30mV output in order to use our transducers. 

I remember one of our first customers, a company called American Glass, which made testing equipment for bottles. Every 1,000th bottle or so would be tested. They had tremendous difficulty getting transducers that would work and not break. Our transducers met the need.

We try to be at the leading edge of our competitors, not necessarily technology leaders. Again, solution providers. We’re currently looking at the next technologies. Our Chief Engineer is working with a company on a new technology that may solve inherent hysteresis issues as well as provide higher temperature operation.

And I read science journals for enjoyment!

Interviewer: Is there any one thing you’ve wished to accomplish with GP:50 that you haven’t yet seen come to pass?
Don: It’s really accomplished all I that I wanted. The hardest part is what is going to happen when it’s time for me to move on. I don’t want to sell it. The whole world is made of people who build a business and then sell it for the money. I want to make sure the people that are with me, especially those who’ve been with me from the beginning, have a means of earning a living. I don’t want to upset that. I’m in the process of trying to figure these things out. I think I see a mechanism that I hope can make that work. That’s the thing I hope to accomplish.

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