February 01, 2011
Gordon Oates Sr., long-time president and CEO of the Vulcan Hart Corp., co-founder of the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers and consummate gentleman, passed away Jan. 16. It flabbergasts me that he’d been retired since 1988. It is very hard to think about the foodservice equipment industry, and what it’s become, without him somehow in the middle of it. He was in the middle of it for a very long time. I consider myself very fortunate that I got to see him in action toward the end of his career.
Mr. Oates helped build Vulcan Hart Corp. into one of the greatest companies and brands in this business. He was always a salesman—he joined Vulcan as sales manager in 1955—and he brought great vision and perhaps most importantly, curiosity, to everything he did.
Born in Kentucky, he always had a gentle but insightful way with people, too. To build an empire, you have to be a keen judge of people. And an empire he did build. By the time he retired, Vulcan had grown to five factories in the United States, two in Canada and the Foster Refrigeration Co. in Britain. Mr. Oates was one of the first to recognize that foodservice equipment was a business with worldwide opportunities. Vulcan also licensed its brand to a number of offshore companies.
According to the obituary Vulcan’s Jim Cullinane sent us, Mr. Oates fought in France after D-Day and earned a Silver Star as well as a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Unit Citation. Back from Europe, he attended the University of Louisville, married his wife of 56 years, Helen, and went to worked selling for the Louisville Courier-Journal until he joined Vulcan.
I first met him while still an editor for Restaurants & Institutions magazine. When I moved over to Foodservice Equipment Specialist as chief editor in 1982, he called me to wish me well. He told me I’d love the equipment side of the business and urged me to “stick around. You’ll like it. Let me know if you need any help.” He was right. I did like it.
Mr. Oates loved technology. I remember him introducing the pulse-combustion high-efficiency fryer at the National Restaurant Association Show in ’82. He was like a kid with a new toy. One of my favorite stories took place in Las Vegas the following year. We were at the annual MAFSI meeting. Mr. Oates and the California rep Bruce Hicks and I were at a cocktail reception. Mr. Hicks had long sold against Vulcan as a Wolf rep, but Vulcan had just bought Wolf. He started telling Mr. Oates about this amazing range technology Wolfe had developed in ’60s. Something called a power burner. Mr. Oates got very, very excited. Bruce said, “I can show you one.” We piled into a car, drove downtown and went into this steakhouse. Bruce pulled over the owner, and we filed into the kitchen to see the power burner at work. A year later, Vulcan “introduced” the power burner range.
We’re very pleased Mr. Oates had a long and fulfilling retirement. Our sympathies to our friend Gordon Oates Jr. and the entire Oates family.