By Heather Blahnik (MA ’96, US ’98, AI ’99)
A serial entrepreneur and California resident, Lionel Simons has been involved in a broad array of industries including dinnerware, computers, medical diagnostics, and environmental technology. The entrepreneurial bug began with AIESEC, when he started up AIESEC in the UK in 1954 and then helped to start AIESEC in Canada, the US, and a number of countries in Central and South America. He is now a member of the Executive Board of AIESEC Alumni International. Below are details of his AIESEC and professional career. We are proud to call Lionel one of our own!
1. How did you get involved with, and what was your involvement in, AIESEC?
The Student Union at the London School of Economics got a letter from the then Presiding Country Committee, which was inRotterdam, saying that LSE ought to be part of this international student exchange program. They stuck a note on the bulletin board saying, “Is anybody interested?” I saw the note and said “Yes!” They gave me the letter and I contacted the Presiding Country Committee and they sent me some information. I got a GBP 15 subsidy from the Student Union and used that GBP 15 to mimeograph 500 letters that I sent to all the chief executive officers that I could find addresses for in theUK, and said that they needed to get on board. Fortunately that worked, and I got sufficient interest and raised quite a few traineeships, and quite a bit of money. With that AIESEC started first at LSE and then, over the next two years, I was able to set it up in about a dozen universities throughout the UK. I took the first delegation to an international congress in March 1955 and that was our kick off. I was also at the Congress in Paris in 1956. In 1956, I had 120 traineeships for the UK, 60 in London alone. I rented two boarding houses in Bayswater to house the 60 trainees we had in London. They were all dispersed throughout the day to each of their various traineeships and then they came back together at night so that they could socialize. That reception program worked out rather well.
Then I went on traineeships myself. I did traineeships in Helsinki, Cologne, and Genoa. I spent several months in each place and then I emigrated to Canada. I was chairperson of the International Congress in Milan in 1957 and also a senior member, so when I arrived in Canada, they sent me a letter saying, “Could you help get things going over there?” I had been pushing very strongly since Rotterdam in 1955 for an extension program, because I felt that a dozen European countries did not represent what the potential of the organization was … Since I was working in Montreal, I contacted the head of the Commerce Department of McGill University and the head of the department introduced me to a young man who was President of the United Nations Association of McGill, Irwin Steinberg, and together we canvassed the students to become interested and we got the first committee set up. Then, I traveled across the country and got it set up in places like Quebec, Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary and British Columbia … That happened from 1958 to 1960, when I left Canada and went down to do my masters degree at Columbia University.
At Columbia University, since I already had a lot of experience and had been going down to visit with the local guys and get their committee set up, I became Latin American Extension Coordinator and had responsibility for running a program to get AIESEC set up in Latin America … I sent a couple of Spanish guys around Central and South America to get things started and … I sent people from Portugal to Brazil to get that set up. We had quite a few successes during that period of time.
The Presiding Country Committee changed from country to country every year, until we established the International Secretariat. The first International Secretary was a Canadian named J.J. Elkins in 1960, followed by Morris Wolff, and then followed by Victor Loewenstein. That was all set up in Geneva. It was the Americans and Canadians who led the charge for setting up an International Secretariat, rather than moving it around from country to country. I chaired the Congress in Marseilles in 1961, where we had major successes in terms of internationalizing. Morris Wolff was elected to the secretariat and Morris went down to Africa and managed an AIESEC extension to Africa from 1961 to 1962.
After my masters, I was invited to be the Chair of the first US International Congress held in Princeton in March 1963. I engineered, together with Morris Wolff, a visit by the Heads of Delegation to the White House for a meeting with President Kennedy. That was a real highlight for us. We all went down and we met with President Kennedy and that was just a few months before his assassination. That was my last major AIESEC activity.
2. What have you done in your professional career after AIESEC?
Over the years, I joined a small importing company in Cincinnati with an option to buy the company. I exercised that option about 3 years later. Since then I have been self-employed and I have only worked for companies that I have owned. I am sort of a classic entrepreneur.
As a result of that first venture, I became involved with Denby Pottery in the UK and set up its US and Canada distribution. I built it into a major force in the dinnerware market here in the US. I created the stoneware dinnerware category, and concepts like tabletop fashion and in-store boutique to promote the dinnerware ... Then I went back to England in the early 1970s where I reverse merged with Denby. I became the principal owner of Denby Stoneware Pottery, took it public on the London Stock Exchange, built the work force up to about a thousand people, and created a worldwide brand.
I was in Denby for 20 years and I loved it. It was a very creative activity as it was a hand crafted product. I had 150 girls in my decorating department, hand painting dinnerware. I had 15 potters who threw pots by hand on potter’s wheels in my factory. We had 250,000 square feet of space. I was sort of my own Creative Director, although I knew nothing about it. But I perceived my skills as having been market research and market testing. Because my target market was the college educated bride aged 19-23, I traveled around the country visiting different universities and would do consumer testing, that I developed myself, at sorority houses. It was always successful. In my years of introducing dinnerware patterns in the US, I never had one new pattern that was not successful.
When I came back to the US, I sold my interest in Denby and started a company called Simons Office Systems (SOS) with some of my US personnel. I created a computer called the SOS 164, which I used to create slides of corporate data for board presentations. We set up corporate “war rooms” in 50 Fortune 500 companies around the country and the key was to take their corporate data and generate monthly presentations based upon the latest figures so that the chairman could give a graphic presentation to his directors.
That was an interesting business, but what it did was lead me into the medical business. I was using a device that I acquired from this company called Dunn Instruments in San Francisco… that had huge potential in the medical diagnostic imaging field. What I did was to take over a factory in San Francisco and … we became part of the original MRI and CT scanner evolution. We were the leading worldwide brand in our field and the product from Dunn Instruments was sold with virtually every machine that went out to hospitals. I built up the company from 40 employees selling around 40 units a month to 150 employees selling 250 units a month. Then I merged Dunn with a much larger company that had the resources to really take on what was a fast growing and burgeoning marketplace.
What I did for a few years after that was to become involved in the medical field primarily pain management clinics in California … until I accidentally came across the environmental field … One of my clients would ask me to do due diligence on medical companies to see whether they were safe and worthwhile investments. I would advice and consult on that, until one came along that actually wasn’t a medical company. It was an environmental company that had a technology for getting rid of oxides of nitrogen (NO2) from automobile exhaust. I told them that it was a great idea and that the environment was going to become a key area in the coming years … They said they would invest money in it if I agreed to become president. That was in 1995.
KleenAir Systems, when we started it, had worldwide patents and were worldwide leaders in technology for the elimination of NOx in automotive exhaust … I moved it over to England and became involved with the London Taxi Program and the conversion of heavy duty vehicles to meet the current emissions standards.
A couple of years ago, I moved on from KleenAir in the UK, which is now a public company and is primarily involved in reducing emissions and improving efficiency of boilers. I am now working on technology transfer, because I know so many people with such great technologies and I have connections in the US and in China and the UK. I put technology developers and commercial exploiters together and organize the structure and the funding of that activity. The advantage of that is that I can work alone with a lot of associates and different people, but I no longer have to run a factory with a 400-1000 people and worry about operations.
3. How did your experience in AIESEC help you in your professional career?
My AIESEC career gave me the opportunity to exercise decision making powers within an organization, that one wouldn’t get for the first 20 years of one’s actual experience in the real world. Organizing AIESEC and making the same sort of financial, marketing and personnel decisions that you would make in real business was very helpful in giving me some insight into how to be a manager, and how to innovate, and how to market, and how to finance. So I think that all those organizational skills and in my case, entrepreneurial skills, were aided by the stuff that I undertook in AIESEC.
4. What made you realize that you weren’t a “corporate guy” but an entrepreneur?
I realized I wasn’t a corporate guy, but an entrepreneur, when I was working for a corporation in Canada called Univac. I was a computer salesman and I was good at it. I realized that the company had shackles on me and that the way to success in a corporation was part talent, skill and brain power and part politics. I wasn’t keen on the politics side and I also thought that for years I would work and just make a salary. I was more interested in working for myself. If I succeeded I could make a lot of money. If I didn’t, it was my fault. Also at that time, I had interviews in Montreal with IBM and a major consulting company and both of them told me that I was not suited to the corporate life, through personality tests.
5. You were recently elected to the Executive Board of AIESEC Alumni International in February at the AAI Congress 2012 in Hungary. What made you run for the position?
Since 1964, I had been watching efforts to get alumni organized and none of them have gone anywhere. The problem is trying to coalesce around an idea that could work and appeal to many people. It has been tried so many different times and I had never really become involved with any of them because I didn’t think that they were handled in a way that could succeed. When David Epstein and Andrew Rowe came around with this transformation project for AAI, I realized for the first time that these guys knew what they were talking about, they knew what they were doing, they knew how to handle it, and we had to sweep out the old and bring in the new. When I went to Budapest, it was with the objective of helping that to happen. Even though I had never met David or Andrew before, their presentations were very impressive and they were very skilled and professional. It was like sitting in a major corporation talking about a plan of how do we build this company … I took it upon myself to assist them and my job was to get them to succeed in having their vision of the future of AAI be agreed to at the Congress ... There is a real chance now for this to work and David has been doing a super job leading the effort. I think that it is going to work and it is already beginning to happen.
6. What do you feel you get out of being involved with AIESEC as an alumnus?
It’s like a fraternity. Once you become involved, you are involved, in essence even emotionally, for life. I have never met an AIESEC person that felt that their time in AIESEC had been a waste of time. Most of them have been very enthusiastic about it. The problem is how they can continue an involvement without it interfering with their family and work obligations and other interests that they have; how they can sort of superimpose it on top of all of that. There is a value to being involved, in the sense that the same criteria that persuaded them to become involved and interested in AIESEC in the first place are still valid, are still there and AIESEC is growing now. One of the things is we’ve passed critical mass because somewhere between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people have passed through AIESEC’s doors and we can create an organization that provides value, current value to alumni as opposed to just nostalgic value and that is what we are trying to create. I think that we are at the dawn of a new age for AIESEC alumni.
If you would like to contact Lionel about his professional or AIESEC career, or about AIESEC Alumni International, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org