Charles C. Gates Jr.—Born in Motion #1 “Living Legend of Aviation”

Charles C. Gates Jr.—Born in Motion  #1 “Living Legend of Aviation”
Remembering Charles C. Gates Jr.

Remembering Charles C. Gates Jr.

“Flown West” August 28,2005; Actor,Cliff Robertson read a prose tribute that he had written for his good friend, titled “Just call me Charlie,” it was especially poignant because Cliff received his Academy Award for the movie “Charlie.”
Three years ago, in his office on Cherry Creek Drive North in Denver, surrounded by mementos of the Gates family legacy, it was the first interview that he had granted in over 22 years and turned out to be his last.
“I was born in motion,” he said with his infectious smile. He could’ve been referring to constant activity, or his actual birth. On May 27, 1921, Charles Cassius and Hazel (Rhoads) Gates made their way down Bear Creek Canyon in a Packard Phaeton. Their destination was a hospital in Denver. Hazel Gates was pregnant; they were hoping that the baby she was carrying was a boy—and that he would wait just a little longer before entering the world.
“You might say I hit the ground on rubber—going about 60 miles an hour,” Gates grinned.
That’s a slight exaggeration. Actually, after pulling the family roadster over, Charles Gates delivered Charles Cassius Gates Jr. in the backseat. Then, the new father turned around, found a doctor—at about 2:00 a.m.—and returned home. Luckily, says Gates, his mother was “quite experienced in child bearing.” Hazel Gates had already given birth to daughters Ruth, Hazel, LeBurta and Charla.
Hours later, Charles Gates Sr. arrived at the Gates Rubber Company, where the factory whistle blew for 15 minutes. Signs posted on the doors proclaimed, “Under new management, Charles C. Gates Jr.” The owner proudly passed around cigars and candy, and gave his employees the day off.

“Throw your hat across the creek”

Born to Gideon and Ruth Ann Gates, Charles Cassius and John Gideon Gates were raised on a farm in Michigan. Gideon Gates never studied engineering like he wanted to, but he did plant the idea in his sons’ minds. Charles received his engineer of mines degree (with honors) from Michigan College of Mining and Technology, in 1904, and John earned the same degree there in 1911.
Charles came to the Rocky Mountains in 1904, to superintend a mine near Tin Cup, Colo. Lured away by a gold strike in 1906, he worked for the Nevada United Mines Company as a mine engineer; John joined him a few months later as the firm’s assayer.
In 1910, Charles returned to Colorado. Within weeks, he met 18-year-old Hazel Rhoads. On April 4, 1910, six weeks after meeting, the couple married. He began looking for a new vocation, after his new bride said he couldn’t be out in the mines all of the time and raise a family.
Charles Gates Sr. was sure he was on to something when, in an ad in a local paper, he read, “Rare Manufacturing Chance for an investment of $3,500; can demonstrate that it is more profitable than almost any other legitimate business in the city. Glad to permit thorough investigation.”
After he was shown a stack of promising orders, Charles Gates became the new owner of the Colorado Tire and Leather Company, located at 1025 Broadway, in Denver, on Oct. 1, 1911. The company’s sole product was the Durable Tread, a steel-studded leather band that fit over automobile tires.
“It was the forerunner of a recap for tires to extend the life of the tread,” Gates said. “In those days, if you got 500 miles out of tread you were lucky.”
But the company wasn’t that “profitable” after all. The new owner soon learned that orders he had been shown representing a single day had in fact been collected over several weeks. Settled into the one-room shop, with his rented typewriter, one employee, and a few pieces of equipment, he valiantly kept his chin up. After all, he was fond of exhorting people to “throw your hat across the creek,” an Old West expression used by pioneers who, while crossing rivers and creeks in covered wagons, threw their hats to the other side as an incentive to cross. This might be a big creek, but he determined to get successfully to the other side.
One of the first things he did was to send his brother a set of the Durable Treads. He promptly put them on his motorcycle tires, and soon had a blow out on the front wheel while going out to the mine one night.
“All those springs and things attached to all this tread got tangled up in the spokes of the motorcycle and he scooted off the front of it and made a burrow in the desert for several feet with his nose,” Gates said. “He wrote my dad and said, ‘I think you need some help back there!’”
John Gates shut down the mine, and headed to Denver. Although the product was good, Denver, with about 5,000 cars at that time, would be a hard sell. The brothers worked at coming up with advertising campaigns that would lure customers. Eight months after the business started, they had 18 employees.

A testimonial from Buffalo Bill

For years, Charles Gates Jr. saw to business in an office on Cherry Creek Drive North in Denver recognizable by the statue of a bighorn sheep beside the front door. Inside, he proudly displayed mementos of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, famed for his Wild West Show, who played a part in the company’s early success.
As a way to cut down on waste, Charles Gates Sr. decided to use leather scraps to make horse halters.
“They took some of them to some saddle tack shops and they said, ‘Oh no, we make them out of our own scrap,’” Gates recalled. “About that time, Buffalo Bill rolled into town with his circus. They went out and offered them to his foreman. He said, ‘We have to pull a ton of horses out of the boxcars. Anything that’s free, we can use.’ About a year or so later, they came back into town and said, ‘Those are the best halters that we’ve ever had. Can we get some more?’ My mother said, ‘Yes—if I can get a testimonial from Buffalo Bill.’”
After Buffalo Bill proclaimed that the halters were “so strong they never break,” the company became the largest halter manufacturer in the West. Hazel Gates pitched in, sewing halters and the fabric lining for the leather treads. Soon, with more space needed, the company expanded to larger headquarters at 1320-40 Acoma.
In 1914, six lots were acquired at 999 South Broadway in Denver. At a new administration building, halter manufacturing took place on the second floor. A new material also began appearing in products. Rubber was corrosion-resistant, resilient, flexible and adhesive. It also offered temperature stability.
The Half-Sole, a rubber tread on a fabric carcass to be cemented over worn tires—guaranteed puncture-proof and about half the cost of tire replacement—was produced on the first floor. To get the word out, the company advertised, “You half-sole your shoes; why not half-sole your tires?”
The owner’s motto of “Find something that works—then multiply it,” applied to the habit of recruiting customers as sales agents. Soon, the company had customers and salesmen around the country.
The company accidentally entered the automotive belt business in 1915.
“In those days, fan belts were flat leather, spliced together sort of teeth-like,” said Gates. After an employee trimmed the top of a molded rubber-and-fabric bucket he had made in the factory to hold bait, the discarded piece was successfully used as a replacement for a broken fan belt.

By Cliff Robertson - August 31, 2005

By Cliff Robertson – August 31, 2005

Samples of the flat rubber-and-fabric belt were sent to customers. The belt led to John Gates’ invention in 1917 that revolutionized the belt industry. A look under the hood of a new Cole coupe revealed a round hemp rope, acting as a belt, riding in a V-shaped pulley. A problem with this was that the ropes stretched when wet, shrank as they dried and then easily broke.
“My uncle said, ‘Maybe we could make a belt shaped like a V in place of the rope,” Gates said. “So, they tried that out and it worked very well. It gripped the pulley better.”
Twine was dipped in rubber cement, and then coated with fabric and vulcanized in a V-shaped mold. After further testing, the world’s first rubber and fabric V-belt was sent to Cole engineers, who adopted it for their cars.

Growing up in Gatesville

In 1917, to mirror new products, the Colorado Tire and Leather Company became The International Rubber Company. The entrance of the United States into World War I brought further success for the company. Because the Half-Sole helped conserve rubber, the government classified it as a “priority item.” Sales climbed.
The company was far from average. After an influenza epidemic that swept the country in 1918 resulted in the death of three employees, workers were ordered outside each day for fresh air and exercise, while windows and doors were opened to cleanse the air in the factory.
As war continued, employees spent lunch hours and other time at the new Roof Garden, an ornate cafeteria atop the factory. As they dined, a band played; John Gates participated by playing a mandolin, and later a saxophone. Rooftop activities included Christmas parties (during which Hazel Gates played Santa Claus to employees’ children), birthday parties and wrestling matches.
The company also offered employees discounted products from a gas station at the plant, and later from the Factory Store, which also served local residents. By the end of WWI, the South Broadway factory complex, known as “Gatesville,” also boasted a commissary.
When the end of WWI brought a drop in rubber prices from $1.25 per pound to about 15 cents per pound, and complete tires could be sold at a drastic reduction in price, the company changed with the times. That included a name change, in 1919, to the Gates Rubber Company. That same year, warehouses were opened in Chicago and San Francisco. They were soon filled with the Super-Tread, the “tire with the wider and thicker tread.”
An aggressive advertising push combined with its new product enabled the company to increase its tire sales in 1921 by 40 percent, while, due to the crash of the economy, tire sales nationwide dropped 35 percent. When the generator was introduced, V-belt sales doubled. Success was furthered by development of 20 different belt sizes, capable of fitting 95 percent of all cars. With other companies now producing the V-belt, Gates held the title of the world’s largest manufacturer.
Charles Gates’ family increased with the addition in 1923 of Harry Fisher Gates (who bore the name of both his grandfather and his uncle, photographer Harry Mellon Rhoads) and Berenice Gates, born in 1926.
The family made their home in Bear Creek Canyon, a stretch of canyon between Morrison, Colo., and Idledale, which Gates fondly remembered as being initially known as Starbuck. Living in a house designed by Hazel Gates’ brother and built in 1919, the children were kept busy by various assignments, including catching rodents and picking weeds.
“I think we got a penny a mouse, a nickel a rat, and 25 cents for a pack of dandelions,” Charles Gates Jr. said.
After very briefly attending another school, Charles Jr. began attending Graland Country Day School, located initially in Denver on Colfax Avenue, and later, near First Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.
“There was nothing out there then,” he said. “It was prairie. Even in those days Colorado Boulevard wasn’t paved.”
Each weekday, Charles Gates Sr. made the trek to the factory, stopping to drop the children off at school. That is, unless he and his wife were traveling.
“They enjoyed the world of exploration,” said Gates. “They traveled around the world by every means you could imagination—boat, mule back and tri-motor airplane.” Most of these trips were made without children.
“They sort of staked us out with a relative or caretaker,” said Gates with a grin.
When Hazel Gates suggested traveling to Hawaii one year, her husband reluctantly agreed, and the children, not yet in college, came along. Much to his surprise, Charles Sr. liked it, and eventually had a second family home built there. Charles Jr. later attended school in both Denver and Hawaii. Although he enjoyed Hawaii, he didn’t like the trip.
“It took a week to get there,” said Gates. “It was two and a half days driving to the West Coast, and then five days and nights by boat.”
Gates didn’t “weather well” on boats. Due to trouble with ear infections, he had earlier been through a mastoid operation, resulting in the loss of hearing in one ear.
“Today, you don’t hear of that because of penicillin and other antibiotics,” he said. Later in life, he decided that if he couldn’t fly to a destination, he’d rather not go.
After school, Charles Jr. and Harry would often wander around the plant. He recalled loving the smell of crude rubber, immediately evident upon entering the factory, which he said was an “industrial arpege.” Having a rubber company in Colorado, he said, was a little strange, since “Akron was the place where all the rubber companies were.”
Being around the factory produced a further interest in machinery for the boys. Already, countless hours had been spent on projects their father assigned that were accomplished with tools from a woodworking shop.
“When you live up there, you have to create your own amusement,” Gates said.

Charles Gates Sr. was fond of exhorting people to “throw your hat across the creek.” Charles Gates Jr. looks like he’s ready to do the same.

Charles Gates Sr. was fond of exhorting people to “throw your hat across the creek.” Charles Gates Jr. looks like he’s ready to do the same.

Items that materialized were a motorized scooter, powered by the reciprocating motor from a washing machine, and a small racing car, made from junked cars, intended to race in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
“Dad found it and it disappeared,” Gates said. “He thought we’d get killed.”
As the children grew, so did the company. By 1922, there were 12 distribution points.
Over the years, Charles Gates Sr. had adopted a manufacturing philosophy of making “necessary accessories to essentials.” In 1927, Gates built a plant to manufacture garden hose. It soon added radiator hose.
When Wall Street crashed in 1929, Gates put more men into the field to develop business, and the company was able to maintain profitability. Benefits at the plant also grew. The Gates Mutual Benefit Club, for which members paid club dues of 35 cents per week in the late 1920s, included gasoline and car maintenance as well as medical, pharmaceutical, surgical and dental services. Gatesville had its own clinic and pharmacy, and a handful of employees formed a company credit union in 1934.

Following in father’s footsteps

Charles Gates Jr., who believed the common language of the world was “mathematics,” made the logical choice of attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Working to earn his engineering degree, he attended MIT from 1939 through 1941. But after two years in Boston, sinus problems led him to transfer to Stanford University, where he would meet his future wife.
One day, Gates spotted a “good looking pair of legs.” His eyes traveled upward to see two arms swathed like a mummy.
“That was kind of different,” he said.
Gates would later find out that the girl with the great legs and bandaged arms had been horseback riding with a friend in Salt Lake City, just before leaving for school, and had embraced a bouquet of poison oak. The two would later meet on a double date, but not as partners. Later, he and June Swaner, a transfer from the University of Utah, would casually date.
In December 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the nation found itself at war. This would quickly have an impact on the rubber industry. Gates employees, which soon included many housewives, worked 48-hour weeks to produce rubber products for the home and war fronts, including belts for invasion boats; tires for jeeps, trucks and planes; and parts for bombers, fighters, tanks and ships.
The seizure by Japan in 1942 of rubber plantations in the Malay Peninsula and Dutch East Indies cut off the source of nearly 90 percent of America’s natural rubber supply. The War Department found its stockpile dwindling. Rubber products were searched out for recycling, and a massive national research and engineering effort was undertaken to produce enough synthetic rubber, previously produced meagerly, to meet the country’s needs. A collaborative government-industry program would soon be in place. Both Gates as a company and Charles Gates Jr. would have a big part in this effort.
After finishing his engineering degree in 1943, Gates faced the possibility of being drafted. Wanting a say in how he spent the next couple of years, he determined to get into the naval engineers.
“I didn’t want to be a foot soldier,” he said.
Gates, with three compulsory years in the Reserve Officer Training Corps in high school, and another two at MIT, partially in the Signal Corps program, returned to Denver, took the physical, and flunked, due to his deafness in one ear.
“After that, I decided I’d better go to work until I got drafted,” he said. He didn’t immediately begin work for the family business, even though he had spent summers at the factory while attending college.
“My dad decided to farm me out,” he said. “I went with Firestone in Akron. Maybe that was to get a little different picture of the rubber industry.”
While in Akron, he was chosen, with about five others, to start up a synthetic rubber plant in Louisiana. Established in Baton Rouge in 1943, the Copolymer Corporation was a group of seven medium-sized rubber and tire companies that joined forces to operate one of the U.S. government’s rubber reserve plants. Charles Gates Jr. spent three years with the firm as its assistant chief engineer.
The push to produce synthetic rubber was a huge success. By 1945, combined efforts resulted in annual synthetic rubber production in the U.S. in excess of 600,000 tons. Before the war, no more than 6,000 tons had ever been produced in a single year.
The Gates Rubber Company’s part in the development of synthetics, both through the Copolymer Corporation and at its own factory, where they produced the first totally synthetic rubber belt, would help to earn the company the coveted Army/Navy “E” award, presented to a few select Denver firms.
While otherwise occupied, Charles Gates Jr. still thought of the draft. Upon taking yet another physical in New Orleans, he had again flunked. Smiling, he said he didn’t understand what difference being deaf in one ear made, when you considered “all of the cannon fire.”
“They were getting a little fussy about the situation,” he said. “I had five years of ROTC, and I was still a ‘non-wanted.’”
While he waited, Harry Gates, who attended Menlo College in preparation for Stanford, was drafted. He had been told that if he was drafted, he should make sure he got in the Army, so that he could sign up for the Air Corps, and he did.
“Then, they decided they had enough people in the Air Corps,” Gates said.
After passing the physical, Harry went to boot camp in Texas, and applied for a transfer to the 10th Mountain Division. He got his transfer; however, in a division normally trained in Colorado and famed for skiing, Harry, attached to a desert division, never saw a pair of skis.
“He went from one place in Texas to another and then right into the Italian campaign,” Gates said. “He got pretty banged up over there, and came home in a hospital ship and recovered.”

Charlie Gates at his office in Denver in 2002.

Charlie Gates at his office in Denver in 2002.

With the military uninterested in him and his career moving forward, Charles Gates Jr. couldn’t get June out of his mind. Believing she was visiting Mexico City, he headed there to find her, and a few days later, proposed marriage.
“It was on one of the main boulevards somewhere; she said she thought that might be OK,” he said, grinning.
Gates and the woman he fondly referred to as “my lady” married in Salt Lake City, on Nov. 26, 1943, and then returned to Baton Rouge. The reunion would be the merging of two distinctly different worlds—that of the “great outdoors” and the “world of culture, including the ballet and symphony.”
“I gave her a shotgun as a wedding present,” he said. “I had her out in the swamps of Louisiana hunting ducks. She was a very good sport. Over the years, I think I did a better job of introducing her to the outdoor world than she did me to the cultural world.”

How do birds fly?

While in Baton Rouge, Gates started looking for a new hobby.
“I always wondered how birds fly, so I decided to take flying lessons,” he said. June was unaware of his new pastime.
“She started asking me why I was always late getting home from work,” he said. “Finally, I told her I had a surprise for her. I took her out to the airfield and managed to talk her into getting into the backseat of an open-cockpit airplane. I gave her a pair of goggles and a scarf and we took off.”
When Hazel Gates later heard of her son’s new interest, she expressed her concern that he would get into trouble flying by himself.
“I said, ‘Mom, you’re more dangerous on the ground,’” Gates said. She agreed to get a chauffeur, and he agreed to get a copilot.
June initially fit that bill, but his copilots would later include his daughter, Diane, born in 1954, and his son, John, born two years later. Both children ended up being pilots.
“When Diane was quite young, she got airsick in the back of the airplane so I put her up in the copilot’s seat,” he said.

Working for father

In June 1946, the couple returned to Denver, and he entered the family business. Gates said he began as a “hired hand,” and then smiled.
“Actually, I was a hired hand for 50 years,” he said. He didn’t start out in the business on the ground floor, but in the basement, where he “hauled sooty substances, requiring the need of several showers a day.”
Charles Gates Jr., who would become vice president of the company in 1951, focused on marketing and finance. Harry Gates, also a new Gates employee, put his efforts into manufacturing, engineering, and research and development, and provided the company with over 30 patents.
“We sort of teamed together,” Gates said. “He was a people person, as were my father and my Uncle John.”
During and after the war, Gates Rubber hired dozens of chemists, physicists and engineers, which developed compounds and found new uses for synthetic fibers, such as rayon and nylon, as reinforcing materials.
In 1954, the company saw sales of $82 million. Denver’s largest firm, it was also the nation’s sixth largest rubber company. By that time, Gatesville included more than 30 interconnected structures, on a 53-acre site. That same year, a manufacturing facility was opened in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

The gun-slinging years

In 1955, Harry Fisher Gates, who had married “Mitten” Howell in 1949, succumbed to cancer, at the age of 32. John Gideon Gates, who served as secretary-treasurer of the company throughout the years, died in 1959. Charles Gates Sr. died two years later, in 1961, at the age of 83, leaving his company to his children. At that time, the company had sales totaling $140 million, employed 7,300 and distributed around the world.
Upon the death of his father, Charles Gates Jr., 40, became president and chairman of the board. In doing so, he shed the title of executive vice president, which he earned in 1958, the same year Gates Rubber de Mexico opened in Toluca, Mexico.
Growth continued with new plants and warehouses. Although his father had expanded the company with an ever-increasing list of products, Gates believed there was room for change.
“The rubber business was growing about two or two and a half percent a year,” he said. “I thought we needed diversification to have more ‘grow’ power.”
The company began staking out other fields of interest.
“That was the beginning of our gun-slinging years,” he said. “Shooting from the hip,” Gates analyzed and entered different ventures, knowing that, in many cases, others thought he had “lost his marbles.” And he encountered problems.
“We kept running into ourselves out there in the marketplace, because we were supplying rubber products to the industrial, hardware and automotive worlds,” he said. “The things that seemed logical to get into always competed with our customers.”
At the time in the hydraulics hose business, Gates thought that the farming industry was worth a venture.
“I became intrigued with these rotary-rigged overhead irrigation systems, like you see a lot of in eastern Colorado,” he said. “We put a team together to find out where the best sub-surface water was. We started to acquire this dry land and found out that it had some of the best sub-surface water anywhere in the country.
“But soon, the agricultural industry, which we were supplying products to, said, ‘You’ve got the farmers cranked up here. They’re starting to think of you as a big industrial farmer taking the livelihood of all these little farms away.’ International Harvester, John Deere and others had Gates’ products on them. The farmer’s co-op started talking about the fact that they shouldn’t buy our products. The industry said, ‘You have to decide if you’re in the rubber business or the farming business.’”
The trend continued.
“I think we tried to get into almost every kind of business,” he said.
He came to realize that diversification is like “drilling for oil.”
“Sometimes you hit oil, sometimes dry holes, but you have to drill to hit,” he said.
One idea he thought could be a hit was to create a chain of garages across the country.

Charles C. Gates Sr. proudly holds his firstborn son, Charles C. Gates Jr.

Charles C. Gates Sr. proudly holds his firstborn son, Charles C. Gates Jr.

“If you had your car repaired in Denver, you could guarantee it in Salt Lake City or somewhere,” he explained. “You could go to one of these places to get it repaired.”
Almost as soon as he had the idea, however, he realized that there was still a problem.
“If we got into that business we would be competing with all of the little garages that we were supplying,” he said. “Another business we got into was the trucking business. We were running our own little truck line, taking products out and raw materials back. The trucking industry said, ‘If you’re going to compete with us, we shouldn’t be buying your tires and other products.’ We decided we were still going to use trucks to haul stuff around, but have a very small operation.”
That idea spawned another, involving aviation.
“I thought maybe the idea of creating automotive garages wasn’t so good but what about aircraft garages across the country?” he recalled. “I thought aviation was going to come into its own. The highways were getting crowded.”
The first link in Gates’ chain of fixed base operations would be Stapleton Airport-based Combs Aircraft Corp., which he acquired from Harry Combs in 1966. He renamed the new Gates Aviation Corp. subsidiary Combs Gates. A few months later, Gates acquired controlling interest of Indianapolis Airport-based Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation, from the flamboyant Roscoe Turner.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Gates moved up the ladder of aircraft he flew company executives across country in, to check on existing Gates Rubber plants, or to search out new ways to expand.
“I believed in corporate aircraft early,” said Gates. “We went through the slower twin and DC-3s, and the Fokker F-27, working up the line.”
With the arrival of a new era, Gates, now relying more often on other pilots to do the flying, sought out a business jet.
In the mid-1960s, there were a few choices, including the Lear Jet (later it became the Learjet); Avions Marcel Dassault Mystère-Falcon 20 (Fan Jet Falcon), a small executive twinjet that Pan American World Airways’ business jet division marketed at the time; Rockwell Standard’s Jet Commander; and the Sabreliner Model 40, a twin-engine business jet derived from the T-39.
While deciding which jet to purchase, Gates took a ride in a Lear Jet. His immediate reaction was that the speedy aircraft, definitely with fighter characteristics, wasn’t what he was looking for, either to fly or to transport others. Instead, he acquired a Fan Jet Falcon.
“I could handle that one,” he said.

The Lear connection

When Gates and Combs began discussing having a private brand airplane marketed through the two FBOs, conversation turned to the struggling Lear Jet Industries.
In the late 1950s, William P. Lear Sr. acquired the design for a Swiss fighter, with the intention of marketing it as a small, economical business-class jet. Lear formed Swiss American Aviation Corporation, and established the company in Wichita, Kansas, the home of Piper, Cessna and Beechcraft, in 1962. With the assembly of the first jet begun, in the spring of 1963, the company name was changed to the Lear Jet Corporation. In October 1963, the prototype Lear Jet Model 23 (serial number 23-001) made its first flight from Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport.
The first aircraft was FAA certificated on July 31, 1964. That October, the first production Model 23 was delivered. On Nov. 30, 1964, Lear took Lear Jet Corporation public. Model 24, which had already set three speed records, received FAA certification, under Far Part 25, on March 17, 1966, becoming the first “business aircraft” to be certificated. Model 25 made its first flight on Aug. 12, 1966. The following month, the company name was again changed to Lear Jet Industries, Inc.
But the company struggled to stay afloat. After a day of negotiating, in April 1967, Gates acquired the available 65 percent of the company on a handshake. Bill Lear Sr. would serve as chairman of the board for the next two years.
From the beginning, says Gates, company shareholders urged him to rename the jet company, taking out the Lear name, partially because the aircraft had been involved in some incidents and had gained a reputation for being very demanding for the average pilot.
“That’s because they were jumping out of their Super Cubs into the Lear Jet,” Gates said.
But Gates was adamant to keep the name association. One reason was that it was already felt that you had “arrived” when you were able to buy a Lear Jet.
“The Lear Jet had become synonymous with the corporate jet,” Gates said, adding that bad press wasn’t always warranted.
“The name association became so symbolized that anytime a small jet cracked up, it was a Lear Jet, even though it might not be,” Gates said.
After the decision was weighed, on Dec. 2, 1969, Lear Jet Industries Inc. became Gates Learjet Corporation. Gates Aviation Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Gates Rubber, took on the role of domestic and Canadian distributor for the Learjet.
Gates, who served as chairman of the board of Gates Learjet Corp., said that in the early years of ownership, there was a little “mopping up to be done.”
“It was a good plane, but Bill Lear’s forte was really electronics,” said Gates. “You have to have a complete set of specifications. Well, he would go out into the plant and get them to change this or that; every airplane came out a little different from the last one.”
Combs recalled early problems such as cabins that were too small. Then, the first jets, straight jets, “ate fuel like it was going out of style,” and had a restricted range.

Gates Aviation

Charles Gates Jr., who was “born in motion,” liked bikes, motorcycles, and aircraft, but didn’t “weather well” on boats.

Charles Gates Jr., who was “born in motion,” liked bikes, motorcycles, and aircraft, but didn’t “weather well” on boats.

In 1969, Gates Aviation acquired the assets of Pacific Airmotive. In 1975, the FBO activities were officially consolidated under the name Combs Gates Inc. As of that year, Combs Gates Denver operated out of a new executive terminal on Stapleton International Airport’s north side. A fourth FBO was added in 1978, with the purchase of Arapahoe County Airport-based Arapahoe Aviation.
Gates Aviation broadened its horizons in 1979, with the purchase of Avionics Engineering of Denver, based at Stapleton. The following year, Combs Gates Fort Lauderdale was established at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood Airport. Then, in mid-1982, Combs Gates Inc. acquired Air Kaman at Bradley International Airport, Windsor Locks, Conn., renaming it Combs Gates Bradley, Inc.
After Gates Aviation’s president, G.H.B. “Hig” Gould, died in October 1971, Harry Combs was elected president. At that time, Gates Learjet had a $13 million deficit. Reportedly, part of that deficit came from Lear’s acquisition in 1966 of Brantly Helicopter.
Initially finding himself in the helicopter business, as well as the jet business, Gates moved forward with the idea of developing the Gates Twinjet Helicopter, with hopes that it would be used as a supplemental travel mode with the Learjet. However, it never got beyond initial stages, and Gates exited the helicopter business with the sale of Brantly in 1969.
By June 1972, the company had “15 million bucks in the bank and didn’t owe anything.” It was one of the most dramatic aviation-related financial turnarounds in America’s history, accomplished by changes including a redesigned sales and distribution system and the elimination of dealers.
As of 1975, Gates Learjet had led the business jet industry in total aircraft delivered for several years in a row.

Gates Learjet changes hands

In the 1980s, said Gates, things were going wrong in the aviation business.
“There isn’t an industry that doesn’t have cycles; the only one I know is the undertaker business,” he said.
Between 1980 and 1982, general aviation went from selling 18,500 aircraft a year to less than 1,000. In late 1984, Gates Learjet’s commercial aircraft production was suspended until inventory could be reduced. In early 1985, however, Model 55 was unveiled. In early 1986, production was restarted, in Wichita, and in Tucson, where headquarters had been relocated.
Having continuing success with Gates Rubber Company, Gates would soon shed Gates Learjet. Diversification, he said, is very challenging.
“Most of your people think you’re taking money out of your hub business to put into something else,” he said. “They said, ‘You’re taking food away from us and you’re feeding a loser out there.’”
Integrated Acquisition, Inc. acquired the subsidiaries of Gates Aviation, including Gates Learjet Corporation, in September 1987, and dropped Gates from the company name the following year. Bombardier purchased the Learjet Corporation in 1990.
Before the sale of the Learjet Corporation, Integrated spun off the FBO network of six bases to AMR Service Corporation, a sister company of American Airlines, in July 1988. The bases, several which included Gates Learjet/Garret AiResearch 731 service centers, were consolidated with three existing AMR Service FBOs the following year; the network was renamed AMR Combs. The maintenance part of the company was later sold to Bombardier.
The FBO network again changed hands in March 1999, when Signature Flight Support, BBA Group’s service division, already with 42 existing FBOs, purchased the network of 14 FBOs.

Diversification throughout the decades

The aviation-related ventures of Gates Corporation often went hand-in-hand with the company’s other activities. The products of Avsco, Inc., a subsidiary of Gates Learjet, acquired in 1971, at one time included L’eggs nylon stocking eggs, Cool Whip bowls, sewing machine cases and a variety of products for General Mills. The company also made plastic injection-molded audio tape cartridges for the Learjet Stereo.
During the time that Gates was actively involved in Gates Learjet and FBO activities, he remained president and chairman of the board of Gates Rubber. He oversaw the selling of the tire division in 1974, as well as the company’s expansion, including the building of additional belt and hose plants in the U.S. and Europe.
Gates had been a fan of the great outdoors since growing up in the Rocky Mountains, and as a youth dreamed of working on a dude ranch. However, that dream never came true since his summers were spent “in the bowels of the rubber company hauling bags of carbon black.” But during the mid-1940s, he visited A Bar A, a dude ranch, and fell in love with it. He found the fishing and other activities at the ranch southeast of Encampment, Wyo., exhilarating.
He acquired the 10,000-acre ranch years later, in 1962, and believed it to be “the best dude ranch in the West.” Visitors enjoyed a three-par golf course, tennis course, trap and skeet shooting, and fishing and riding. Cattle ranches began a few years later.
Over the decades, expansion occurred in different arenas, often through acquisition, leading to the forming of several major business units. Manufacturing was diverse, included batteries, timing belts, carpet underlay, rubber footwear (green Wellie boots), and wet and dry suits for scuba divers.

Gates Corporation changes hands

By 1996, the Gates family empire included the Gates Rubber Company (at the time the largest non-tire rubber company in the world), Gates Formed-Fibre Products, Inc., Gates Power Drive Products, Inc., Cody Energy, Inc., A Bar A, Inc., and the Gates Land Company. Gates Rubber had sales of over $1 billion, employed over 14,000, and served customers from 170 locations worldwide, including 40 manufacturing facilities in 13 countries.
Charles C. Gates Jr. was at the helm of Gates Rubber (now Gates Corporation) when it merged with a UK company in July 1996, becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of London-based Tomkins plc. The deal included stock swaps in excess of $1 billion. Gates said that taking the corporation public was a well-planned decision that actually began 10 years prior to the merger.
In 1996, Gates retired as chairman and CEO of the Gates Rubber Co., a position he held from 1981 through July 29, 1996. He was appointed to the board of directors of Tomkins plc in August 1996, and had a place on the board until 2000.
After the merger, Gates concentrated his efforts on overseeing the family’s energy, oil and gas, ranching and real estate assets not sold to Tomkins. The merger with Tomkins, together with the Gates family investments through Cody Resources, propelled Gates, already one of Colorado’s wealthiest men, onto Forbes’ billionaires list by 2004.

The good life

Throughout the years, Gates’ circle of friends included well-known aviator and astronaut Neil Armstrong, as well as members of various organizations he was active within throughout the years. The A Bar A Ranch was the annual gathering place for Conquistadores Del Cielo, an organization of aviation/aerospace executives formed in the 1930s that Gates was involved with for over 30 years. He was also a senior member of Roundup Riders of the Rockies, and rode with that group for three decades.
Friends and acquaintances recently mourned the passing of Charlie Gates, who died on August 28, at the age of 84. At the philanthropist’s request, on September 12, family and friends gathered at his home in the Polo Club in Denver, donned leis and celebrated his life. Diane Gates Wallach, senior VP of Denver-based Cody Resources, and John Gates, an architect based in Aspen, hosted the occasion, and toasted their father.
Gates’ children haven’t forgotten those early years in the cockpit with their father. Today, Diane pilots a Learjet 55, while John, who flies a Cessna 182RG, particularly enjoys glider flying. During the gathering, Gates’ role in aviation was remembered through a flyby of two T-6s, flown by Ed Huber and Chris Baron, both members of AirPower West.
June and Charles Gates spent much of their life together in their home in the Polo Club. However, quite a bit of it was spent at a home in Hawaii, built after Gates’ parents fell in love with the state.
Gates once said he grew up with the philosophy that we’re only on this earth for two reasons—to try to make the world a little better and to have some fun in the process. The Gates definitely did both.
Making the world a little better began with the earlier generation. In 1946, Charles Gates Sr., Hazel Gates and John G. Gates established the Gates Foundation, into which went 10 percent of the rubber company’s stocks. Charles Gates Jr. later became the driving force behind the foundation, which over the years has awarded scholarships, and notable grants to worthwhile causes such as the Gates Planetarium at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Gates Hall at the University of Denver, and the Gates Tennis Center. The foundation has given out more than $147 million since its creation, and Gates was one of the largest contributors to Children’s Hospital.
When it came to having fun, Charles and June Gates did that too. Their adventures included several safaris, to places such as Botswana, South Africa. The couple shared 57 years together, until June died on Dec. 23, 2000. “We had a good life together,” said Gates. And they made life good for many others.

Making the world a little better began with the earlier generation. In 1946, Charles Gates Sr., Hazel Gates and John G. Gates established the Gates Foundation, into which went 10 percent of the rubber company’s stocks. Charles Gates Jr. later became the driving force behind the foundation, which over the years has awarded scholarships, and notable grants to worthwhile causes such as the Gates Planetarium at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Gates Hall at the University of Denver, and the Gates Tennis Center. The foundation has given out more than $147 million since its creation, and Gates was one of the largest contributors to Children’s Hospital.

When it came to having fun, Charles and June Gates did that too. Their adventures included several safaris, to places such as Botswana, South Africa. The couple shared 57 years together, until June died on Dec. 23, 2000. “We had a good life together,” said Gates. And they made life good for many others.