Iona Manufacturing Company
Prepared for an August 9, 2008 walking tour
by Susan Barlow, Manchester Historical Society

• In 1957, William H. Sleith (1909-1996) moved the Iona company to Manchester from East Hartford. The Hartford Courant reported on April 5, 1956 that Iona (they spelled it all caps IONA, perhaps not realizing that the company was named after the owner’s wife) has 125 employees and “manufactures electric motors for appliances and produces cake mixers. The firm will erect a 12,000 square foot plant on Regent Street on land purchased Tuesday from Orford Soap Co. It was formed in 1947 and is headed by William H. Sleith, president and treasurer. He said construction will start in a few weeks and occupancy of the new plant will be in the fall.”

• I recall from my high school days (1960s) that Iona employed students in after-school shifts. Employees got discounts, so if you had a friend who worked there, you could get an Iona appliance for less money than retail. Most everyone knew someone who worked at Iona. I bought an Iona hair-dryer, which I took with me to college. It had a large carrying case with a built-in mirror and a heating motor with a hose connected to a bonnet that fitted over your curlers. I have donated the hair-dryer to the Historical Society.

• Iona sold their appliances to W.T. Grant (“Grant's” department store), who in turn sold them in their own stores under their own brand – “Lady Susan.” My brother Michael Cronin worked at the Regent Street plant in 1964. Michael says, “I worked in the shipping department where we packed identical appliances into identical packing boxes with different text and logos.”

The Courant reported on August 9, 1965 that the Manchester Savings Bank had a display of products made by local industry, as part of its program “What Manchester Makes Makes Manchester.” The news article says, “When Iona moved to Manchester in 1957, the company employed 75 people and manufactured only portable food mixers. Today, eight years later, average employment at Iona is 600 and the product line has grown to include stationary mixers, blenders and ice-crusher attachments, electric can openers and knife sharpeners, hair dryers, electric knives and shoe polishers. The company also manufactures all the electric motors used in Iona appliances as well as for other customers. Iona products are available throughout the United States and Canada as well as most countries in the free world.”

• William Sleith, president of Iona, was awarded “Employer of the Year” by the National Association for Retarded Children, noting that 30 percent “of the 600 employees are mentally retarded. Some are graduates of Mansfield Training School, others travel each day to Sleith’s electrical plant." Sleith, who frequently speaks to groups of employers on the advisability of hiring the mentally retarded, plans to take part soon in a course for teachers of mentally handicapped persons.

• In 1969, Iona was the fifth largest taxpayer in Manchester, with an adjusted assessment of $1,427,780.

• In May 1969, President Sleith announced that privately owned Iona would be acquired by General Signal Corp., “The addition of the Iona line of electric appliances will substantially broaden General Signal’s participation in the appliance field and provide Iona with the financial base necessary for its success.” Iona’s 1968 sales were about $10 million. The Courant reported, “The present Iona management will continue to direct the firm,” but in January 1970, General Signal’s director of internal audit was appointed Iona’s treasurer.

• In June 1970, Iona workers rejected a unionization attempt.

• In 1971, William Sleith was honored with the Chamber of Commerce’s “M” award, citing his public service, including as incorporator and trustee of Manchester Memorial Hospital, member of the Board of Directors of Manchester Community College, member of the Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, and then president of the Lutz Junior Museum.

• In February 1974, The Courant reported that Iona would close the Manchester plant affecting nearly 500 employees. Bill Sleith, then chairman of the board of Iona, said closing the plant was “necessitated by the continuance of heavy operating losses throughout 1973 and lately 1974.” He said employees would be helped to find other jobs, perhaps transferring to other divisions of the parent company.

• In an opinionated article in the March 17, 1974 Courant, a reporter describes Sleith as always wanting a bigger operation: “It was a whirling, complicated process. When he began, Sleith bought the motors for his mixers from a small factory in New Hampshire that powered all its plant with a water wheel. By the mid-‘60s Sleith was making his own motors in a plant in Puerto Rico where he found cheap labor and no income tax. His product line kept growing. At one point he made nine mixer models with no qualitative difference between them. He made electric shoe polishers, electric knives and vibrating pillows ... He candidly admits he helped create needs that didn’t exist. He was making more money, but always there was the need for more money – money to reinvest in the plant, for new products, to keep abreast ... But, conceded Sleith, what happened to Iona is not a good example of bigger being better. ‘The bigger company gave the workers completely paid insurance and benefits. I couldn’t do that for them. But the employees lost something when I was replaced. Eventually the plant became computer oriented. My imprint was washed away.’ This spring it will be Iona that dissolves.”