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Klein Steel chairman moves to improve literacy, education opportunities

Keywords: Tags  Klein Steel, Joe Klein, Corinna Petry

lein Steel Co., Rochester, N.Y., is home to two warriors—one aiming to fight illiteracy and improve education opportunities for at-risk children, and the other a former U.S. Army major general battling to improve performance and profitability.

Joe Klein recently took the title of chairman and passed on the mantle of chief executive officer to president John Batiste, who has been with the company for six years.

Klein Steel started up in 1971, an offshoot of a family scrap business, and Joe Klein joined the company a year later when he graduated from college. "I never thought I would come into the family business. I was taking a graduate course in biophysics, but I worked in our new little steel company in the afternoon and I couldn’t wait to get to work," he said. "I had a photographic memory of steel transactions."

Since the 1970s, the company has gone through periods of rapid growth, then retrenched and worked on improving quality, then it would grow again, he said. "At some point, the company outstretched my abilities," Klein said, which is why he hired Batiste. "I like to develop and strategize, but with more than 150 employees we needed a different skill set."

Meanwhile, Klein got involved in Rochester public schools and helped raise money to open True North Rochester Preparatory Charter School. He also was the "gopher," locating real estate for the school and securing professional assistance as needed. "Within two years, Rochester Prep was beating every other (public) school in math and English," Klein said. It started small, but now has a total enrollment of 458 students in grades K-1 and 5-8.

Klein was inspired to become an educator when he was 13, working in the family junkyard. "Most of the workers could not read. The guy teaching me to operate the shear couldn’t read, and when he started dating a schoolteacher he was embarrassed. He wanted me to teach him to read. That was the start of my interest in urban education."

Four years ago, the mayor of Rochester named Klein vice chairman of the city’s Literacy Commission. It became "a moral imperative to continue leading the school literacy effort," he said. When Klein hired Batiste to run the day-to-day operations, he applied to Superintendents Academy but found he needed a master’s degree. So he and his wife moved to Boston for 10 months so he could attend Harvard University’s master’s program in education. Previously a self-described "bad" student, Klein said he worked 70 to 90 hours per week, spending all his time in the university’s many libraries. "The Harvard program is exceptionally rigorous," but with Batiste at the helm of the company "I didn’t have to think or worry about the shop at all."

Now that he’s graduated, Klein is considering where to take his advanced degree. "I would like to take on a small charter school (program) with one or two schools and help them grow, or be in a support organization for charter schools in a (U.S.) city. I have looked at New Orleans’ charter schools and I’ve looked at Providence (R.I.)," he said. "But my wife has veto power (over any move). As a printmaker, she needs an active art community."

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