FENTON — When Atlas 46 opens a new factory, it doesn’t erect a sheet metal building on the outskirts of town. He is renovating an old building in the heart of the city centre.
It’s part of what the company’s director of community relations, Jonathan Weyer, calls “moral capitalism.” The phrase comes from a book by economics and business writer Steven Pearlstein.
“We say capitalism can be good, and is good, if done right,” Weyer said.
Atlas 46 manufactures tool belts, tool vests, tool bags, tool pouches and anything that can be used to carry tools. It also manufactures a line of equipment specifically for the needs of firefighters. Products are usually made from nylon or leather, or a combination of the two, and are sewn by hand on sewing machines.
The company is named after the Greek god who held up the heavens and the 46th parallel in Montana, where company founder John Carver owns a ranch.
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Part of the company’s moral capitalism mission is to open factories in small towns that need a boost in both energy and jobs. In order to maintain the character and charm of a city, the company renovates and rehabilitates old buildings in its declining business district.
According to Weyer, the company chooses small towns that have been hit by globalization and the loss of manufacturing, hoping to help them thrive again. Investing in these areas builds a sense of community, he said, and can also train a new workforce to find advancement in Atlas 46 or elsewhere.
“We get more from them than they get from us. Their work ethic rubs off on us,” said Paul Witwer, vice president of product development.
The business opened 8 years ago in Fenton on the site of Eagle Industries, a former company owned by John Carver that sold backpacks, holsters and other nylon gear to the military. Brian Carver, John’s son and CEO of Atlas 46, said he used to play building when he was 5 years old.
This Fenton factory is more of a traditional-style manufacturing building, with concrete floors and an interior designed to be ignored. But the new locations in Hillsboro, Illinois, and Vandalia, Illinois, have hardwood floors and exposed brick walls.
“They look like microbreweries,” Brian Carver said.
Each factory employs no more than 70 to 100 people, he said, so they can help improve cities without dominating them. They are now looking at other similar cities in Illinois and Missouri for expansion.
Atlas 46’s business model is also a belief in second chances, and the company often hires convalescing and incarcerated people.
Similarly, officials are exploring the possibility of providing employment for prisoners in a day release program at Vandalia Correctional Center or other Illinois Department of Corrections facilities, Weyer said.
Company officials are also beginning to discuss training people inside the prisons to give them a skill, like sewing or designing, that they can use when they are released.
The company takes note of the fact that its products are made in America. Many of its 220 employees are immigrants — nine languages are spoken at its factories, Brian Carver said.
Much of the competition comes from countries like China, which can make similar products at a lower cost. Atlas 46 responds with speed, quality and innovation.
Brian Carver, 41, said the company maintains production speed by staying lean and nimble. Little inventory is kept in stock. When a new product is proposed, either by a client company or by one of the in-house designers, it can go from idea to production in a matter of weeks.
Quality is maintained by crafting, or at least assembling, most items by hand.
Sewing is becoming a lost art in the making. Brian Carver estimated that 90% of his employees couldn’t sew when they first joined Atlas 46.
The company is one of the few places that specializes in tailoring, so some local fire companies ask them to mend their coats and pants. Although they don’t do mending and don’t even make the torn clothes, they make the necessary repairs.
Innovation is also key to their competitive advantage; on average, they release a new product every two weeks or so. This speed and innovation has led them to forecast sales of $14-15 million this year.
One of the reasons for this sustained creativity is the company’s requirement that its designers watch the artisans at work – sometimes they’re their customers, sometimes just people they ask for help. This way they learn what workers really want from their equipment.
At this point, a quote from Witwer adorns a whiteboard on the wall of Fenton’s office: “There is no substitute for direct observation and interaction with the people who will be using the product.”
From such observations arise a wealth of ideas. Seeing that most workers simply throw their tools in their bags at the end of the day, the company now makes bags with extra-wide openings – and they’re closed with magnets, for easy access.
Many of their bags now also come with a sturdy, removable pad, so workers have something handy to kneel on.
Such innovations usually come from the designers, and the designers all come from the ranks of workers who hand sew each product. This ability to move up the corporate ladder quickly — the possibility of upward mobility — is a powerful motivator, Carver said.
Justin Shultz, Corporate Purchasing and Maintenance Manager, started working at Atlas 46 five years ago as an assembler. Darren Patterson, who has been with the company for just over two years, started in the shipping department. He is now in charge of the kitting department, a quality control position that ensures the production line has everything it needs to make each product.
Carver and the leaders are inspired by the Kaizen management method, a business theory that emphasizes constant and incremental improvement.
“How are you improving every day? Carver said.
One way, he said, is to take the famous words of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky to heart: “I skate where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been.”
But another way to improve is more practical. It’s about connecting with their customers and thinking like the workers who use their products: 46 Atlas employees are building their own offices.
Some are done better than others, but the thing is, the people who work there have some idea of the process.
Witwer said, “We build things because the people we work with build things.”