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Atlas Foundry Charts its Path

Click here to see this article as it appears in Modern Casting.

When you’re sitting in a ballpark, stadium or arena you might notice the ornate design on the ends of the aisles. Atlas Foundry is responsible for a lot of those.

Called “standards” by manufacturer American Seating, Grand Rapids, Michigan, the seat sides are at the end of rows and can be customized with customer-specific painting and burnished with either generic sport logos or custom ones for the team that plays in the facility. The ones produced by Atlas are found in numerous major-league stadiums like Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Chicago’s Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field, multiple NFL and college stadiums, and even obscure high school facilities like La Joya ISD Stadium in tiny La Joya, Texas, and many in between.

While the sides are a fun talking point, they aren’t the metalcaster’s main talking point.
When Jim and William (Bill) Gartland talk to potential customers of Atlas Foundry they can highlight how they’re moving forward. The facility’s ownership understands that to bring in new business, it’s important to show prospective clients their needs will be taken care of by a company in it for the long haul.

That’s what the Marion, Indiana, gray iron caster does. They’re more than happy to let customers see their facility’s books and prove it’s financially healthy. On tours, clients see a recent major investment in equipment such as the recent purchase of an automated green sand molding machine and automated grinding cell, which allow Atlas to stay at the cutting edge and meet demands in more efficient and quality fashion.

“They’re always impressed with the operation and seeing that we’re not sitting back on our laurels,” said Bill Gartland, president, Atlas Foundry. “We’re continuing to upgrade equipment.”

The company has also found a memorable niche, one that represents a steady part of its business but also one that will leave a lasting impression on anybody who’s ever been to a major sporting event.

A Niche Through Good Business
The history of Atlas began in 1893 when it was founded under the name Marion Gray Iron Foundry by M.F. Gartland. Over the next 100-plus years the facility went through changes and evolutions, with a major transition coming in 1983 when Atlas installed its first Disamatic automated molding machine. That allowed the facility to move into its next era and set itself up for the future by improving and modernizing its casting process.
Since then, the facility installed a second automated molding machine around the turn of the century and replaced the older one in 2015.

The new lines allowed Atlas to move into a unique and profitable niche: casting sides and other components of seats at stadiums, arenas, theaters and classrooms. According to Atlas, it makes up about 10% of its annual business but can be more if other industries are slowing down.

It’s a niche Atlas has been in for over 20 years. How the metalcaster got into it is a lesson for other companies.

Now-CEO Jim Gartland had a friend who had a lead on some work for Atlas. They went to Grand Rapids to visit American Seating, which coincidentally needed prints tested on a Disa machine “like yesterday” Jim Gartland remembered. Jim Gartland successfully ran the molds, and about a week later he was called for more, which Atlas provided.

“It just took off from there,” Jim Gartland said.  
To cast the sides, Atlas uses inserts and 10 universal patterns. Different inserts are used depending on what the end-user wants. One pattern can be adjusted to make 25 different designs. To accommodate the inclines of rows of bleachers, the seat sides go up in degrees, starting at 2 degrees.

The first stadium that Atlas cast the seat sides for was the Ballpark in Arlington (now called Globe Life Park) for baseball’s Texas Rangers. Built in 1994, the stadium was part of a wave of new parks that tried to emulate the look of older fields. The workmanship Atlas provided was a solid fit for American Seating’s needs, and was another step in the companies’ relationship.

“Without a doubt, I think the ownership’s involved at Atlas,” said Bruce Weener, vice president of customer service, American Seating. “When the ownership’s involved you can develop a relationship and if you can develop a good relationship with somebody, that’s who you want to do business with. We’ve had a good relationship with Atlas’ management for over 20 years.”

That relationship came in handy for American Seating in 2015 when it was putting in new seats for a large football stadium.

The re-seat, and other projects for some minor-league baseball parks, were jeopardized by a dock strike that made it difficult for American Seating to import the products it needed to complete the projects. Not only did American Seating need the sides, but it also needed parts for the seat centers.

In stepped Atlas, supplying an extra 15,000 castings.
“They stepped up and filled that void,” Weener said. “I’m sure they didn’t fit that in without some pain and suffering on their part. Even though the center standard is made overseas, Atlas supplies all of the seat arms and the pivots for all of these standards. I think their consistent responsiveness has strengthened their position with us.

Jim Gartland said: “It’s a nice relationship and the work’s pretty consistent. It’s more consistent than I thought it would be.”

When American Seating asked Atlas to improve the grinding finish on the seat sides, the Gartlands installed an automated grinding cell through Vulcan Engineering Co. It was successful and flexible enough to be used for the metalcaster’s wide mix of work, Atlas placed an order for the second automatic grinder a year after installing the first.
“The automatic grinder is one of the reasons we can do so many seat ends,” Bill Gartland said.

Looking Forward
Beyond the seat sides and other seating components, Atlas produces hydraulic parts, pump housings, wheels and hubs, exhaust manifolds and other products.
“There’s no industry that takes over 20% of our product and there’s no customer that takes over 10-12%, so we’re in seven or eight different industries and we have a really nice spread,” Jim Gartland said. “Right now, our sales are about where they were at this time last year so we’ve seen a drop but it hasn’t been terrible. We’ve seen a lot of new work coming in so we’re very optimistic that when the turnaround comes we’ll be busy and working forward. We’re not looking to change our strategy here, we’re just trying to get through it.”

Atlas has existed for over a century, and the fact it has continued to invest is another sign to customers it is healthy. The Gartlands are more than willing to prove that.
“We don’t have a problem showing our financial statements to our customers,” Jim Gartland said. “I understood the philosophy when I arrived 40-plus years ago that we don’t show our financials to our customers because they might think they could own us or we could give them a price reduction, but in today’s world I don’t really blame them for asking, so I do show those.”
Atlas is flexible enough to accomodate a wide mix of work.
“We’re not afraid to take on somebody that has a low annual usage of castings,” Bill Gartland said. “We like to be able to run 100-300 molds but we’ve taken on some that are less than that just because they’re desperate to find somebody to produce it for them.”
Jim Gartland echoed that.

“Disamatics are not known for short-run work, but we consider ourselves a short-run Disa shop,” he said. “So if you have a pattern that’s somewhere and they don’t want to run it anymore because of the volumes, you’re welcome here.”
The new automated molding machine is also a sign Atlas shows to potential customers. The company is strong and healthy, and able to see its future.
“We’re still investing in the facility,” Bill Gartland said. “That’s something existing clients always ask about and then potential new customers that tour the foundry.”
Though, like many others in the metalcasting industry, they will face a challenge with the revised silica regulations, Atlas is looking to stay strong for the future.
“We’d like to pass it on,” Jim Gartland said. “It’s been here for 123 years now and our philosophy is to try to remain as competitive as we can. We don’t chase something that’s going offshore. We’ve seen things go and come back and I’m sure we’ll continue to see that. Our philosophy is a fair price to our customers and hopefully they can afford to buy from us.”

At least one customer feels that way.
“They’re investing in the future with the new equipment,” Weener said. “Their ability to do custom jobs supports our business because we get many customers that want their logo cast-in. When you can rely on somebody that can get those turned around quickly, it’s a big deal for us.”

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