Lehigh Valley Suite Spot: Q&A with ATAS International’s Dick and Jim Bus
By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on February 10, 2023
Editor’s Note: Lehigh Valley Suite Spot is a monthly interview series featuring Lehigh Valley executives from a wide range of industries and company sizes.’
In the lobby of ATAS International’s headquarters in the Lehigh Valley stands a modest machine: a gray-colored brake used to bend sheet metal 60 years ago when the company was founded in a Dutch immigrant’s basement.
The simple brake contrasts sharply with the gigantic turret press, roll formers, computerized metal brakes and other high-tech equipment ATAS uses to make everything from architectural roofs to custom products like the “skin” of the doors of the Kennedy Space Center.
The company’s top executives (and brothers) Dick and Jim Bus say the brake reminds them of the grit their dad had when he founded Aluminum Trim And Shapes (shortened to ATAS) in 1963.
Jacobus, “Jack” P. Bus, had grown up on a farm in Holland and then served as a truck driver during the Indonesian War (1945-49) before emigrating to North America. In Canada, he worked as a night-time janitor for the Ford Motor Co. and started a business, selling donuts and coffee to workers there.
“He had no particular dream or idea – just a family to feed and a sixth-grade education,” said Dick Bus, now ATAS International President.
When work dried up, Jack Bus moved his young family to Rochester, N.Y., near his wife’s cousin where he installed siding and trim. Contractors did not have the technology to bend metal on site, so he procured a brake and bent aluminum in his basement at night. His sons Dick and Jim, two of eight siblings, chipped in as he built up his local business into one that now has international reach.
“It’s like growing up on a family farm. You’re out there. You have a job to do whether you’re five years old, 10 years old,” Executive Vice President Jim Bus said. “There’s no job that we were too good to do. When we were growing up, we would sweep the floor, load the trucks, whatever. We still do that.”
The family-owned business grew as it secured contracts to supply walkway panels for shopping malls in the ensuing decades, their work expanding into Long Island and Philadelphia. The company moved the business out of the basement and into its first factory in 1972 in Rochester and doubled it by 1980.
The company quickly outgrew the facility and in 1984 moved operations 300 miles south to a bigger facility near a Pennsylvania Turnpike exit in the Lehigh Valley, a manufacturing powerhouse that’s home to industry leaders such as Mack Trucks and Victaulic.
Today, ATAS makes metal roof systems, accessories and more at two locations in Lehigh County and at facilities in Arizona and Illinois. BRIGHTSMITH Coaters, a sister company of ATAS, acquired its coil coating facility in Morrisville, Pa., in 2008 and its post-painting facility in Trenton, N.J., in 2016. Its headquarters are near the manufacturing facilities in Upper Macungie Township. The company employs 180, 100 of whom are in the Lehigh Valley. That includes four of Dick and Jim Bus’s children.
As ATAS prepares for its Diamond Anniversary, Dick and Jim Bus sat down with the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation to discuss the company’s history, industry trends and its innovative products.
How did your dad come up with the idea that became ATAS?
D.B.: Before you had the equipment to fully bend the material on site, you had to go to a sheet metal shop or somebody who had the equipment in their garage or in their basement.
So, Dad was bending the trim at night for himself and other contractors and then he was installing aluminum siding and trim during the day. His market area at that time was probably 20 miles.
This was in the early 1960s. And in the late ‘60s, we expanded the product offering and put bigger machines in the basement and started expanding the market area. He liked manufacturing because it wasn’t weather dependent like installing product.
Why was business growing at that point?
D.B.: New shopping center renovations. He was offering services that the big manufacturers didn’t want to do — like cutting panels to length. For union contractors, the fact that they didn’t have to waste the time to cut, and they just take them out of the box and put them up, that saved them a lot of money.
Dad started branching out. He ended up in Long Island. Pittsburgh, Philly. Our market radius was a 300-mile radius of Rochester.
Why move to the Lehigh Valley?
D.B.: A bigger radius. Our business was starting to move to Long Island to Philadelphia, so this was kind of like in the middle of our market at that point. And then we could still service upstate New York and New England better, and then our reach down south.
What are you making now?
J.B.: We’re still doing that same panel for the shopping center industry. We’ve expanded the portfolio of products.
What kind of other products?
D.B.: We manufacture metal shingles for the roof, metal tile panels. We make different types of wall panels.
What are some of the more interesting projects that you’ve done?
D.B.: Well, one that we’re proud of is Vehicle Assembly Building VAB. Really, for the space rockets [at Kennedy Space Center in Florida].
J.B.: We were doing work at Kennedy Space Center for several projects prior to that. That was built in the early to mid-60s. It’s a harsh environment with the salt air, and there was an aluminum panel that was originally on the building. It just got hit by three hurricanes at the right time, and a bunch of panels came off on the sidewall at the Kennedy Space Center and the door.
D.B.: Both interior and exterior panels. And it was custom fabricated panels. We were able to meet the specs that they were looking for because of the equipment that we bought over the years.
How has your company dealt with the economic shocks over the past two and a half years during the pandemic?
J.B.: It’s been a challenge.
D.B.: We’ve lost orders because of it. We’ve had customers live with it. It has curbed our growth. We had good growth in the past couple of years, but it could have been a lot better if we had everything coming in as we needed it.
What skills do you look for when hiring?
J.B.: You can’t just go to a competitor around here to find somebody. We do all that training in-house: roll forming, and even the brake-forming – a lot of in-house training. Honestly, if someone’s got a hobby like fixing cars, that’s a good trait to have working here.
What have you done to minimize employee turnover?
D.B.: The first 90 days are critical. So, we started a First Friend program about five years ago. The day somebody starts here, they’re introduced to an employee that’s been with us for a while.
J.B.: Not a supervisor. It’s a friendly face, someone to sit with in the lunchroom or something like that and then start talking about other things. That helps keep people.
D.B. They can ask their friends any questions — whether it’s work related or where the closest Burger King is – or the types of things they’re afraid to ask their boss like “I can’t figure out how to operate this computer program on this machine.” We tie a production guy with a production guy and office staff with office staff, a salesperson with a salesperson.
Did you have to start anything new during the pandemic to maintain the workforce?
J.B.: One strategy we heard a lot about during the pandemic was signing bonuses. So rather than losing people to these signing bonuses, we actually had a retention bonus.
D.B.: Everybody got a bonus. Same bonus — $1,000 a month. We ended up doing it for seven months.
People on the verge of retirement didn’t quit because the money’s good. I have a real problem giving a bonus to a new hire when some of these guys have been with us for 30 years.
What assets in the Lehigh Valley are helping you grow and maintain your business?
J.B.: Initially, it was location.
D.B.: And still is.
J.B.: We don’t do a lot of work in the Lehigh Valley, it’s a couple of points of our business.
D.B.: We do a lot of exporting from here. A specific locale is not going to be a big part of our business because we’re national and international in scope.
J.B.: I think the Lehigh Valley is a forward-thinking location, manufacturing based.
Where are you exporting to?
D.B.: Canada is our biggest export market right now. The Caribbean has always been a good market for us – homes, resorts, and stuff. Metal holds up with the winds and all the weather they get down there.
Do you see an uptick in metal roofing?
D.B.: I am president of the Metal Roofing Alliance, which is a consumer awareness association. When we started in 1997, we had 3.6% market share for the residential roof market. Now we have a 17% market share.
J.B.: Metal roofs have always been there. Think about the old farmhouses. People used to complain about them — all the rust. But how old was that farmhouse – metal roofs last.
The acceptance has skyrocketed, especially with the new technologies. There is a wide variety of metals, gauges, profiles, and colors to choose from.
D.B.: A metal roof doesn’t have to look like a metal roof. I have a metal tile roof on my house, and everybody thinks it’s concrete tile.
What do you like about manufacturing?
D.B: I’m driving down the road, it doesn’t matter whether it’s our product or roof, there’s a building with metal product on it that I look at it, thinking, I can do that…or that’s mine.
Where do you see trends and the future of metal in building design and construction?
J.B.: Metal is the longest continuously used roofing material in history. Metal building materials have the highest value because of its durability, new finishes and prints, low lifecycle costs, sustainability, and attractive profiles. ATAS is well positioned to meet the demands of an ever-changing market. Investments in new manufacturing technologies, on-going training of our entire staff, and simply listening to our customers will ensure that ATAS will continue to be an industry leader.
D.B.: ATAS is seeing trends for metal plates and heavier gauge wall panels for the commercial market, and we have introduced new products to meet that demand. We are also seeing increased interest in print coat finishes, such as wood grains, and various embossing patterns. Teaming up with BRIGHTSMITH Coaters, we are able to meet the desire for finish options on the vast variety of quality ATAS products, to contribute to beautiful buildings, as the end result.
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