Atec: In It for the Long Haul

Caroline BennittPeople & Community

For most engineering companies today, good talent can be hard to find and even harder to keep. Small companies in the Aerospace sector must face the very real prospect that bigger companies or competitors will lure their talent away. Many firms provide early training ground for young engineers and professionals, only to see them move on after a few years, taking their training and education with them. Often smaller firms get acquired by foreigners and portfolio investors. Despite these industry trends, the opposite has occurred at Atec. Under consistent ownership by the Lederer family over the last 40 years, Atec has taken the long term approach for company success. As America’s oldest test cell company, Atec is alone among such major firms still having traditional U.S. direction. Every executive at the company has been around for at least a decade, and in some cases have spent most or all of their career at Atec. Atec’s President, Paul Fenley will reach thirty years at the company this summer. Brian Durbin, Atec’s Vice President of Marketing and Contracts, hit 25 years recently. CFO Chris Elkins has been at Atec for over a decade, as has Vice President of Engineering and Projects Mike Patterson. Ten key employees are now at the 30 year employment mark. How then has Atec, Inc. retained key employees for decades when other firms are bleeding talent?

Vice President of Development and Contracts Brian Durbin believes Atec’s biggest advantage is that it gives employees a chance to challenge themselves on a daily basis. “What I get to do here [at Atec] is wake up every morning and compete,” said Durbin. “Find it. Win it. Do it at a profit — and do it over and over again. That’s my challenge every day, and it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to see firsthand how that focus has helped Atec grow and be successful.” Engineers that come on board at Atec quickly find that they will get the chance to use their high level training in ways they might not get at larger firms. Dan Carley, Atec’s Sr. Vice President and longest standing employee approaching fifty years running, recalls a friend that worked for a Fortune 500 competitor, that despite being a specialized, highly trained engineer worked on the same part for fifteen years, never deviating in project or environment. “By the time we had been in the workforce twenty years, I had ten times the experience he did simply because of that fact that Atec utilized me beyond the skills I had when I came to the company,” said Carley. In contrast to the experience of Carley’s colleague, employees at Atec get the opportunity to stretch far beyond the work they are initially brought in to do.

Atec is a company for engineers who want to be innovative and progressive, and get to work right away. Whether it’s work with Boeing or Aerojet for commercial space flight, or expanding contracts with the Air Force or Navy, Atec continually offers employees the chance to participate in cutting edge projects. Millennial engineer Ben Wilking is getting to work on space projects that he dreamed about doing as a child. “We really are performing rocket science here,” said Wilking. “We’re participating in Space projects and have the potential to be a big factor in commercial space. For someone like me, it’s exciting to be able to work on these types of projects.”

Another attraction for top talent is Atec’s strategic push for growth into new sectors of aerospace. The company culture built by CEO and Chairman Howard Lederer centers around aggressively pursuing new opportunities and shifting paradigms to be able to grow into new parts of the industry. “It’s a delicate balance between maintaining elite performance with our longtime contracts and historical business, while at the same time expending energy to be able to widen our portfolio in the industry,” said Lederer. “Whether it’s our work in Test Cells, the ADAQ control system, commercial space, or rebounding energy, we’ve pushed our horizons and really diversified the work we do.” Atec’s growth and project diversification intrigued Vice President Mike Patterson, who left a stable post with a competing company primarily because of the allure of working for an organization that wanted to push its boundaries. “I met Howard [Lederer] and Paul [Fenley] at some trade shows and was very intrigued by their energy and vision for Atec,” said Patterson. “They wanted to grow and expand the company, and their vision for success was very attractive to me. I decided I wanted to be a part of it.”

A complimentary driver of employee longevity at Atec is the workplace stability that has stemmed from the company’s strategic acquisition of other organizations. There is a certain level of job security that comes with an expanding company, one that is growing and hungry for an even bigger piece of the industry pie. Atec has demonstrated that hunger time and again, particularly in the last decade. Lederer and his executive team have made a big push to strategically acquire subsidiary companies in order to deliver more in-house, total solutions for customers as opposed to just a single aspect of a project. For example, in 2016 Atec acquired Hager Machine & Tool to bolster its machine shop and manufacturing capabilities for larger projects. In 2013, Atec bought competitor Celtech to take advantage of its expertise in systems testing related to the T20 and T21 test stands, among others. And most recently, Atec finalized its purchase of longtime industry competitor Vital Link, bringing a preeminence in military hush house maintenance and construction under its corporate umbrella. “One of the key attributes of Celtech, Hager and Vital Link for acquisition was their similar employee longevity and proven industry knowledge,” remarked Atec President Paul Fenley. Harmonizing the outputs of these previous teammates and competitors has shored up future business, created an increasingly attractive career workplace, and cleared the way for Atec’s growth in the market.

One of the unique things about Atec as a company is that most of the top executives started out on the technical side of the business rather than the administrative, giving them crucial insight into products and projects. All of the company’s Vice Presidents are engineers by trade that grew into larger leadership roles, demonstrating Atec’s real opportunities for advancement for motivated people. Dan Carley, Atec’s Senior Vice President, who is the company’s longest standing employee at nearly fifty years of service, began as an engineer. He filled several different roles – both within engineering and without – before ascending to his senior post. Vice President of Development and Contracts Brian Durbin also began as an electrical engineer and quickly took an interest in the bidding of projects, ultimately giving him the opportunity to head up that side of the business for Atec. Mike Patterson, Atec’s current Vice President of Engineering and Projects, chose to come to Atec partially because of the advantage he saw in Atec entrusting business management positions to individuals that understood the technical side of the business.

The same opportunities exist for Atec employees throughout the company. According to several mid-level managers, they were given a chance to pursue greater responsibilities and higher paying jobs than their initial training might have permitted at bigger companies. When Project Manager Greg Murdick arrived at Atec in 1996, he joined the company after years of working on jet engines for Lockheed-Martin. After two decades at the company, he has had the opportunity to reach far beyond his mechanical training and head up entire projects, many times being the key contact with clients. “I’ve traveled and handled projects all over the world with Atec,” said Murdick. “For someone who came in as a jet engine mechanic, that really shows what the potential is for someone here to grow and expand their capabilities.” According to Durbin, Murdick’s experience speaks to the type of employee that excels at Atec and the type of talent the management tends to recruit. “[Lederer and Fenley] are very careful about hiring,” said Durbin. “They know we need talented people, but they are also looking for people that fit in well with our team here and want to be active in contributing to Atec’s success.”

Of all the things that set Atec apart from its competitors in the Aerospace Industry, perhaps the one touched on the most when talking with employees is the family atmosphere within the company. While Atec is not a startup (it now employs 260), it is small enough for executives and managers to know every team member by name, position, strengths and interests. This family feel is cherished by employees. Usebia Patterson, who works in Quality management, relishes the commitment employees have not only to their work but to one another. “We spend time together outside of work. We know each other’s birthdays and anniversaries. And we genuinely want each other to succeed – there is no question we understand each other’s value to the company and to the work that we do together.” Patterson and husband Vice President Mike Patterson are one of several married couples that met their spouses at the company and still work there today. “Atec is more than a job. It’s a family, and that closeness helps us work together across the company,” said (Mike) Patterson. “Our reliance on a modern ERP information system throughout our companies reinforces collaboration in our daily work.” Rather than working in silos, where departments might rarely collaborate with one another, teamwork is an integral part of Atec’s advantage. “Everyone has to do their job well for Atec to be successful,” said Murdick. “We all realize that we have a role to play and that our work is important. It takes all of us to get the job done right.”

Atec’s work is critical to our nation’s progress & security through the Space, Aviation, Defense and Energy industries. People stay at Atec in part because they are part of something bigger for both God and Nation. As a certified small business, the challenges and opportunities at Atec are unusual for an employee to experience at a family-oriented firm in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and England. Every GPS Satellite in orbit today was put in orbit with rocket fuel that flowed through Atec valves. Correspondingly, there isn’t an F5, F15, F16, F22, F35, A10, B1 or C130 aircraft flying whose engines aren’t tested on Atec, Celtech or Vital Link gear. “We build rocket valves, space station systems, jet engine test systems & oilfield gear. Where else would I go and get to have this much fun and give my best every day in a family and faith friendly environment? It’s awesome!” said Paul Fenley, Atec President.

All of these factors combined have created a harmonious environment within the company, employees agree. The end result is that talented people want to come work at Atec, and they want to remain working at Atec for a long time. For a company that performs high risk, high intensity work, that speaks volume about the strength of the Atec culture. As Durbin says, “we build precision instrumentation in the most hazardous environments, and that instrumentation can never fail,” said Durbin, highlighting the crucial nature of Atec’s work. In order for Atec to meet this high standard, every employee must understand the vital nature of his or her work and commit to excellence on a daily basis. “Howard and Paul have given Atec employees the chance to be a part of something special,” said Mike Patterson. “We know what we are doing has a big impact on the world, and we are committed to doing that right all the time.” Quality Manager Bryan Jacobs, who came to Atec after a career at a large machine shop, can tell the difference, and perhaps says it better than anyone. “After so many years in Quality Management, I know I’ve found a home here at Atec,” said Jacobs. “What’s happening here is exciting, and the people are wonderful. I’m thankful to be a part of it.” Jacobs story is reflected time and again in those of other Atec employees that have made their careers within the 64-year-old company. It’s a story proving that an organization that values initiative and fundamentally gets invested in individual success can produce remarkable outputs over the long term, and shatter boundaries in highly competitive industries. Atec employees are sticking around to see what boundaries the company will shatter next.