Aging Toward Perfection

Nov 03, 2008

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The third Monday in May arrived at Atlas with a bit of fanfare this year.

To be sure, it was "service as usual" for the associates of approximately 500 Atlas Van Lines agency affiliates across the U.S. and Canada, as it was for the approximately 700 employees of the Atlas World Group companies. Each, in his or her way, devoted the day to a myriad of tasks on behalf of customers. But it was also an occasion for festivity for the employees at Atlas headquarters. Sixty years ago, the company known worldwide for integrity, quality and solutions officially came into being, "an idea whose time had come."

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A Bold Beginning

In the summer of 1947, the Independent Movers & Warehousemen's Association – a tariff bureau composed of independent long-distance movers – formed a committee to assess how association members might operate nationally. After months of research, they adopted a plan patterned after the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in England. Their cooperative would incorporate ideals of equality, mutual respect, open communication and democratic control. Agent ownership would empower the organization to chart its own destiny and act in the best interests of every member.

After months wrangling over a name and preparing the paperwork, the newly formed organization incorporated in Delaware on May 19, 1948. Having purchased the assets and operating authority of George Elder's Atlas Van Lines of Chicago, the company christened itself "Atlas Van-Lines, Inc." The 33 founding members adopted a creed, each pledging to "render service on his brother member's loads of the character that he would expect on his own business." It was, in essence, the golden rule. It remains integral to the company's operations today.

The van line established headquarters at 608 South Dearborn Street in Chicago. The first year saw the staff increase to 10 and revenue reach $365,000. The company relocated operations two more times in the Windy City as it grew steadily over the next twelve years. Each move took a southerly direction, perhaps foreshadowing the much bigger relocation that was to come.

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In 1959, agents and board members believed it was time for Atlas to invest in a building of its own. Many did not want the building in Chicago, where competing van lines often pirated help. The search committee found Indiana attractive. It offered a central location as "the crossroads of America," with reasonable policies on reciprocity, taxes, and vehicle licensing. Evansville, in particular, promised an ample pool of qualified workers.

The company broke ground on Evansville's north side in September. Six months later, five Atlas agents relocated the company's 106,000 pounds of property from Chicago to a new 15,000 square-foot building at 1212 St. George Road. The synchronized move took place in just under 56 hours over a snowy weekend. Atlas opened its doors in Evansville on Monday morning, March 21, 1960.

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Growing Up in Evansville

Over the next two decades, the company's fortunes grew from $8.1 million in revenue in 1960 to $100 million at the end of 1979. Several crucial developments facilitated the company's rise to become the sixth largest U.S. van line, including the acquisition of full non-radial operating authority in the 48 states and the growth of business internationally and in Canada.

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The Watershed and Return

In 1979, the company believed that impending deregulation would drastically change the rules of the game. Atlas took steps to protect its business interests with new requirements governing how member agents could use their operating authority. At the same time, agent stockholders decided it was time to realize a return on their investment. Atlas went public the following year. These dramatic events caused an exodus of several important agents.

Ed Bland, who had been ousted as Atlas CEO at the end of 1983, led a hostile takeover attempt of the company in 1984. To save the company from such a fate, agents found a "white knight" to present a higher offer. Wesray, a private investment bank in New Jersey, provided the capital for a merger and took over control of Atlas. Four years later, a group of agents led by Fred Paxton organized a plan to buy the company back and Atlas returned to agent ownership in 1988.

On the heels of the return to agent ownership, Chairman and CEO Tom Fagan wrote about it in his cover letter for the Amplifier. "The significance about the ownership change cannot be overemphasized. Van line growth is dependent upon agents. Unless agents are attracted to a van line and motivated to grow, there can be no stability or security for agents, van line employees, or van operators."

President Norman Gee observed that agent ownership boded well for the future. "Our agents, in daily contact with our customers, are best suited to address the needs of the marketplace," he said. "In turn, the agents demand a level of responsiveness and service from the van line management and staff that will enable them to more effectively compete and operate in that marketplace."

Former Atlas President and Board Vice Chairman Robert R.C. Miller, saw the significance this way: "Over the years, the Atlas agency family made this van line the fastest growing major van line in the industry. We've earned the respect of the marketplace. With the pride of agent ownership, we'll broaden that respect and build upon it even more."

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