As business and industry work through the most acute economic contraction since the Great Depression, Atlas is not waiting idly for the sun to shine. Rather, it is investing aggressively to better serve customers and create long-term success for stakeholders.
Atlas Chairman and CEO Glen Dunkerson believes a recent uptick in retail and manufacturing foreshadows good things for the relocation industry. "We've seen an increase in interest among new corporate customers during the first quarter," says Glen. "I think we'll see pockets of growth in household goods throughout 2010, with a broader recovery later in the year."
While the assessment is encouraging, Glen says it comes with a caveat: to capitalize on a rising economic tide, Atlas must think and act in new ways.
"Clients are changing, and our service template must be ever-changing...one size doesn't fit all. To build relationships, we must understand each customer's expectations and better match our services to them. Our core values have not changed, but how we live up to them is changing. We're learning to flex. And we're getting to be pretty good at it."
Glen says Atlas, with its strong group of transportation subsidiaries, is positioned well to exploit opportunities. Titan Global Distribution, known for a niche in "last mile delivery," illustrates the potential.
"Companies are still investing in buildings, and every construction project out there represents a customer," says Glen. "Someone is going to handle the furniture, fixtures and equipment. With Titan's network, we are in a prime position to answer."
Glen says cooperation among Atlas companies is the key to gaining an edge. "The more we work together, with all the assets at our disposal, the more synergies we will discover. Talking to one another is crucial."
Atlas Van Lines President and COO Jack Griffin shares that perspective. Since stepping into his new leadership role in January (Jack continues to serve as President and COO of Atlas International), he has introduced ideas to increase collaboration in several ways. Under his direction, an Atlas sales and marketing summit brought together subsidiary principals and Headquarters staff to discuss mutual opportunities. The group met during the first week in March at Atlas Headquarters.
To strengthen teamwork within the van lines, Jack has authored a job description for a senior vice president of business development. The Atlas World Group Board ratified the idea and an executive search is underway.
"This position fills a leadership vacuum and ensures a tighter focus to promote the Atlas brand," says Jack. "It will knock down silos of authority and accountability to bring continuity to our organization. And it will reinforce agents when they call for sales support."
And, to ensure Atlas follows a cohesive, reasoned approach to winning customers, Jack has prioritized a comprehensive marketing plan. A newly appointed group brings agency representatives together with decision-makers at Atlas HQ to create and implement the van line marketing strategy.
"We recognize that some ideas may work in one part of the country, but not in another," says Jack. "So, we're pulling in perspectives from throughout the Atlas Van Lines network."
Optimizing the Business Mix
While the chance for a bigger slice of the pie exists in every Atlas subsidiary, Atlas Van Lines offers the most significant potential. In particular, the company is tuning up its core business of household goods transportation, which annually accounts for between 75 to 80 percent of Atlas World Group's total revenues.
Historically, Atlas has outperformed competitors in the corporate arena. Quality and a reputation for service have made Atlas the premier national account carrier – and a formidable contender for government business. "We're proud of our positions in the corporate and government segments, and we continue to support them," says Jack. "But COD and self-move customers are also important to our success."
In the process of optimizing the mix, Atlas is introducing new systems to enhance value for everyone it serves. For example, an innovative new survey tool puts wireless technology in the hands of the Atlas representative and interfaces with the Atlas system (see Technology I). In addition, Atlas' new rating and distribution system (RADS) enables faster invoicing and payment for Atlas agents (see Technology II). But the most significant and potentially rewarding advancement is a direct-to-consumer sales model via the Internet (see Technology III).
"We're not just redesigning a website, we're building a system for new business," says Jack. "We're making sure our content is highly visible to the search engines, and that it resonates with consumers. We're making it easy for people to find us, get familiar with our services, and become our customers."
The Internet is of special strategic importance; Atlas sees the self-move segment as having the greatest potential for new business. A shift in company reimbursement methods is one indication of this group's growing stature. Since 2003, when the Atlas Corporate Relocation Survey first inquired about lump sum reimbursement, its use as a relocation benefit has grown by 50 percent, for both transferees and new hires.
"More and more, people are handed responsibility for their own moves," says Jack. "And we are redoubling our efforts to win them over to Atlas."
Looking at the big picture for Atlas, Glen sees a future glimmering with opportunity. For example, Smart Move, the newest company within Atlas, positions us to serve customers in the burgeoning do-it-yourself market.
"Smart Move already plays an important role for smaller shipments during seasonal swings," says Glen. "But it's still a baby...and our agents are starting to get an understanding of how it can help them grow their business. We're finding that Smart Move appeals to younger consumers, who are more attuned to researching and making purchase decisions online. We're tapping into a market that's bigger than all of us. The potential is huge."
Likewise, good things are taking shape for Atlas subsidiaries Cornerstone Relocation Group and Atlas Van Lines (Canada).
"Cornerstone was our most profitable business in 2009," says Glen. "With a recently expanded sales effort, it is in a better position than ever to serve clients from coast to coast."
After some erosion in market share last year, Atlas Canada is regaining ground through a new quality program that has improved customer scores for agents and van operators.
"Although Canada has been affected by the economic downturn, the impact has been less severe than in the U.S.," says Glen. "It seems the old saying is true...when the U.S. gets a cold, Canada gets the sniffles."
Internationally, Atlas continues to broaden its footprint. "We're getting close to formalizing a strategic partnership in France," says Jack. "It will license the Atlas identity there and eventually in the Benelux (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg) region. As with the agreement inked last year with Fox in Great Britain, this will create reciprocal opportunities for Atlas agents in the U.S. and Canada." (See Amplifier, Winter 2009.)
The Best Is Yet to Come
"Many businesses are fighting for survival," says Jack. "I think we, as Atlas, have an obligation to help one another...an obligation that goes beyond the usual business relationship."
In response to this obligation, the sales development and finance groups in Evansville created, and the Board approved, an agent-growth incentive for 2010. The program provides added commissions for incremental sales increases over 2009.
"We want our agents to use the incentive with their sales people to support the sale of all van line products," says Jack. "Right now, our focus is on gaining share. This is the time to work hard, sell hard, be creative and hunker down. If we do, when economic expansion does take place, our share gains will translate to growth."
"We're continuing to look at opportunities to bring new agents into Atlas, and how we can improve margins for all," says Glen. "2010 should be a better year than 2009. We're primed for growth. With the capacity and the right people, we're positioned to do just about anything related to transportation. Whether the turnaround comes this year, next year, or five years from now, Atlas will be here. We're moving forward and getting stronger."