Atlas Machining & Welding Inc. got its start in 1981 after the cement company that Harold Keeney worked for shut down. Rather than succumbing to discouragement, the experienced machinist saw the situation as an opportunity to venture out on his own. He and his wife Pat gathered their resources and launched a company primarily focused on making parts for the cement industry.
Harold had no formal business training but his ambition and work ethic proved more than enough for success. While Pat directed the office work, Harold guided the start-up to become an indispensable industry partner providing emergency services, machining, and mechanical repair.
The company diversified over the decades to solve a broad range of customer problems, growing steadily to become a one-stop shop covering everything from initial design through production, quality assurance, and more. “Atlas does it all: machining, fabrication, laser cutting and precision bending, mechanical repair and new builds, pressure vessels and systems, vacuum trucks, special projects—you name it!” says Harold and Pat’s daughter, Lisa Keeney-Ziegenfus.
Today, Atlas Machining & Welding is still family-owned and operated after over forty years in business. Keeney-Ziegenfus is at the helm as President and Chief Operating Officer after working her way up the company ranks from her first job running a front-end loader for a cement mill, after having earned a university degree. The company she directs has grown to fill a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing space on seventeen acres of land in Northampton, Pennsylvania.
But, even though Atlas Machining & Welding Inc. has grown into a regional powerhouse with global reach, the company still operates in the same personal manner that it has since its humble beginnings. “No impersonal answering machines, no recordings,” Keeney-Ziegenfus says. “No matter the time of day, a human being answers our phone and you get to speak to the person you need to speak to—fast.”
The company has also maintained the commitment to customers that has set it apart from the beginning. About six months ago, Atlas Machining & Welding Inc. hired a new marketing and branding firm to take a fresh look at the company’s website and other promotional materials.
“In the process of this new marketing experience, the company interviewed maybe six or seven of our key people as well as some shop folks—one at a time. Without any prior understanding of the nature of the interview, each employee, whether manager or shop floor, was all asked the same question: ‘What’s so special about Atlas?’ Every employee had a one-word or two-word answer: ‘service or customer service!’ It seemed to me that as they were speaking, the tendons in their necks stood out prominently as each pronounced, insistently, and forcefully: SERVICE!”
By the end of the interview process, the unanimous response seemed rehearsed to the outside observer. “The marketing team looked at us a little funny, probably thinking one of three possibilities,” Keeney-Ziegenfus remembers. “One, we rehearsed them; two, we brainwashed them, hypnotized them, gaslit them, et cetera; and three, they were robots cleverly programmed to answer the question as one person. Well, invading brains is a little beyond us at the moment. So I must confess, in all honesty, that even I was taken aback by the fierceness of the buy-in of our management team and how it translated to the shop floor.”
The company’s remarkable—and unanimous—commitment to customer service includes the ability to respond to time-critical emergencies, no matter the hour. In addition, the company is willing and able to respond to virtually any customer demand, no matter how unorthodox.
“We’re available 24/7 to all types of customers who need something,” Keeney-Ziegenfus says. “I think that’s what makes us really powerful. We pivot [to] whatever our customers’ needs are. We make it happen.”
This can-do attitude is “why we got so well-rounded in the first place. We never said ‘no’ or ‘this is only what we do.’ We always said ‘yes, yes.’” This willingness often created challenges, but “it pushed us outside the box.”
The company’s willingness to take on virtually any problem for a customer has earned a loyal following. “When our customers leave their workplace and they move on to somewhere else, they always call us,” Keeney-Ziegenfus says. “It’s amazing. We haven’t had to do a lot of marketing with the word of mouth from the people who get to know our team… We bail someone out even one time and they always remember us.”
Keeney-Ziegenfus credits the company’s people for garnering such customer loyalty. “We’ve had such a great team. A lot of our people have been with us since the beginning. When I was five years old and my parents started the business, a lot of those guys who started with my parents are still with the company, and so we all became a family, and it was just a supportive atmosphere.”
This employee devotion shows every day. “There’s plenty of places out there that do what we do, but not with the service and passion that we provide,” Keeney-Ziegenfus says. “When [customers] come and visit and walk through, they can just feel the energy of the people. We’re very welcoming, and that’s what’s selling the place. We have a lot of committed people. We’ve got a really, really great team.”
Atlas Machining & Welding Inc. is supportive of its employees as well as its customers. The company has formed a group that meets regularly with the objective “to locate areas where we can create the best career life for all of us, from owners to hourlies,” Keeney-Ziegenfus says. “The long-gone days where labor and management were thought to be incompatible and adversarial by nature—that’s in the past, and that’s where it needs to stay. We screen our employees for cultural fit as well as hard and soft skills. We have retained, on an ongoing basis, the services of a professional trainer who meets with our employees both individually and collectively to facilitate discussions continuously exploring ways to maintain a robust, thriving culture focused on making our working lives better each day.”
This focus on employees has been particularly beneficial during the current labor shortage. “We are not immune from the general shortage of staffing that seems to be the norm in manufacturing,” Keeney-Ziegenfus says. “Despite this, we have been staffing even in the face of this phenomenon. It’s certainly a key reason we are so driven to create a championship working environment.”
The company must also consider the pressure to automate and how this will affect the company and its employees. “We all must deal with technology, robots, drones and all the other forces replacing people,” Keeney-Ziegenfus says. “We place our bets on the people—and since the nature of our work is largely customized, our people are particularly driven to solve problems that go well beyond what CAD/CAM and automation can handle.” CAD/CAM is the incorporation of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing.
The result is mutually beneficial for both employees and customers. “Our customers have real problems, urgent problems,” Keeney-Ziegenfus explains. “When they have a critical fail in their manufacturing process that is causing them to lose $10,000 per hour, they are in dire need of our services, sometimes repairing a part, other times manufacturing a new one. We will re-engineer or reverse engineer, machine, fabricate, and finish in assembly. Our customer needs that part yesterday. We focus on agility. That means we depend on our people to tame the chaos of the manufacturing floor, at the same time dealing with likely re-prioritization. We don’t see that changing, and so we concentrate on the value our employees bring us.”
With well in excess of 2000 customers, Atlas serves clientele principally in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions and is also recognized for its service to a global contingent. Atlas Machining & Welding parts can be found on six of Earth’s seven continents.
The company plans to continue the same steady course, embracing the same values that have already brought lasting success to Atlas Machining & Welding Inc. Keeney-Ziegenfus says what her father, Harold, said many years ago still dictates the current and future direction of the company: “From day one, our customer’s needs defined our company and drove our growth. We made promises, and we kept them. We took jobs that other shops wouldn’t or couldn’t. That earned us customers back in 1981, and it still does today.”