Chris Atkins minimizes his company’s scope to maximize quality.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“I thought, if we specialize in an area that we can control and do well—surely my life is going to be a lot easier,” says Chris Atkins, president of Atkins Fabrication in Carrum Downs, Victoria, Australia. “And it has worked out that way.” Starting a company with a narrow focus has enabled him to produce quality products with a workforce of 12, and provide fabrication for projects around the globe.
Atkins started the company that does fabrication for tensile structures and clearspan tents after a few other related career ventures. He first worked in the corporate world, then started his own company, followed by a partnership in a company that designed, made and erected fabric structures. Arriving at the point of beginning Atkins Fabrication as it exists now involved several years and two especially risky decisions.
“I vividly remember this. I was about 29 years old and had a young family,” Atkins says. “And in the company that I was working for, I was kind of treading water—not really going anywhere.” He approached the CEO, known in-house as the smiling assassin, and inquired about his future at the company. “[The CEO] turned around and asked me what school I’d gone to, implying that I hadn’t attended as prominent a college as he did,” Atkins says. “I was stunned.” Atkins walked out of the office and handed in his resignation. A month later he bought a sewing machine, hired one employee and started making truck tarps.
Little by little Atkins added more to his product line, taking on any fabrication project that he was offered. “People would walk in the door and ask, ‘Do you make such and such a product?’” he says. “I would always say, ‘Yes.’” Then Atkins would quickly learn the best way to produce what the client wanted.
After about ten years, Atkins merged with another company and began making fabric structures. The company experienced a level of success, including providing structures for a high-visibility traveling exhibition for the Australian government. The company designed and built a series of tension structures to be used in the 15 months leading up to the Australian bicentennial in 1988. The structures, which were heavily designed, were erected and dismantled at 38 locations around Australia. “That project was probably the defining moment in the direction I’ve got now,” Atkins says.
Do one thing, and do it well
When the partnership dissolved, Atkins decided to take what he had learned about designing, fabricating and erecting tensile structures, choose one portion of the process, and just concentrate on that. “It was a bit of a risk [to create a company with such a narrow focus],” he says. “Quite a few of my associates told me I’d never get enough work to be successful.”
However, the opposite has been true. Atkins Fabrication does the fabrication for various projects designed and erected by other companies—and often those companies are competing for the same projects. “The beauty of it is, there could be a dozen companies tendering for a project,” Atkins says. “And out of those 12 companies, four could be our clients, so we’ve got a four out of 12 shot at getting the bid.”
Streamlining the business and maintaining a staff of 12 made that kind of success possible for Atkins. “At one point [during the partnership] we employed 70 people,” he says. “We weren’t able to train our people as well as I liked.” Now, with the smaller staff, Atkins says, the company can provide better quality control.
The downside of a small staff is that Atkins has to be diligent in controlling which bids he accepts to ensure the company can meet its deadlines. “The deadlines are stringent,” he says. “Once a date has been specified for a project, you just can’t miss it.” If the company is working on a large project and another bid comes in, Atkins negotiates the incoming project’s deadlines or he doesn’t accept the job.
And there have been times that a client doubts that such a small company can deliver on a large project. In 2002, Atkins Fabrication bid to provide the fabrication for a client doing a project for the World Cup Soccer stadium. Though Atkins had never taken on a project of that magnitude, he felt confident that his team could deliver. “Six people [from the client’s company] came [to see us] and their assessment was that our company was too small,” Atkins says. “Four weeks later they came back and said we had the job.” When Atkins asked them what changed their minds, they said they had checked into other projects around the world that Atkins’ company had fabricated—and they were impressed.
The fact that Atkins’ company is known for high-quality fabrication is the primary reason his services are sought after. In addition to Australia, his company supplies products to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the United States, Hong Kong and Singapore. And he protects his company’s reputation by aligning only with companies that he feels confident will turn out an excellent finished product. “We know most of the clients in the industry, and if we know that they cut corners on design and/or engineering, we refuse [their business],” he says.
Focusing his company solely on fabrication has proved to be a successful strategy for Atkins. “That’s what we do,” he says. “And we’re very good at what we do.”