A Case Study in Patience

The Weekly Report – March 18, 2024
John Norris’s approach to leading and expanding Atscott Manufacturing over more than four decades will inspire manufacturing executives, young and old.

The cover story of the latest issue of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine features John Norris, the owner of Atscott Manufacturing, a Pine City company that’s been providing machined, assembled, and fabricated products to manufacturers since 1963. He attributes his success through the years likely to his greatest asset as a business leader: patience. The story was written by first-time contributor Mary Lahr Schier whose skills will be evident as you read it.

When Norris joined the company in 1979, he took over the sales operation and updated the company’s manual processes, including its handwritten accounting ledgers. By 1984, he was running the business, co-founded by his father, Manley. Norris admits he didn’t know much about machining. “But I managed the business, and we were growing and profitable,” he says.

During the 1980s the company faced increased competition from Japan, then China, and the dissolution of Control Data, one of Atscott’s primary customers. The company endured and thrived during that time, but its divided ownership became an issue. Norris and his four siblings, along with his father’s original partner and the other partner’s widow all owned shares. Good relationships with his siblings allowed Norris to slowly buy them out without debt. He later bought out the other partners.

At the end of the 1990s, Norris started a separate company, Tower Solutions. The company’s product — a portable metal tower that could go up quickly, withstand wind and weather, and hold heavy loads — seemed like a natural for commercial uses in communications. But it took years — and a lot of patience — for the product to catch on. Eventually, the company found a solid customer in the Homeland Security Agency, which buys the towers to monitor the southern and northern borders.

Before finding that niche, Tower’s losses added up and Norris’s advisers urged him to close the operation. “I came very close to it,” he says, “but we always had business booked during key moments. There were a lot of humps and bumps. Even at the worst of times, when it looked like we should close it, there was enough on the positive side to keep it going. That’s when patience was helpful.”

By 2010, Norris had bought out his partners at Tower and recruited a new engineering and sales director. The company now has annual sales of $15 million, seven product lines and accounts for 15-35% of Atscott’s sales.

As Atscott and Tower have grown, Norris has realized the importance of trusting and empowering employees. He sees himself playing a greater support role now than in the early years of the companies, which, along with a design engineering firm called Precision Engineering Now, are part of the holding company, ATS Holdings, Inc.

Norris has shifted his approach from making sure he got everything done to making sure the people around him had the skills, tools, and knowledge they needed to do their jobs and make decisions. It’s led to a focus on employee engagement and skill building.

The company frequently uses Pine Technical & Community College for skill development and offers apprenticeships at the company. It has also turned to Enterprise Minnesota for help with plant layout, cybersecurity, leadership skill building and quality, including AS9100 and ISO 9001 certifications.

Norris has paired his patience and commitment to employee empowerment with a personal touch that’s been rewarded with loyalty. “When people come here, they tend to stay,” Norris says. The company has many employees with 20, 30 or 40 years of employment. The longest serving employee has been at Atscott 57 years. “I think we are a good employer,” Norris says. “We sure try to be.”

Read the full story about John Norris and Atscott Manufacturing in the latest edition of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine here.

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