Under Hank Little’s leadership, Atlanta Attachment accelerates through challenges, acquisition.
BY DOROTHY WHITCOMB
Hank Little, president of Atlanta Attachment Co., says he has two real passions in life: “fishing and going fast.” Speeding at 75 mph in a souped-up bass boat to land a fish is Little’s idea of a day made in heaven.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the head of a company that produces machinery likes engines. Little, however, does a good deal more than mess around a bit with motors.
“I love fast boats and fast cars. On weekends, I’m always running around in a beat-up pair of shorts and a T-shirt playing with engines,” he says. “I usually modify anything I have to get the most horsepower out of it and once had a boat that went 100 mph. My wife thinks I should be committed.”
The thrill of speed combined with the tranquility of fishing help to alleviate the pressures of a workweek to which Little also goes full throttle. “To succeed in business, you can’t be afraid of hard work and long hard hours,” he says.
A key introduction
After graduating from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, Little began his career selling electrical components “and starving,” he says. On the advice of a recruiter, he took a job selling cars.
“He told me I’d meet a lot of people and learn a lot. That’s where I met the gentleman who brought me into the sewing industry,” Little says. “After I sold him three cars in three years, he decided I should come work for him at Adler America.”
Little worked at Adler America, the U.S. division of Kochs Adler AG for 20 years, rising to senior vice president of sales. (In 1991, the company was acquired by competitor Dürkoppwerke AG and now is known as Dürkopp Adler America, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dürkopp Adler AG in Bielefeld, Germany.)
“Atlanta Attachment was an Adler customer, and that’s how I met Mr. Price,” Little says.
Elvin C. Price founded Atlanta Attachment in 1969 and currently serves in an advisory capacity as its chair emeritus. According to the company’s website, Price launched the company to produce “quality, labor-saving devices for the sewn products industry” in a basement workshop with a capital investment of just over $100.
Today, the company is headquartered in Lawrence-ville, Georgia, on a campus with a 235,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. Its products include heavy-duty sewing machinery, packaging equipment and sewing automation equipment for the mattress, apparel, automotive, furniture and aviation industries. It sells its products into more than 70 countries worldwide and, Little says, “the majority of our sales come from the mattress industry.”
Little joined Atlanta Attachment in 2002. He came aboard as senior vice president of sales and was named president in 2005.
“Elvin knew that he wanted to step back and let someone else lead, so he also offered me the opportunity to buy into the company,” he says.
Little’s tenure has not been without challenges. “With the exodus of the apparel industry from the United States and the recession of 2008, this company has been through hell and back,” he says.
New relationships with old colleagues
His most recent challenges have come from the acquisition in December 2016 of Atlanta Attachment by HSM, the Hickory, North Carolina-based manufacturer of components for the bedding, furniture and transportation industries. The purchase included Atlanta Attachment’s three wholly owned subsidiaries: Atlanta Parts Depot, which supplies one-stop shopping for replacement and sewing machine parts; Atlanta Precision Machining & Fabrication, a producer of custom machinery, assemblies and parts; and Priceless Aviation Products, a manufacturer of aircraft tugs, tools and ground support equipment. These subsidiaries also are located in Lawrenceville.
In announcing the merger, HSM said it planned to maintain Atlanta Attachment’s existing facilities and staff in Lawrenceville, incorporating the company as its fourth division. HSM’s other divisions include Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co., HSM Transportation Solutions & Specialty Manufacturing and HSM Diversified Solutions.
Little, who now reports to Mark Jones, HSM president and chief executive officer, says, “Although the merger did create some challenges, we’ve had a long relationship with HSM and it was important to us as a company to align ourselves with another company that had the same values and same commitment to employees. In our negotiations, HSM wanted to make sure that we kept doing what we’re doing because we’re good at it and we wanted to make sure that our employees were taken care of. Overall, it was actually an easy transition for me and I feel good about the future of the company.”
Little’s confidence may come from more than just the successful merger of two long-established companies. The principles and attitudes that he incorporates into the way he does business on a daily basis certainly also play a role.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. I’m not an ‘it can’t be done’ kind of guy,” he says. “You have to be open and look for ways to make things happen and you have to be willing to change because if you don’t change, you’re going to get left behind. You have to be innovative and never lose track of your customer. If you don’t, your competitor will.”
On finding balance, bass fishing and business advice
A delicate balance
It took Hank Little awhile to figure out how to balance work and the rest of his life. “For a long time, when my kids were young, they thought that I worked for Holiday Inn and that my wife, Danette, and I were divorced because I was only home on weekends. When they asked where I was, my wife told them that I was at the Holiday Inn,” he says. Now, family time starts when he gets home at night. He also builds in time outdoors for “fishing, riding my mountain bike and relaxing to relieve the pressure of the day-to-day job.”
Little’s most cherished possessions remind him of the ties that bind families together. “I have a piece of jewelry that my parents gave me when I was confirmed in the Lutheran church that I still wear today,” he says. “And my wife’s grandfather, who I used to fish in the Louisiana swamps with, gave me an old Sears & Roebuck 12-gauge shotgun that I had restored.”
The almighty fish
Little takes fishing seriously. He travels the southeast competing in a club fishing league with his son, Neal, who also works at Atlanta Attachment. A devoted bass fisher—the biggest he ever caught was a 14 pounder—Little also helps coach a high school bass fishing team. “I donate my time to this cause to help young men who would not have a chance to fish competitively at the high school level otherwise,” he says. “We finished first in the county last year.” Little’s oldest son, Lee, also is an angler, who fished for Georgia Southern University’s bass fishing team and qualified for regionals while there. “He still fishes today, Little says, “but works for Lamar Advertising Co. in Hammond, Louisiana.”
A dream deferred
“I’ve been blessed and really have no regrets,” Little says, “but I really want to drive the entire country east to west on Route 66.”
On politics and people
Like many people, Little finds himself increasingly frustrated by politicians and the way governments are run. “I’ve traveled all over the world and we all want the same things,” he says. “We want to make a nice living, have a nice home and take care of our kids. It’s frustrating sometimes to see the political issues that come up between government officials when the people all have the same goals.”
Little has gone so far as to invite his congressional representatives to come sit across a table from him and talk about ways to get legislation passed to help businesses. His question to them: “Why can’t you find common ground? In business to get anything done, we have to compromise and shake hands.” Their answer: “Once elected, you can’t compromise because you’ll look weak to your base.” It is, Little is forced to conclude, “all about getting re-elected.”
Hiring and firing
“I’ll hire about anyone who wants to work. Some of my best hires have been random and come from just running into someone in a parking lot or a restaurant,” Little says. As well, under Little’s leadership, the company is not slow to fire people who it turns out don’t really want to work. He admits that some millennials leave him scratching his head. “I’ve had them tell me that they don’t want to work as hard as we do because they don’t want
to be a slave to money,” he says. “I don’t want to be a
slave to money either, but I was taught by my grandfather that if I work hard and do a good job, I’d always have a job.”
The Davey Tree letter
A six-page letter written by Martin L. Davey Sr., son of Davey Tree Co. founder John Davey, to his own son after he had returned from World War II, has become Little’s go-to guide for running a business. Below are just a few of the points that Little finds as compelling today as they were more than 75 years ago:
- “Above everything, make your word good.”
- “Think of your clients before everything.”
- “You can’t make good men out of poor ones.”
- “Please, please, do not try to be popular in your business dealings. You simply cannot manage a business properly and be popular with everyone.”
- “The natural pull of human inertia and indifference is downward. Good management must pull steadily the other way, and pull harder than the normal laws of human nature.”