Jim Pryor and Atlas Concrete Products Have Carved Their Niche Into the Connecticut Precast Market
By Joe Frollo
Jim Pryor knows a good thing when he sees one. It is a talent born of both inspiration and perspiration.
As president of Atlas Concrete Products in New Britain, Conn., Pryor has had his share of long days and sleep-shortened nights as he balances work, community and family.
But in those rare moments when he can stop, take a breath and look around a little, he has no complaints.
For years, Pryor took on the lion’s share of responsibility, sweating the small details while simultaneously mapping future growth. Now, through decades of hard work, he has a strong support group, which happens to include two grown children who oversee important parts of the business.
Pryor’s instincts led him to Atlas. His commitment has helped it flourish. His wife, father, children and staff trust and support him.
A good thing all around.
FROM PRECAST PURCHASER TO PRODUCER
Some people are born to be precasters. Some make their way into the industry.
Pryor is a little bit of both.
Coming out of Ithaca College with a degree in business management, Pryor was not entirely sure what to do next, but he liked working with his hands, and he wasn’t afraid to get dirty.
His father, Jim Sr., sold real estate and had some empty lots available. The two decided to work jointly in home development.
“My dad had the land and enjoyed doing the logistics,” Pryor said. “I liked the excavation and installation side.
I got my sewer and septic licenses, then my water license, so I was able to do the infrastructure improvements myself. Slowly, we bought the equipment we needed and did very well for ourselves as the business came along.”
That lasted 15 years. Pryor then purchased a septic and sewer business.
He was busy. He was happy. And unknown to him at the time, he was learning all about precast concrete.
“With home building, I bought a lot of the products that we now produce here,” Pryor said. “We bought septic products, We bought bulkheads and stairs. We bought everything.”
As the 21st century was just starting, Pryor was flipping through the local newspaper’s classified section, where he saw Atlas Precast Concrete for sale. He had not been looking to buy a new business. He was plenty busy already.
But it just seemed right.
“I remember going home and talking with my wife about putting our house up for collateral,” Pryor said. “My father put his house up, too. It was a big jump for us. We talked about if this doesn’t work out, we’d be living in an apartment – and I knew I’d be sleeping on the couch for a long time.”
It worked out.
A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Under Pryor’s leadership, Atlas maintained focus on producing the precast staples to keep the business going. As with previous ventures, Jim Sr. helped oversee while Jim focused on day-to-day operations. That lasted three years while Pryor rebuilt his employee base and learned the business.
“I had never run a business with that many people before, so I had no idea if I could do it,” he said. “It was very challenging and very stressful, but it worked out. Thankfully, we had plenty of work, and that helped us tremendously.”
In 2003, Pryor moved the entire company from Durham, Conn., to a 200,000-square-foot facility in New Britain, Conn.
In time, Atlas became known among area home and commercial builders as an expert in stairs. The product offerings have steadily expanded as new markets emerged, but Atlas’ bread and butter remained precast concrete steps and bulkheads.
“Our main product line really has become all kinds of entryways,” Pryor said. “We do commercial banking stairs that are unique. They range from 3 feet to 12 feet wide and go up to 10 rises. Nobody else in Connecticut does them. We do basement entry ways and retaining walls. For decades, that has really sustained us.”
With New England topography, construction space isn’t always conducive to any single standard layout. But with the ability to construct its own wrought iron rails in-house, Atlas can design, develop, and deliver to fit the customer’s needs.
“If they can dream it, we can do it,” said Max Pryor, Jim’s son and an NPCA Master Precaster. Max does a variety of jobs around Atlas, including delivering, installing, and plant management.
“Our customers have what seems like some pretty specific requests at times, but we’ve found those often end up turning into new product lines for us.”
That business model is a blueprint for success, said Richard Higgins, the Atlas shop foreman and an 18-year employee. With the acquisition of Concrete Raising Corporation of America in 2020, the company’s service line continues to expand.
“We work as a team here,” Higgins said. “We do a lot of special projects where we all get together as production crew, sales team, welders, mechanics and whoever else is needed. We figure out how we are going to approach it and find a way to do it right. We trust each other, and we respect each other. It’s like a big family. It’s a really great place to work.”
Both Max and his sister, Lexi, studied at Central Connecticut State University, where Atlas products are proudly – though anonymously – on display in forms of retaining walls, stairs, as well as sign and pole bases. A long stretch of Atlas banking stairs connects the football field to the parking lot, and Atlas crews recently installed a retaining wall with a handicap ramp at Carroll Hall.
“That was pretty cool while I was still in school,” Max said. “Part of my summer job was installing our products around campus, then I get to see and appreciate them while walking to classes.”
Atlas recently started getting into bridge work. Crews most recently worked on the Great Hill Cottage Bridge Project in Guilford, Conn., Using segmental abutments and precast slabs.
“We are always looking to expand our reach,” Jim said. “You have to do that in whatever business you are in. Every new loop you can jump into brings opportunities.”
A FAMILY BUSINESS
Max grew up at the plant, going on deliveries from a young age and working alongside his father on many of the company projects. Now, after graduating with a degree in civil engineering, he oversees inventory along with his other duties.
“We are in such a tight spot for drivers and installers, and Max is one of our best,” Jim said. “He is currently moving into the production side of things as well, like plant management and quality control. He also finds the time to make beneficial changes in how we do things around here in between installations.”
As Max pursued Atlas with full commitment, Jim’s younger son, Ben, worked during summers, often stepping in when help was needed on short notice. After graduating from the University of Connecticut, Ben started a business of his own.
Lexi began her journey at Atlas filing paperwork and answering phones, not planning to make it her career. But, as life often does, circumstances brought Lexi home, where she has become an intricate part of the front office staff, introducing an older generation – including her father – to more efficient ways of running the business.
“I was getting my psychology degree and working in a restaurant when a need came up at Atlas to fill in some hours,” Lexi said. “Then COVID hit and the full-time secretary was out for a while, and I just kinda threw myself into the job. I was like, ‘OK, Lexi. It’s go time.’”
As the office manager, Lexi oversees payroll, coordinates with Max on much of the hiring and has pushed to computerize all of Atlas’ processes. She admits it is a work in progress.
Jim said Lexi has a way with people and brings both confidence and compassion to the job.
“We gave her a little training at the start, but she really stepped up and took hold of the job,” Jim said of Lexi. “She came in at first to answer the phones and do a little filing, and now she’s running the office.”
Between the kids and Jim Sr., who remains involved but tends to make his presence felt “around lunchtime,” Pryor enjoys a blend of work and loved ones that escape many families. Even his wife, Allison, spends “more hours than she can count” at the plant to coordinate Atlas events.
It is, as Pryor simply puts it, “Nice.”
‘A KID IN A CANDY STORE’
The precast concrete business is the perfect setting for Jim Pryor. Just ask Allison.
Jim spends every weekday and most weekends at the facility, in part because that is the life of a small business owner. Don’t let him complain about it though. He loves it.
“Every weekend pretty much he calls out to me, ‘I gotta go now,’ and I’m like, ‘Surprise, surprise,” Allison said with a laugh. “Even when he’s home, I can tell he’s thinking about it.”
Allison’s brother was Jim’s best friend growing up so the two have known each other most of their lives.
Together, the Pryors own a farm in Connecticut raising horses, donkeys, chickens and goats. She said her “alone time” with her husband typically involves working in the garden or mowing the 58-acre property.
Allison doesn’t ask Jim to help her till the soil any more though, not since he traded a handheld hoe for a backhoe to get the job done quicker. “More efficient” as he put it.
“I yelled at him to stop, but then I just shook my head and laughed,” Allison said. “He’s sitting there on his overgrown Tonka truck looking like a kid in a candy store. He has a sand screener that he uses, and he looks like a big kid playing in a sandbox. I am a college graduate and a certified teacher, but here I am shoveling poop on a farm for a living. Who am I to judge?”
This always-on-the-go approach is why Jim cannot even begin to think about retirement. He loves what he does, and he cannot imagine scaling back let alone walking away from it all.
About the only thing that will stop him in his tracks is Max’s 7-month old daughter, Payton.
“Do I want to slow down? Of course,” Jim said. “Physically, at some point I’ll have to. I’m doing drawings, excavations, installs and overseeing production. I look at my kids and know the company will be in great hands with the next generation. I’m just not ready to get out and not have the next big project to look forward to.”
GIVING BACK AND LOOKING AHEAD
Jim Pryor realizes he is lucky. He works hard at something he loves and reaps the rewards.
He also is a Connecticut guy through and through, which is why he helps and supports his greater community.
Atlas regularly works with Habitat for Humanity to offer building and installation for senior homeowners whose stairs and porches are in disrepair. Atlas has donated benches, monument bases and even a concrete ping pong table to area parks, including one in New Britian near the Atlas facility. “Sometimes there is a ribbon-cutting ceremony, sometimes there’s not,” Jim said. “It’s not so much about that. It’s about seeing how much something as simple as a new set of stairs can mean to people and to feel like we are part of one big community.”
With NPCA, Jim is a big supporter of the Master Precaster program and currently serves on the association’s Board of Directors.
Working 10- and 12-hour days is a grind, but Jim always made a point to keep a smile on his face.
“He’d come home when we were younger, and we never really paid much attention to how tired he was,” Lexi said. “But recently, Max and I have had time to think, “How did he do all that by himself?’ He would never let on that there were problems. We were lucky. We are lucky.”
That next thing will come along for Jim, even though he readily admits he has no idea what it could be. Just as his relationship with Allison went from friend to true love over time. Just as he found Atlas Concrete when he didn’t know he was looking for it.
When he sees it, he will know it. And he will be ready.
Joe Frollo is director of communications at NPCA.