Tough as leather Five generations in, Newark’s Atlas Refinery is still adapting, thriving

Steven Schroeder Jr. and Steven Schroeder Sr., co-owners of Atlas Refinery. Atlas creates fatliquors (lubricants) used to treat hides (leather).-(AARON HOUSTON)

Going through five generations of ownership at a family-run business — as Atlas Refinery has — takes smart moves … and dumb luck.“I’m not sure which of those we had more of, but we were able to make a number of transitions (of ownership) as well as survive the decline in local manufacturing, while most of our competitors didn’t,” said Steven Schroeder Jr., current co-owner of the business.

Schroeder’s Atlas Refinery still operates in the same Newark location it did when the business started in 1887, on a piece of property that was at that time a family farm.

His great-great-grandfather started the business, which still sells solutions, such as oils, used for leather creation. In its early period, it served a local hide-tanning industry that was booming, a lost but not totally forgotten commercial sector in Newark.

“Newark was actually at one time the largest tanning area in the world, making nearly all of the country’s leather,” Schroeder said. “My great-great-grandfather collected renderings from slaughterhouses and processed it. With so many tanneries and textile factories around, he didn’t have to go far for customers.”

The local leather industry waned over time, but Schroeder’s father took an early gamble in the ’70s and ’80s and made a push to enter the manufacturing markets in Asia. That’s where Schroeder said some luck came in.

“A lot of people believed they didn’t have to go chasing business overseas, that it would be here forever,” he said. “But my father took a chance. And it paid off.”

Atlas Refinery started by finding customers for leather tanning in Korea before looking to establish customers in China when its market was opened to international business. It also went to Taiwan and Thailand, as well as places in South America and Mexico.

Not too long after that, the industry’s local manufacturing bottomed out completely. Schroeder said the international customers allowed the Newark business to survive.

Given that the closest tannery facility is in upstate New York, the company hardly has any local customers. Around 70 percent of the company’s products today are exported, and most of its competition is centered in Europe.

Even though the entirety of the company’s salespeople are based abroad because of that, 90 percent of its products are still made in Newark. And all the research is still done on the site of the same former family farm that served as the company’s foundations more than a century ago.

Schroeder said the business has had to weather a lot of storms to stay intact — and quite literally, as Superstorm Sandy not too long ago flooded the business, causing millions in damage that had to be covered through internal funding sources.

But what has kept it afloat is a long-term approach that Schroeder believes comes naturally to family businesses.

“I always joke that I’m focused on the next 100 years, not the next 12 months,” Schroeder said. “It’s easy to get caught up in month-to-month profit and loss, but I want to always be building toward the future.

“And there are some competitors that are family businesses with that same vision, but, obviously, we can’t all survive. There is going to be consolidation in the industry eventually.”

The leather industry is both threatened by the lower pricing of increasing synthetics use and limited by the amount of raw material that is always tied to the amount of cattle harvested for meat in a year.

With a bit of luck, Schroeder expects his business to do well nonetheless.

“You shoot from the hip a lot of the time as a small, family-owned business, because you don’t have the advisers or consultants or the people corporations can rely on for guidance,” he said. “Sometimes, like with us, that works out.”

Brett Johnson

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