Last in a series on businesses named a 2019 Cedar Valley Business of the Year.
WATERLOO — Employees of family-owned businesses are “generally happier and more productive. They feel better about their jobs, and it shows,” according to a July 2018 article in Forbes magazine.
That comes as no surprise to employees at Advanced Heat Treat Corp.
Joel Robinson has worked at Advanced Heat Treat for more than 15 years and says he’s “personally witnessed the continued commitment to family-type core values as the company has grown. To work at Advanced Heat Treat is to work in an environment where everyone cares about each other while at the same time being focused on hard work and not wanting to let your co-workers down.”
Jason Essman describes the business as “one of the best companies I’ve ever worked for … very family-oriented and is always family first.”
Advanced Heat Treat Corp., has been named the Courier’s Family Business of the Year. The business provides heat treating services and metallurgical solutions for automotive, aerospace, agriculture, firearm, construction, oil and energy, stamping, plastic and other industries.
In February, AHT completed a 15,000-square-foot building expansion at the MidPort Boulevard facility. The addition has allowed AHT to segregate its UltraGlow ion nitriding process from its UltraOx and gas nitriding processes. The company has invested in three additional gas nitriding units which are now housed in the new addition. Across four locations, AHT now operates more than 55 nitriding units.
Today there are 180 employees – 130 in Waterloo – and the company has grown to four locations: the original Burton Avenue location; corporate offices and service center on MidPort Boulevard; and locations in Monroe, Mich., and Cullman, Ala.
Gary Sharp founded the company in 1981. At the same time, he was holding down a full-time job at John Deere. “For five or six years, I worked both jobs. I had a staff of two at AHT, and I worked lunch breaks, nights and weekends to get the business going,” recalled the Waterloo East High School graduate.
In 1986, “I had to either make it work or let it go under, and I didn’t want to do that. I bought out my (12) investors, quit John Deere and went full time at AHT,” he said.
Sharp initially began with two UltraGlow Ion Nitride units. Sometimes called plasma nitriding, the process is an industrial hardening treatment that makes metal parts such as gears “better, stronger and longer-lasting,” Sharp explained.
A vacuum chamber is back-filled with a mixture of nitrogen and other gases and a high-voltage electrical charge forms plasma from the gas mixture. Nitrogen ions accelerate through the plasma and the ion-bombardment process heats the piece, cleans its surface and results in absorption of active nitrogen into the material’s surface to produce a “hardened case.”
Company president Mikel Woods describes his father-in-law Sharp as “the pioneer in the United States behind getting this equipment and process to function properly. Once he honed in, he was able to market, teach and sell the benefits of the process nationally and even globally.”
Parts treated at AHT are in the Mars 2020 Rover, for example.
Sharp is recognized annually as one of the most influential people in the industry. He is modest about his accomplishments, noting “my family thought I was nuts when I quit John Deere. I thought it was time to leave. If you don’t try something new, you never know what it can turn into. I knew hard work would turn into something.”
The Burton facility expanded in 1988 and in 1993, AHT expanded to including UltraGlow Induction hardening service. Another expansion took place in 2007, the same year the Cullman site opened. The Monroe facility opened in 1995 and expanded in 2005, and in 2000, AHT opened its corporate headquarters and additional facilities on MidPort Boulevard.
It isn’t just business savvy that has made Sharp such a success, Wood said. “It’s his huge heart. Sharp wears his teammates’ highs and lows on his sleeve.”
Sharp credits AHT employees’ dedication and hard work for the company’s successes. AHT has a 15-plus-year employee club and hosts employee appreciation week festivities.
“We’ve had a good group of people through the years, and some people have been with us a number of years. It’s like family, and that’s important to me. There are a lot of family connections to each other – brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins,” Sharp said.
Lindsey Newcomb, for example, has worked at AHT for less than a year and has already referred her uncle as a potential AHT employee. Kody Kottke said, “I work with sons of fathers and fathers of sons, mothers’ daughters and daughters’ mothers. It’s truly an extended family.”
Twenty-one-year employee Adam Dehl praises Sharp. “Gary treats you like family. He is always looking out for his employees. I have seen a number of things that he has done that very few people knew he did, but he did them because that is how you treat people.”
Dehl, whose daughter also works at AHT, was hospitalized recently and Sharp made a personal visit and followed up with call and personal letter. “I can’t imagine having to work somewhere else,” Dehl added.
Gayla Hoppenworth describes the company’s emphasis on family values and creating a family culture. “Supervisors work with employees to flex their work schedule in order to meet family commitments as needed. Most of all, AHT employees care about each other and treat each other like family.”
Sharp admitted he has retired three times, but he keeps getting drawn back. “When I’m in town, I go in every day for three or four hours, talk to people, then get out of the way. I’ve had a chance to sell the company dozens of times, but I turned them all down. So many times companies get spun off and that’s not good or fair for employees,” he said.