Materials management firm Atlas RFID Solutions and its CEO, Robert Fuqua Jr., have come a long way in a hurry. Right now they are fueled by the challenge of the next stage of growth.
Written by Rosalind Fournier
Robert Fuqua Jr. has never had much trouble getting good press. His company, Atlas RFID Solutions, Inc.—which specializes in modern materials management for industrial capital assets—was honored by TechBirmingham as the 2008 Early Stage Technology Company of the Year, with Fuqua named as a Rising Technology Star in 2009. For the past four years, Atlas RFID has made the Inc. 5000, a prestigious list of America’s fastest-growing companies. It’s also been ranked in Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 three years in a row—most recently marking growth of 368 percent. And in 2011, Fuqua himself was named to the Birmingham Business Journal’s “Top 40 Under 40,” a distinction whose age requirement he’s only recently surpassed.
For Fuqua, it’s much-welcomed public recognition of the risks he and his team have taken to grow what began in 2007 as a tiny tech start-up and now boasts $25 million in revenue. But behind the scenes, the kudos also belie some of the most backbreaking, ego-challenging hurdles Fuqua and his team have ever faced personally or professionally.
Living Off Adrenaline
Modest and soft-spoken in an interview, Fuqua has an impressive resume he is quick to downplay, at times seeming more comfortable pointing to perceived weaknesses and missteps. As a high school student, when he started looking at colleges, one of his teachers encouraged him to apply to West Point—a prestigious institution he had no interest in attending, even though his family has a long tradition of military service. (His father served in Vietnam, his grandfather served in World War II, and his great-grandfather in World War I.) He found himself motivated by the sheer challenge of getting into West Point. “I had no intention of going there,” Fuqua says. “None. And then I got a call from Sen. [Richard] Shelby, and he said ‘I just want to congratulate you—you’ve been nominated for West Point.’ And honestly, it was the first time I seriously considered going.” He accepted the offer.
Upon graduation, while honoring his commitment to five years of military service, Fuqua went through Ranger School—one of the toughest combat leadership courses a soldier can complete in the Army. And that’s where he discovered the kind of environment where he truly thrives. “I was fortunate enough to get to work in certain types of units where you have a very high standard,” Fuqua explains. “It’s a team. You have 12 highly trained people who are very ambitious and passionate about their mission. I loved being in a situation that was very difficult and working with those people to get through it.”
Fast forward several years, and Fuqua inadvertently found himself in a very similar situation, only now in a business context and under what could have been the worst of circumstances. In 2007, with an MBA from Duke under his belt and five years’ experience working in health care marketing, he returned to Birmingham—his hometown—to launch a company in the promising field of RFID (radio-frequency identification). Housed in the Innovation Depot downtown—a hub for technology companies and start-ups designed to nurture local entrepreneurship—Fuqua and his team quickly built Atlas RFID into a company with $1.5 million in annual revenues.
Then the recession hit, and key contracts quickly ground to a halt. “It felt like the end of the world,” Fuqua remembers. “It felt like we were on a rocket ship, and then were practically out of business.” Worse still, investors were ready to pull to plug, suggesting Atlas close up shop for the time being, saying they’d reconsider once the economy improved. “I took it personally,” he recalls. “In retrospect, they were making the right business decision, but at the time, I felt like, ‘You don’t believe in me.’ And that was a challenge to me. It was motivating, because I wanted to prove them wrong.”
He saw it then—and still does—as the fight of his life. Fuqua personally went without pay for an entire year, but he still had a team of four to take care of. So they basically operated like an elite military unit—throwing themselves headlong into building a successful company, never mind what the rest of the economy was doing. Fuqua calls surviving 2009 and 2010 the best education he could have asked for. “The year that I did not take any pay was probably the most rewarding professional year I’ve had,” he says. “We worked 80- to 100-hour weeks. We weren’t sleeping at all. We would stay here, order in, go to Good People Brewing Company for a beer, and come back to work more. It was exciting. It was romantic. We fought through it, and I think that experience energized us for the next five or six years.”
Their efforts paid off handsomely. By 2012, they had made the Inc. 5000 for the first time, ranking 1,799 among the nation’s fastest-growing companies. They’ve continued to make the list ever since, with three-year growth marked at 344 percent. Jovix—the company’s proprietary construction-oriented asset management system—has been deployed on more than 200 sites on three different continents.
Today, Atlas’s revenue is at $25 million and growing as Atlas taps the potential for more and more companies, including construction, auto, manufacturing, and entertainment, to embrace RFID technology to digitize and automate large jobsites. With 125 employees—and a long-overdue move coming this April to a huge space in the renovated former Booker T. Washington building—Fuqua has set his sights on hitting the $100 million mark as the next major milestone. They raised a wealth of capital in 2014, and last year, Los Angeles-based growth private equity group Kayne Partners announced a major investment in Atlas, inviting company representatives to fly out and speak to the investors about what the firm is doing.
Ironically, however, if success sometimes comes at a price, in Atlas’s case it has been the loss of some members of the original team who fueled its early success. Some have resisted the changes that come with making the adjustment to a larger-scale company. “Going through 2015 was kind of our junior-high awkward growth year, trying to find ourselves,” Fuqua explains. “I had to learn the very hard, emotional reality that growth can isolate the people who were with you in the beginning. People who were excellent as individual contributors early on are still important today and doing a lot of the same things, but they don’t feel as impactful. And it’s tough.”
Fuqua himself can relate. “I used to be in the middle of everything,” he says. “I was fighting fires every day, making snap decisions…it’s exciting. But it’s not where we are now.” He says that, as much as anything, now is a time for self-reflection. “It’s so easy to get drunk on the articles that are coming out and the photographs and the Inc. rankings. You convince yourself that you must be doing everything the right way. That’s how companies fail at this stage. Instead, you have to embrace the concept that what made us successful to this point is not what’s going to make us successful going forward. From a business perspective, you want to be growing methodically, maturely.
“Personally, I’m fueled by this next challenge,” he continues. “I’m fueled by the idea of creating a $100 million company. I’ve never done it before, but I’m going to figure it out. And we’re very fortunate to have capital partners who see that we have a talented and ambitious team across the board that has gone through some great challenges, and we’re ready for what’s next,” he says.
No Place Like Home
At West Point, Fuqua passed up rare opportunities to do summer internships at the highest levels of government, including the White House and Congress. Instead, he pitched his professors on a different kind of summer program altogether—an internship back in his hometown of Birmingham, working for Mayor Richard Arrington. “I did it because it dawned on me that where things change, where you can have an impact on changing lives—on things like education, crime, quality of life—is at the local level.”
The experience helped convince Fuqua that he would one day return to Birmingham for good—which is why after working in New York and other large urban areas, he came back to start his new company, Atlas RFID Solutions, right here. And he didn’t want to do it in the suburbs, either, but in the heart of the city. “I’m very passionate about the city, and one of the ways we serve our community is to try and be a voice of Birmingham business downtown,” Fuqua says. “We’re helping to add another dimension to where downtown is not only banks and the University of Alabama at Birmingham but also a hub for technology.”
He adds that for too long, young, ambitious people have harbored a mistaken belief that they needed to go elsewhere to build professional credibility. “You get a lot of people who feel like they have to go away to bigger cities to feel they’re meeting their potential,” he says, admitting it’s a sentiment he once felt himself. “That hurts the city. I tell our prospects that they can come here and get a lot of responsibility that’s commiserate with their potential and talent, and they can do great things. Now, I think there’s a mentality shift where Birmingham feels like a place where highly competitive, ambitious people can come and be an all-star if they want that. We’re getting great companies, great labor, and great professional expertise.
“And it’s all self-fueled, and it’s fun.”