Brothers’ Bond Builds Business

Categories: Member Profiles

By Graeme Golucki | April 12, 2019 << Back to Articles

Once commonplace in the cleaning industry, multigenerational companies seem to be on the decline, either due to the rise of consolidation or the younger generation perusing other avenues.

One company bucking that trend is ATRA Janitorial Supply Co., Inc. From day one, the Pompton Plains, NJ-based distributor of cleaning solutions and equipment has thrived due to its focus on family, being helmed by two generations of brothers for more than 35 years.

In the late 1970s, twin brothers Al Crisafulli and Tony Crisafulli Sr. got their start in the cleaning industry working for a janitorial distributor in northern New Jersey. During the course of almost 10 years, the two learned the ropes and carved out niches in the industry for themselves with Al focused on sales and Tony on company operations. In 1982 they decided to take the knowledge they had garnered and break out on their own, forming ATRA.

“When we first started out, the company was literally only my father and uncle,” said Tony Crisafulli Jr., current president of ATRA. “My uncle was out there handling the sales, and my father was taking care of running the business. The two of them then delivered small-scale cleaning supplies out of their own vehicles. In fact, the company name was initially an anagram playing off of those deliveries—‘Al and Tony Return Again.’”

Selling solutions

Seeking to stand out from a crowded and competitive marketplace in New Jersey, the Crisafulli began their business by specifically honing in on hard floor care. “My father and uncle recognized early on the value of flooring in any public facility,” Tony Jr. said. “So instead of just selling products, they put together a complete program, realizing the value of proper, hands-on training for their customers. They spent probably their first 15 years making sure they had the best floor care program in the market. Back then a lot of our competition was just selling on price—they’d sell off the cheapest solution, deliver a few gallons of wax or a stripping chemical, and that ended the transaction. ATRA sold on quality. We worked with our customers to develop and implement a total floor maintenance program.”

ATRA saw steady growth in the early years by building partnerships with area educational and institutional facilities, many of whom to this day remain committed to the company. Things were going so well that Al and Tony Sr. were able to bring on their younger brother Joe as a salesman. “Early on we realized the key to developing and retaining a loyal customer base is by providing value,” Tony Jr. said. “And we deliver that value in the way of education and training. It’s been a successful formula for us, starting with delivering cleaning chemicals, and then as we grew, moving on to distributing mops, pads, and auto-scrubbers. Today we’re proud to offer our customers hundreds of products, along with the training to get the most out of them.”

A growing family

1994 saw ATRA add to the staff again when Tony Jr. joined his family’s business. “Since as long as I remember, I was involved in the family business one way or another,” he said. “Over my summers in high school I got a taste for it, working in the warehouse pulling orders and making deliveries. Then when I graduated college in 1994, I went straight to working full time for the company. At the time we only had five total employees, so I learned the business real fast by doing a bit of everything—doing product demonstrations, sales calls, anything we needed to do to grow the business.”

Not long after Tony Jr. joined ATRA, his younger brother Jason came aboard as well. The Crisafullis continued to grow the business throughout northern New Jersey, expanding its client portfolio and product offerings, while also steadily increasing its staff. During the early 2000s, Tony Sr. and Al gradually transitioned the leadership of ATRA to Tony Jr. and Jason.

“Today my brother and I run the business, with Jason serving as vice president,” Tony Jr. said. “It’s almost an identical set up to the way our father and uncle started. I’m focused on the sales end of the business and my brother handles operations. I’m lucky in that I get along with my brother really well. However, we are both 100 percent involved in all facets of the company. We see the business the same way. When it comes to strategic moves and personnel decisions, we very seldom differ. It’s scary, sometimes we can almost finish each other’s sentences.”

Formidable foundation

Both brothers credit their upbringing within the company as key to their success today. “As many family businesses fall apart from generation to generation, the foundation of our family has taught us the opposite,” Jason said. “From a young age we were taught morals and values from our father and uncles in the business that we continue to pass on to current family members and employees in our business. This allows us to continue to grow but never lose the identity of a family business.”

His brother concurs with the importance of that early immersion in the family business. “Jason and I started at the very bottom and worked our way up to the top,” Tony Jr. said. “The dynamic chemistry we have resonates through the company to our employees, creating a tremendous working environment. We definitely feel we put our own stamp on the business, taking what we learned with a bigger vision to do things broader and grander.”

Family matters

The feeling of family permeates throughout the ATRA staff, which today numbers at more than 25 employees. “We have a tremendous feeling of pride [because except for our uncles], all of the staff here were directly hired by Jason and I,” Tony Jr. said. “We’ve made some solid personnel decisions over the last 20 years. You’re only as good as your team, and if you spent a day within our organization, you’d say what a great family feel and chemistry the whole organization has.”

Jason reinforced how the company’s employees are the backbone of its success. “We are proud to say that we have handpicked every employee that works at ATRA,” he said. In fact, 75 percent of ATRA’s employees are recruited by word of mouth, which comes with an additional feeling of self-pride. “We hire our friends or friends of friends which makes them not want to let us down and in turn, we won’t let them down.”

In addition to the internal family, ATRA has been a long-standing member of a larger figurative family in the cleaning industry through its membership with ISSA. The company joined the association in 1988 and according to Tony Jr., its membership has paid countless dividends through the years.

“I’ve seen our membership in ISSA provide ATRA with a tremendous amount of resources to stay on top of our game,” he said. “Information is power, and ISSA’s publications and website give us a competitive edge, keeping us up to date on consolidations and other industry news while educating us on emerging trends and regulatory issues. And the trade shows give us a phenomenal chance to see what’s out there in the rest of the cleaning world and meet face-to-face with our manufacturers.”

Dedication to education

Tony Jr. and Jason have also carried on the dedication to providing value to customers that ATRA established early on. Last year, ATRA hosted a sustainability seminar for local educational facility managers. Approximately 250 cleaning professionals representing more than 200 New Jersey school districts attended the half-day seminar, making it one of the largest gatherings of New Jersey school district officials ever.

“We as a company think of ourselves as educators and problem solvers,” Jason said. “Anyone can sell a mop or a gallon of wax, but cleaning impacts so many more issues—health for the public, cleanliness for the environment, and education for all our customers. We don’t walk into a facility to sell; we walk in to educate our customers and problem-solve the issues that facility may have.”

“The workshop we hosted was unheard of in the New Jersey school community,” Tony Jr. said. “Jason and I are always trying to find other ways to add value while growing the business. While we stick true to what ATRA stands for, we can’t rest on the past; we have to enhance what our family has built.”

About the Author.

Graeme Golucki is ISSA's digital strategy editor and can be reached at [email protected]; phone, 800-225-4772 (North America) and 847-982-0800.