ALPHARETTA, Ga.—There are no half-empty glasses in Lee Hanson's world.
The upbeat president and CEO of The Hanson Group L.L.C.—a firm he founded in 1996, initially to develop and source raw materials for customers and, at times, serve as a distributor—charged out of the gate as a one-man operation intent on being a difference maker in the marketplace.
Numerous times he ran into pitfalls, picked him¼self up, learned from his experiences and headed out again. Hanson soon discovered that “you can't stay stationary. You have to constantly be looking for the next opportunity.”
More than 15 years later, THG has done just that.
“We are a variety of business entities all under The Hanson Group umbrella,” Hanson said. “We sell raw materials that we have custom manufactured and products from other companies to our established customers and others around the world.”
Alpharetta, Ga.-based THG distributes specialty chemicals for certain large companies, he said, and an increasing amount of time is spent in the laboratory consulting on new technology development for several large corporations.
“And, finally, we purchased (Aragon Elastomers L.L.C. and Visuron Technologies Inc., an innovator in the polyurea formulations sector) in the past year that have intellectual property and established formulated product lines. This is a growing area for us in which we private label many products for much larger companies.”
The firm operates a 14,000-sq.-ft. proof-of-concept laboratory in Alpharetta and a 30,000-sq.-ft. production and laboratory facility near Boulder, Colo., where Aragon produces cast urethane products and develops technology. THG employs 30 at its sites.
Hanson started out as a lone wolf operating out of his home in Atlanta, spending a lot of time on the road just getting established. “I listened to my customers on what was needed and then I worked with various manufacturing companies to make the chemistries,” he said.
Hanson launched THG to make more money and because there was a need in the industry for “someone who could react faster than the behemoth corporations on specialty products.”
His grandfather was an entrepreneur and “working the rest of my life for a large conglomerate was not in my gene pool. I wanted to be rewarded well for my work and creations, and the large chemical corporations didn't have the same commissions or bonus programs other companies offer.”
His first two years on his own were so difficult he often questioned his decision. “I had a wife, four children Ã another on the way. People weren't taking us seriously. Some said, 'wait until you're in business longer.' ”
Some customers he worked with while representing a large corporation had urged him to set out on his own and, if he did, said they'd buy materials from him. Then they didn't, citing concerns he may be out of business in a few years.
“That's when I decided that I had to hook my horse to a more established company, yet remain independent,” Hanson said.
Within six months after founding THG, Hanson rolled out his first product, an offset to a single-sourced raw material used worldwide. He tied in with an established firm in New Jersey.
“After the first year, they stopped paying me a commission on this project and then said Ã go create a new one for them to manufacture and sell and they'd pay me on that product.” He quickly cut ties with the firm.
In 1998 Hanson began developing technologies for Aceto Corp., a major chemical distributor in Lake Success, N.Y. Since then they have introduced numerous products and technologies.
“I owe much of my success to the visionaries at Aceto for believing in me and forming this unique business concept where I remain an independent entity.”
Hanson isn't certain who THG would classify as major competitors because the firm is unique.
“We help companies with technology development, whether it's raw materials, formulated systems or finished goods,” he said. That ranges from climbing holds, in-line skate wheels, football helmets, flooring products, protective gloves for electronics and numerous other offerings.
The firm has technology and products for epoxies, polyurethanes, silicone, rubber, plastics, UV additives and polyureas. It features ongoing technology development in finished products for the automotive, boating, sporting goods, flooring, military, mining and other sectors.
“We have no paradigms,” Hanson said. “If we have the talent to work on a project, we'll consider it. Each week we have at least one or two Fortune 500 companies at our facilities working with us on a new concept.”
According to Guy Stokes, senior vice president of the firm, “we're the last resort when a large company needs a solution.”
The entrepreneur never figured he'd become a product manufacturer when he started THG.
He purchased Aragon, he said, because he wanted more access to Chuck Demarest, who owned the business at the time. Hanson calls Demarest a “Renaissance man.”
“Chuck had started and sold several successful urethane technology and casting businesses. He's amazing. He's been a mountain rescuer for over 40 years, flies helicopters, has climbed Mount Everest twice and last year climbed Kilimanjaro at the age of 67, and has worked on a cure for Parkinson's disease.”
Hanson said he bought Aragon to free up Demarest so that he could focus on new technology for THG.
“As such, we are learning a whole new market potential in casting urethanes,” Hanson said.
“For our proof-of-concept ideology, (Aragon's) facility gives us resources to commercially manufacture finished goods for our customers prior to them setting up their own production lines. I didn't know that I wanted it, but it seems that I needed it.”
Under THG, Aragon's sales jumped to the $2 million range in the last calendar year from about $600,000.
THG's acquisition of Visuron last year also gave it field-tried and proven finished systems and intellectual property it offers under private label or license.
Demarest said he's pleased Aragon, which he launched in 1998, became part of THG, “because I thrive on problem solving, and joining THG lets me work on very significant PU challenges.” He and Sue Aragon, who serves as laboratory manager at Aragon's Louisville, Colo., plant, have more than 40 years experience developing formulations for numerous applications.
Demarest described the staff at THG as “a dynamic bunch of enthusiastic, very experienced folks.” Hanson “is a people oriented manager both internally and with customers,” he said. “His enthusiasm and energy for success are strong.”
He isn't alone in his views. Shenshen Wu, a 28-year veteran with Titleist Golf, joined THG five years ago after she retired. Hanson recruited her via email to be a specialty research consultant for polyurethanes and polyureas, knowing Wu's talents and record. He figured she was an ideal fit for THG.
The company has been strong during the last three years when the economy was weak, Wu said, because Hanson hired people to fill key gaps and acquired two businesses while other firms remained stagnant.
She said Hanson “is an honest, trusting, straightforward, fair, flexible, hard working, determined leader who does not seem to play politics. He has the ability to recognize talents and invest in them.”
Key asset: people
Looking ahead, Hanson said THG is always searching for growth opportunities and sees the firm's primary expansion taking place with its formulated systems technologies. He likes to work with big firms to bring products to the market.
“We practiced open innovation before it was a coined term. I think this will continue to be our way for the future.”
THG has been approached often on the possibility of selling out to large firms, but Hanson said he isn't interested because that would stymie its ability to create and solve problems quickly without corporate politics.
“We are better off being consultants and private laborers of new technology,” he said. “We offer intellectual properties, technology and product lines for sale, but The Hanson Group is not for sale.”