Leaving His Mark
“Coulda, woulda, shoulda called Atkins!” It’s an earworm that can last all day, and the company and the family this locally known ditty represents has a long history in Columbia and Boone County. Beginning in the 1920s, T.E. “Country” Atkins built a reputation for integrity and fairness in giving people an equal opportunity. Almost everyone you’d meet in his day had a story to tell about Country. His example is the benchmark his son and current Atkins patriarch, Thomas E. Atkins, III, and his son Scott Atkins strive to uphold. “I’m pleased with my relationships with my people and I try to develop those relationships. I have for a long time,” Tom Atkins says, “just trying to treat people right.” At 82, Atkins has created a life and grown a business around helping people and supporting the community.
Atkins joined the family business, then known as the Atkins-McCauley Chemical Co., in 1961. It was owned by Atkins’ aunt and uncle, Janette and J.P. McCauley at the time, and as head of sales, Atkins managed two employees. He was also the warehouseman and the purchasing agent for the janitorial supply business.
Looking back, he says he had much to learn, but his education in accounting at the University of Missouri had given him the tools he needed to be successful in the business. As he tells it, his grandfather, T.E., agreed when he told a friend who doubted Tom, “He knows how to count and figure interest. I think he’ll be alright.”
His success began to manifest one year later when he bought half of the company from the McCauleys. Atkins bought the remaining interest in the company in 1970, and over the next five years, it grew at a rapid pace, adding Atkins Building Maintenance officially in 1971, Atkins Pest Management and Atkins Grounds Maintenance in 1972 and Atkins Irrigation in 1975. The company also outgrew its location at 310 N. 10th, so Atkins bought the former Hamilton Brown Shoe Factory at 1123 Wilkes. After some minor renovations, they moved to the space the company occupies today in 1977.
In 1979, Atkins Chemical, Building Maintenance, Pest Management, Grounds Maintenance, Irrigation and Janitorial Services merged into a new company, Atkins Building Services and Products, Inc.
In the last 90 years, the company established by T.E. Atkins, Sr., a livestock farmer, on one of those farms you “couldn’t raise a fuss on,” grew from a one-man show to nearly 500 employees at locations in Columbia, Jefferson City and surrounding central Missouri towns. For half of that time, Tom Atkins has been at the helm. He is quick to credit to those around him when it comes to his successes. He says his father’s reputation as a businessman in the community contributed to his ability to do some of the things he has done.
Though Country never ran the family business, “his handshake was his word and he had a way of getting along with everyone,” Atkins says. “His reputation as a businessman opened a lot of doors for me. … His word was worth a million dollars.”
For Tom Atkins, his earliest recollection of community involvement goes back to high school and started off simply. “I was in charge of the popcorn machine at one time,” he says. “I just tried to do what I could do.”
That small beginning led to service as senior class president and, in college, to membership in the Mystical Seven, Omicron Delta Kappa and Phi Eta Sigma at the University of Missouri, where his dedication to community took root.
Over the years, the Atkins family has donated time, talent and treasure to a wide variety of organizations, events, schools and scholarship funds. From the American Cancer Society to the Youzeum, Art in the Park to Ducks Unlimited, MU Children’s Hospital to Central Missouri Honor Flight and scores more, the list is still growing.
“I try to lead by example. I don’t ask anybody to do anything I haven’t done myself,” Atkins says. “So, by giving things to different organizations, promoting them, supporting them, we try to get everybody’s involvement.”
Involvement comes naturally to Atkins and his wife, Linda, especially in the field of education. When they were young, Linda’s role as an educator had influence on their community contribution. “That was just a part of our family,” he says.
Atkins sees education as a foundation for success in life and has worked to ensure it is there for the students in the Columbia community.
“You learn all you can,” he says. “Whether you use it right away or not, doesn’t make any difference; you never know when it’s going to have some effect on your life.”
Atkins served on the Columbia College Board for 25 years, 17 as chair, and the Board of Curators at the University of Missouri for six, serving one as chair. During that time, he worked to establish a wellness program for the University System, later named the T.E. Atkins Wellness Program, as well as three scholarship funds for the University of Missouri Athletic Department and one for the University’s School of Education. The Atkins family also gave the lead gift to build the Atkins-Holman Student Commons Building at Columbia College and a gift toward Burchard’s Cougar Cafe.
Over the years, Atkins has impacted the community beyond education. He has been approached to serve in a diverse set of civic leadership roles. A member of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, he held the office of president in 1977-78 and received it’s Outstanding Citizen Award in 1988. He also served the Columbia Area United Way as president and as a founding member of its Alexis DeToqueville Society.
Service and involvement have always been important, Atkins says, even though he hasn’t always been in position to take every opportunity. If it’s important, he says, “there is always someone that will help you. All you have to do is ask.”
Notably, the Atkins family donated 80 acres to the City of Columbia and Boone County for the Thomas E. “Country” Atkins, Jr. Memorial Park, ball fields named for Tom’s father in 1999. More recently, Atkins and a business partner, John Ekstrom, made a contribution and a pledge to endow a Chair at the University of Missouri Medical Center in honor of Bill Stauffer for the purpose of the study of strokes.
The time and funds donated by Atkins aren’t about recognition, Atkins says. It would probably startle him if he added it up. Rather, that generosity goes deeper because “community is a two-way street,” and you have to pay it forward.
When asked what’s next, he simply says, “Stay tuned.”