This Outstanding Alum Founded a Successful Company: Alternative Technologies Inc.

Donald Cronin was recently named an Outstanding Alumnus by the Newark College of Engineering.

Donald Cronin, who graduated in 1975 with a degree in civil engineering and with significant experience in industrial engineering, is now President and CEO of Alternative Technologies, Inc (ATI).

The company is a material handling systems firm that designs and integrates material handling and storage systems.Cronin founded ATI in 1995. It’s a small business but over the years it has helped major companies improve their material handling systems.

Material handling is a field concerned with the movement, storage and distribution of products. It’s a huge industry -- companies in the United States spend $180 billion a year in material handling-- and Cronin has carved out a profitable niche.  ATI’s client list include Tiffany & Co., General Dynamics, Givaudan, General Motors, BioReference, Movado, Johnson & Johnson and many others. Cronin has helped those firms improve their operations by reducing operating costs, better utilizing space and enhancing customer service.

He uses every sophisticated tool on the market, from automated systems to robotics, from computerized carousels and data analysis, to help his clients reduce their material handling costs and improve their customer service.  

“I’ve helped companies store everything from cookies to cars,” says Cronin, who was recently named an Outstanding Alumnus by the Newark College of Engineering.  “Material handling has been good to me and I’m grateful to NJIT for giving me the engineering education that’s allowed me to succeed in this challenging and rewarding career.”

In this interview, Cronin talks about his work, his NJIT education, and how the two intersected in a way that helped him become President and CEO of a successful company.

______________________________________________________________

What jobs did you have before you founded Alternative Technologies?

After I graduated I had various jobs in different fields, which prepared me to start my own company. I worked for an engineering company and a risk insurance company that designed and tested fire protection systems (sprinkler systems, pumps, safety systems.)  I began my material handling career as an engineer and ultimately as executive vice president for Frazier Industrial Co., a premier manufacturer of racking systems.  I also worked for Malin Integrated Handling Solutions in Dallas. Malin is a large material handling systems integrator and one of the largest Raymond Forklift dealers in the world. I then had to come back to Jersey for family reasons and shortly thereafter started my company in 1995.

Do you prefer having your own company and being your own boss? And what is your schedule?

Yes, I like being the one making the decisions, in consultation of course with my customers.  I’m always thinking about my work and how we can provide the best alternative for our customers.  I have to have my hands in everything, from marketing, sales, accounting and project management.  We need to be sure we perform all the right tasks including analysis, design and implementation for our customers. We often have multiple projects going at once and if you’re not disciplined and have detailed procedures, you can get into trouble real fast.

Does your engineering background help you balance your work?

By its very nature, engineering forces you to think about solving problems and focusing on the details. But that’s only a part of it. You must also learn to think independently, to think outside of the box.  To ask, What If, Suppose, How can we -- all questions that are a first step toward positive change.  I believe we should create a class in “Imagineering” that teaches brain-storming and challenges the statement: We always do it that way. Engineering is a very good background for becoming an entrepreneur and NJIT gave me a great engineering background.

Can you talk specifically about material handling?

It’s a great field and a huge field. Think of it this way. All you ever buy or use is impacted by material handling systems.  From food to consumer goods to clothes, all you buy in stores has been handled, stored, and processed using material handling.  As a board member and former president of the Material Handling Society of New Jersey, and current president of the NY/NJ/CT Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), I’m a big advocate of material handling and how it positively impacts our lives. Check out the DC Velocity videos “Move It”! The three videos provide good insight into the world of material handling.

How exactly does your company operate?

We are hired by companies to improve their operations and handling systems. We’ll walk into a warehouse or a manufacturing facility and we analyze their methods of operations. We collect data.  Then we ask: Can their storage and inventory systems be done better? Our goal is to improve the company’s use of resources and to reduce operation cost and enhance quality and customer service.

How do you do that?

We have lots of technical tools and equipment solutions – shelving, racking, carousels, automated storage and retirement systems, automated guided vehicles and other order-picking solutions, including light and voice directed technologies. Technology is really changing the field. I mean just look at what Amazon plans to do – to use little Prime Air drones that will drop down from the sky and land on your stoop, deliver your package, then return to the sky.  It’s amazing. In my career I have worked on projects to handle and store airplane parts, cars, and even high-tech electronic systems.  I have had and continue to have opportunities to see things most people don’t. It’s never boring!

Many NCE/NJIT grads are first-generation college students who worked their way through school. Is that you?

I was the first in my family to go.  My parents didn’t know what college was. I paid my way through college by working any job I could get. In summers I was a lifeguard and during the year I worked at the Star-Ledger in Newark. I had a job where I’d sit near the printing press and wait for the press to jam or shut down.  I’d work from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.  If the press stopped, I’d pick up the papers that got jammed in it.  It was funny, but it paid my bills.

Why did you come to NJIT?

When I was in high school, my college decision took maybe five minutes. I met with my guidance counselor and told her I was interested in engineering and that I had good grades in math and science.  She said to me, “Well, you should go to either Rutgers or Newark College of Engineering (NCE).”  I asked her which was better.  “NCE,” she said.  I said, “Okay I’ll go there.” That was it. And she was right. I received a great education.

Can you give an example of a project ATI did for a client?

We developed a material handling system for Tiffanys & Co., which has a storage facility in Parsippany.  It has 18 horizontal carousels, like the ones you see in the dry cleaners but modified with wire bays of shelving to store items. Each work-station has three carousels. The computer software knows the inventory in all the carousels. The orders are received from stores and are electronically downloaded to the carousel control software system. The system knows which items need to be selected and it brings them to the worker (goods to person). Orders are processed in batches of up to 15 orders at a time at each work station. It reduced labor and gave them better use of space and better customer service. 

Do you think material handling is a good career path for students?

It’s a great career path. Over the next 20 years, material handing  will change dramatically, with more high-tech solutions.  Companies like Walmart and Amazon are pushing the edge, using automated systems and robotics.  It’s a field that combines and touches upon every engineering discipline, starting with industrial engineering but including electrical and mechanical engineering, computer engineering, civil and many others. It also provides an upward career path as more companies recognize the impact that material handling has on their operations.

You run golf outings that raise scholarship money for NJIT. What motivates you to do that?

As I said, material handling has been good to me; the Newark College of Engineering at NJIT gave me a quality education at a great value.  So it’s my way of giving back to NJIT and to the material handling industry. I like running the golf outings and I enjoy raising scholarship money for students. Many of them are like me: first-generation students who study hard and work their way through college.  It’s a pleasure to help students like that.

How do you feel about being named an NCE Outstanding Alumnus?

I didn’t expect to receive this award, so I was pleasantly surprised.  I feel happy, proud and honored, and I’m grateful to all the people at NJIT involved in this decision.

By Robert Florida