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The Boston Globe

Globe 100

No. 1 industrial company

Altra: A manufacturer in motion

This Braintree firm owns 20 companies that make the world move

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Carl Christenson, Altra CEO

IT’S NOT YOUR EVERYDAY industrial sector: motion.

But that’s what the many products of Altra Holdings Inc. have in common: They are used in a wide variety of machines and processes that move.

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From elevators to wind turbines, lawn mowers to warships, Altra’s 20 companies make products that propel and harness the movement that powers industry. The company’s clutch brakes are used to start and stop farm combines and oil drills; its gears rotate gun turrets in armored Humvees and power agitators in water treatment facilities; its coupling devices connect wind turbine propellers to shafts, turbines to generators.

Altra itself is also in motion, expanding its global reach through both organic growth and acquisitions. That growth fueled Altra’s rise to be number three on this year’s Globe 100, and the top industrial company on the list.

In 2011, the company purchased a leading European manufacturer, Bauer Gear Motor, for $69 million. Combined with strong demand from the mining and energy sectors, that acquisition pushed Altra’s 2011 revenue to $675 million, 30 percent over the previous year. Even without counting the Bauer acquisition, revenue was up 17 percent. And net income soared to $38 million for 2011, a 54 percent jump over the previous year, with a profit margin of 5.6 percent, well above 2010.

Yet despite Altra’s strong performance, it has kept a low profile. Its 40 product lines are marketed under niche brands that are well known in their fields, if not by the general public.

“We have a wide variety of products, serve a wide variety of industries, and make a lot of components that go into other products,’’ explained Carl Christenson, Altra’s chief executive.

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The company, which is headquartered in Braintree, was founded in 2004 through the acquisition of the Colfax Power Transmission Group by the San Francisco private equity firm Genstar Capital. At the time, the company consisted of a collection of well-known power transmission brands, including Boston Gear, Nuttall/Delroyd, Stieber, Warner Electric, and Wichita Clutch. Following the sale, the company made several strategic acquisitions that doubled its size, and in 2006, Altra went public.

Today, the company’s wholly owned subsidiary Altra Industrial Motion Inc. serves as an umbrella for 26 facilities in nine countries, with sales coverage in more than 70 nations. Its products are at the heart of machinery in a variety of end markets, including aerospace, energy, food processing, general industrial, material handling, mining, petrochemical, transportation, and turf and garden. Although the company has just 40 employees in Braintree (primarily executives, along with financial and marketing managers), it has more than 3,450 employees worldwide.

According to chief executive Christenson, the company uses a management approach based on the famed Toyota Production System - with its emphasis on long-term vision and constant improvement - to run its many companies. “It helps us closely track short- and long-term goals, with the goal of continuous improvement,’’ he said.

Christenson said that since the company was founded in 2004, it has steadily increased its value through an even mix of organic growth and acquisitions. “Last year’s revenues of $675 million was a benchmark for us,’’ he said, “but we see the growth continuing. We expect to be a billion-dollar company within the next three or four years.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

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