One sterling quality of American businesses is that they'll try to make money from anything.
Paranoia, for instance. So say hello to Ron Hubbard, the owner of Montebello-based Atlas Survival Shelters, which converts huge corrugated metal tubes up to 50 feet long into fully equipped, all-the-comforts-of-home underground shelters at a price of up to about $78,000 each, not including shipping and interment.
You may have spotted the Atlas shop from the 5 Freeway as you're heading into downtown. There's a corrugated tube out front, painted bright yellow and looking like a tipped-over corn silo. High on the exterior wall facing the road is a banner declaring that the shelters offer protection from nuclear blasts, nuclear fallout, EMP (that's electromagnetic pulses, which can foul electrical systems), solar flares, mobs, looters, earthquakes and chemical warfare. If there's anything left off that list, it's probably not worth worrying about.
"People who buy my shelters are not radical crazy people," Hubbard told me recently as he guided me around the Montebello shop. "I get maybe three crazy calls a year. They're practical people."
Hubbard, 50, is a big Texan with a toothy grin and the friendly enthusiasm of someone trying to sell you something. He'll expound cheerily on the basic practicality, not to mention the sheer joy, of having a 40-foot corrugated steel drum buried 20 feet deep in your yard and tricking it out with a big-screen TV and Internet connection for those long days and nights hunkered down against nuclear blasts, the Chinese army or domestic looters. His shelters also offer such necessities as microwave ovens, space for a year's worth of provisions and high-grade air filtration.
"We don't know where our country will go," he said. "If we're going to be attacked, my shelters will protect you from Sarin gas or super flu. If we go bankrupt and we don't pay China, that could be the start of World War III. We could attack Iran or back Israel, and that could start a war. This is insurance. Why do we carry insurance on our homes? Just. In. Case."
Hubbard doesn't describe these dystopias as though he actually believes in them, but rather with the air of a salesman trying out any buzzword that might trigger a deal. During the couple of hours we were together, he described his products serially as underground condos, second homes, combination second homes and bomb shelters, man caves, man caves that happen to be bombproof, weekend cabins and hunting cabins.
Atlas Survival Shelters hasn't turned a significant profit yet. Hubbard said it made no money in the start-up year of 2011, was modestly in the black last year and may show a profit for 2013. But the business is unusual enough that it has won featured spots on several reality shows. An episode on A&E Network's "Shipping Wars" shows a team of moving experts trying to figure out how to transport a 32-foot shelter on their flatbed truck. During the episode Hubbard regales them with the virtues of the unit's escape-hatch feature, a second portal that opens only from the inside, in case of an attack.
"Somebody sees you going down; while they're trying to smoke you out, you're going to the back tunnel, you're gonna come up through an escape hatch that's hidden underground, you can shoot 'em in the back. Pretty cool, huh?" (Remarked one of the show's plainly creeped-out female cast members, "Remind me to never pay him a visit.")
More recently, Atlas was featured on an episode of the National Geographic Channel series "Doomsday Preppers," which chronicles the lifestyles of the scared and nervous. Hubbard's customer is described in network publicity as Brian Smith, a father of 12 "preparing for a total collapse of the U.S. monetary system."
Hubbard got into the underground shelter business a little more than a year ago after years of selling wrought-iron doors from the same location, operating as Hubbard Iron Doors. That business was brought low by the poor economy and cheap Chinese knockoffs, Hubbard says. It filed for bankruptcy in 2011; Hubbard says it's now owned and run by his brother, though the two companies share space with each other.
While he was casting about for a new business, Hubbard said, he happened across a brochure for Radius Engineering International, a Texas company that manufacturers fiberglass shelters mostly for business, government and military buyers. But the Radius products were expensive — they run from $150,000 up to millions, depending on the design and capacity. Hubbard thought he could do better on price while turning out a more appealing hideaway.
He's still trying to get a feel for the market, however. With his six or seven full-time workers, he can turn out one shelter a week. Orders, he said, come in at somewhere between one a month and one a week, more in periods of publicity-driven paranoia — during the run-up to the supposed Mayan apocalypse at the end of December, he said, calls jumped up to one a day.
The joke was on the callers, however, because Hubbard's six-week lead time meant that no one who called because they had just seen a Mayan feature on TV could get a shelter built, much less on site and in the ground, in time to beat the end of the world. Luckily, the apocalypse was a bust.
And for all that he plays up Armageddon in all its possible varieties in his sales pitch, doomsday may not be that great a marketing tool. "If I just sold bomb shelters, there would be about this big of a market." Hubbard holds his thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart. "But if I say, 'man cave,' 'wine cellar,' 'getaway,' then I get the recreational shelter owner too."
He says most of his calls come from retired military men, doctors, lawyers and business owners — possibly because the latter are among the few categories of buyers with the wherewithal to plunk down $60,000 or $70,000 for a man cave/bomb shelter, plus installation.
The size of the overall shelter market is unclear, in part because its promoters make a point of secrecy about whom they sell to and where. Privately held Radius has claimed to sell more than $30 million worth of shelters a year, but you have to take their word for it.
Then there are firms like Vivos Group, a Del Mar, Calif., company that claims to have started survivalist communities in three states — but they appear to be sort of co-op arrangements in which you have to apply to be considered for "co-ownership" of your refuge community. Once you're chosen, they'll let you know where to go when the end times come.
"This is just the threshold of something that's going to become common," Hubbard said, putting a hopeful spin on his words as though aware that paranoia may be peaking today, but gone tomorrow. "So I say, don't buy a bomb shelter. Buy an underground cabin, and enjoy it."
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.