Gill Industries’ goal: a $1 billion company


Mary Gill-Thornton, left, and Rita Woodruff, along with Joe Gill, are the second-generation owners of Gill Industries. Photo by Michael Buck

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Gill Industries is in the midst of a yearlong celebration marking its first 50 years in business, and the company has a lot to celebrate.

It has come a long way, growing from a small mom-and-pop tool-and-die shop to a professional manufacturing operation with plants in Michigan, Georgia, Kentucky and Mexico, and another in the works in Ireland, as well as joint ventures in China and Korea, and sales offices in Japan and Germany.

It is also on the verge of becoming a $1 billion company within the next five years.

Second-generation family members Mary Gill-Thornton, Rita Woodruff and Joe Gill currently own the company, and three third-generation family members are on deck to join the board in the future to continue the family leadership.

Thornton and Woodruff said the longevity Gill Industries has experienced can be traced to key decisions their father and mother made while running the company between 1964 and 2009.

John Gill started Gill Industries as a small tool-and-die company in 1964 with his brother-in-law, Gerald Williams. The pair scored an important client early on — auto giant Ford Motor Co. — which helped the fledgling company become established.

“One of the first jobs that started to kick off their business was for the Ford 1964-and-a-half year Mustang,” said Gill-Thornton. “They made parts for an ashtray that went into that model.”

By the mid-1970s, clients were asking for more production runs, prompting Gill Industries to add a manufacturing operation.

“Over the years we had both tool and die and manufacturing,” Woodruff said. “When the tool and die business was down, the manufacturing held it up, and vice versa.”

But by the 1980s, the writing was on the wall for the tool-and-die part of the business. During that time, John Gill’s wife, Rita Gill, joined the company as general manager and began focusing on growing the manufacturing aspect.

“She was instrumental in hiring some outside sales groups that really helped get the sales off the ground for the manufacturing side,” Woodruff said. “Mom understood that manufacturing was where the business could grow. Tool and die was very limited. There were a lot of tool and die shops that we competed with in this area.”

The increased focus on manufacturing grew the business beyond its mom-and-pop roots. Under Rita Gill’s direction, the company went from $8 million in sales to more than $100 million.

As the company grew, Gill-Thornton and Woodruff, who had also joined the company in the 1980s, became concerned that continuing to run it from a family business perspective could inhibit its future.

“We made the decision that we ought to look at professionalizing the company,” Woodruff said.

Gill Industries hired a professional group to help it through the transition as well as an outside board of advisors and later a board of directors.

“We started sharing information, and it was really difficult,” Woodruff said. “We actually read books on how to do that because you aren’t accustomed to laying all your dirty laundry out there. That was a transition for our company. It’s taken a long time for us to do it and do it right and we still make mistakes, but we take a lot of pride that we don’t run it like a family — we run it like a business.”

Following their parents’ retirement, Woodruff, Gill-Thornton and their brother, Joe Gill, took over ownership of the company through the formation of an executive board, while continuing to hire outside leadership to run the day-to-day business of the company. The three control the voting shares of the company.

In the future they will hand the reins over to the third generation of Gills.

“We are training them to sit on the board and then take over for the family representation and ownership of the company,” Woodruff said.

Today, Gill Industries is focused on growth and plans to use sales and acquisitions to reach its goal of becoming a $1 billion company in the next five years.

In 2014, the company acquired Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping and with it an important client: Nissan. While the auto industry remains its main focus, the company also works with the office furniture and multiuse vehicles industries.

“We do quite a bit of work for Club Car golf carts,” Woodruff said. “We manufacture the front-end suspension of their Precedent golf cart in our Georgia facility.”

The company also has launched Gill Electronics, which is focused on developing wireless technology. Woodruff said Gill Electronics received its first big order this year and is showing signs of taking off.

“Our goal is every Starbucks is going to have our wireless power on their tables,” she said. “Someone can just throw his or her device down (on the table to charge) — no plug in. Plugs are going to be a way of the past.”

Woodruff said the great thing about growth is that it attracts even better talent. The company is seeking employees as well as new board members as it continues to grow.

“We’ve got more opportunities than most companies in this area because of our growth and global presence,” Woodruff said. “I would like people to understand: This is the place to apply for a job.”

To celebrate its 50-year anniversary, Gill Industries held events in September in each of its plant locations for its 2,000 employees. The company also is spotlighting a different nonprofit each month at its plant locations by matching employee donations.

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