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        Vinnie Johnson

        Majority owner and chairman, Piston Group

        Former Detroit Pistons guard Vinnie Johnson is majority owner and chairman of Redford Township-based Piston Group.
        • Piston Group moves into engineering, design and manufacturing
        • Piston’s revenue expected to hit $2.8 billion in 2018
        • Growth has made Piston a leader in minority-owned supplier business

        Piston Group closed on the $175 million acquisition of Takata Corp. subsidiary Irvin Automotive near the end of 2016. The deal was the beginning of Piston’s foray into engineering, design and manufacturing and becoming the largest minority-owned automotive supplier.

        The acquisition was a rebirth for the Redford Township-based supplier, said majority owner, chairman and former Detroit Pistons guard Vinnie Johnson. Since its founding in 1995, Piston has largely relied on assembly contracts from automakers, such as Ford Motor Co., a common way to distribute contract dollars to minority-owned enterprises that is often unpredictable. Irvin Automotive manufactures and supplies interior trim products.

        “Irvin was a huge win for us,” Johnson said. “It gets us into engineering and design, allow us to go into other industries and new customers we didn’t have access to before. The assembly side of the business, it’s not long-term sustainable because a lot of that business can be brought back inside (automakers and suppliers) when things get tight. It’s a value-add business, so if things go sideways, they want to add that work to their balance sheet. It’s not always a good place to be for us.”

        But the addition of Irvin — a Troy-based supplier of seat-trim and headrest covers, sun visors, armrests and console lids and employs about 7,100 — put Piston on firmer ground. Piston’s revenue is expected to hit $1.9 billion for 2017, up from $1.8 billion in 2016 and $930.8 million in 2015.

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        “It gave us security,” Johnson said. “It’s opened a lot of doors for us. I see more opportunities because of Irvin than we ever had with Piston (assembly business). We have real opportunities to grow now.”

        By 2018, Piston is expecting to generate revenue of $2.8 billion, Johnson said, nearly five times the size of the minority-owned business in 2012 at $570 million.

        Prior to the Irvin acquisition, Piston had been growing, largely thanks to Ford and growth with other domestic suppliers.

        In 2012, Johnson’s other entity, V. Johnson Enterprises LLC, announced the formation of a new joint venture with Valeo SA called Detroit Thermal Systems LLC.

        Piston is also assembling lithium-ion battery packs from LG Chem and Panasonic for use in Ford’s plug-in-electric vehicle lineup before extending to its battery-electric vehicles.

        Irvin is also helping Piston expand to new customers, such as growing work with FCA US LLC and with non-domestic automakers like Toyota Motor Corp., which Piston does assembly work for in Georgetown, Kentucky. Johnson said the company is preparing to secure more work with Toyota and other foreign automakers.

        “Irvin already had a great model and a great reputation and we’re building on that,” Johnson said. “We’re now looking at other opportunities to expand beyond trim and into seating.”

        Piston is also looking for bolt-on acquisitions in 2018 to pair with its Irvin business, Johnson said.

        The rapid growth and new business have made Piston a leader in the region’s, and industry’s, minority-owned supplier community, a responsibility which Johnson says he takes seriously.

        “A lot of MBEs don’t have the wherewithal to take on opportunities,” Johnson said. “Without Irvin, everything we did was directed by the (automakers). We were limited to nuts and bolts. We’re now in a position to change that for others and source business to other suppliers, particularly MBEs. But it’s not about just giving them business, it’s helping them manage that business. We feel that responsibility.”