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How Vinnie Johnson Created a Multi-Billion Dollar Powerhouse in the Automotive Industry

Vinnie Johnson is one of the wealthiest retired basketball players in the world. His net worth is an estimated $400 million. However, he didnt make it by playing basketball. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1961, Johnson dribbled the ball on the blacktop courts of the city. He was a star player for Roosevelt high school in the borough.

After that, he went onto play at McLennon Junior College and then Baylor University ( both in Waco, Texas). It was here that he broke the school record for most points scored per game. A record he holds to this day.

In 1979, Vinnie was a 7th round draft pick, going with the Seattle SuperSonics. In 1981, he was traded to Detroit. Vinnie Johnson spent a good chunk of his professional basketball career as the "6th" man for the Detroit Pistons. He spent 10 years with the organization, was a fan favorite, and was part of the 1989 and 1990 championship seasons.

Johnson was nicknamed "the microwave", for his ability to come off the bench mid game and heat up offensive play. While he may not have been a top level player on the court, he had innate characteristics that helped him excel. Johnson was well liked, personable, dependable, a team player, and could always be relied upon to do what he needed to do. It was these very characteristics that would someday make him one of the most successful business men in the United States.

His Retirement

Upon his retirement from basketball in 1992, Johnson contemplated what his "second act" would be. How could he best invest some of the 5 million dollars he'd earned playing the game?

First, he started a construction company with some friends. That venture folded soon after their initial project. Next, he partnered with former teammate Bill Laimbeer. The two started an automobile parts packaging company. Johnson and Laimbeer operated the company in Detroit's "empowerment zone", where tax incentives are given to promote development in economically struggling areas. This second endeavor was not going well either.

Then, something happened that would change everything for Vinnie Johnson, Detroit, and the automotive industry.

He read a newspaper article.

How Vinnie Johnson Created A Billion Dollar Powerhouse

That game-changing news article was a report on how the Vice President of the General Motors corporation pledged to support companies that were willing to operate in Detroit and offer jobs to local residents. Vinnie Johnson sat for a meeting with GM reps. They quickly saw those characteristics that made him shine on the court. The corporation agreed to partner with Johnson if he agreed to switch up his game.

They suggested he start manufacturing automotive supplies rather than packaging. Johnson agreed and The Piston Group was born. Johnson had a head for business and had a natural determination and work ethic. But he had no experience in automotive parts manufacturing.

Revenue Growth

So GM supported him by sending consultants to help get the business off the ground. The Piston Group certainly has gotten off the ground, to say the least. Here's a quick breakdown of the growth over the years.

  • 1996: $1 million
  • 2010: $326 million
  • 2015: 1.2 billion
  • 2017: 1.7 billion
  • 2019: 2.88 billion
  • 2020: 2.9 billion

Today, The Piston Automotive Group is the world's largest value-added assembly supplier and one of the largest minority-owned businesses worldwide. They provide auto supplies to the 3 biggest motor vehicle manufacturers in Detroit. As well as other major companies including:

  • Toyota
  • Nissan
  • Honda

He has partnered with these companies to provide parts for these companies and even has entire spaces dedicated to just Honda parts. Speaking of space, Vinnie Johnson and Piston have become so wildly successful over the years, they have expanded to cities outside of Michigan. Piston Automotive Group now has plant operations in:

  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Ohio
  • Missouri

Johnson continues to provide revenue and jobs for areas in need in these states as well. The expansion has also created opportunities for the Piston Group to partner with companies like the Lear Corporation, and Sachs Automotive to even further their production and distribution capabilities.

Piston Group At A Glance

  • Product Launches: 150+
  • Employees: 11,500+
  • Vehicle Platforms: 45
  • Revenue: $2.9 billion
  • Space: 3.5 million square feet

What Exactly Are The Products That Made Piston A Billion Dollar Corporation?

Vinnie Johnson and his company do not just assemble auto parts, they are a leading developer in the technology that improves upon that manufacturing and the products themselves.

The company developed the Irvin system that combines technology, design, and engineering to manufacture the best materials on the market. At the same time, Piston's development of the Detroit Thermal System has proven to be an industry leader. Providing the ultimate in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning within vehicles.

The products Piston produces are not just limited to those areas. The company assembles parts for:

Interior

  • instrument panels
  • center consoles
  • overhead and headliner systems
  • door trims
  • center finish panels
  • garnish

Exterior

  • grille modules
  • sheet metal sub assembly
  • front and rear bumper
  • exterior modules

Chassis

  • brake corner assembly
  • struts
  • axles
  • frames
  • cradles
  • stabilizer bars

Power Train And Cooling

  • cooling modules
  • cooling packs
  • front end modules
  • intake manifolds

Electrical And Battery

  • BEV battery packs
  • PHEV battery packs
  • battery and warranty services
  • auxiliary battery
  • wire harness and power distribution boxes

Piston Automotive Group Awards And Acolades

Through the years, Vinnie Johnson and his company have racked up a lot of recognition. Both for their product quality and how they conduct themselves in business.

  • Minority Business Enterprise of the Year - 2017
  • #1 on Crain's Fast 50 (growing companies) - 2018
  • #1 Crain's Largest Minority Owned Business - 2020
  • #5 Crain's Top 200 Private Businesses - 2018
  • Fiat Chrysler Automotive Excellence In Supply Award - 2019
  • Fiat Chrysler Outstanding Quality Award - 2018, 2017, 2016
  • Ford Diversity Supplier of the Year - 2020
  • GM Supplier Quality Excellence Award - 2018, 2015, 2014

Vinnie Johnson's Cornerstone Of Giving.

From the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey, Vinnie Johnson has strived to uplift and empower the Detroit community. From opening his first plant and hiring within the community, Johnson loves helping the Motor City succeed.

This is most evident in his main philanthropic endeavor, The Cornerstone Schools of Detroit. This group of charter schools provides many of Detroit's youth with an excellent academic education, mixed with meaningful relationships, and real world experiences. All while offering emotional and social support to the students and their families.

Johnson believes so strongly in the schools mission, that he started the VJ Foundation Annual Golf Outing event. It's sole purpose is to raise money for the schools. Since it's inception, the foundation has raised over $15 million dollars for Cornerstone.

Some Quick Facts About Vinnie Johnson

  • Vinnie is 6'2"
  • When he retired in 1992, he was a member of the San Antonio Spurs.
  • His number 15 was retired by the Pistons.
  • He had a career 11,825 points.
  • Vinnie's younger brother played for a season with the Utah Jazz.
  • Johnson earned himself 2 championship rings while with the Pistons.
  • In 2002 Johnson started Airea, a furniture company. The company built many community connections before closing their doors in 2021.

Who Are Some Other NBA Players That Became Entrepreneurs After Basketball?

Vinnie Johnson's story is amazing and inspiring. But, he's not the only basketball player to walk off the court and into successful business ventures. Here are some other guys you may have heard of.

1. Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan was the first professional athlete to become a billionaire. Though he made over $100 million playing basketball, the bulk of his fortune comes from other sources. The bulk of Jordan's fortune came from investing in the Charlotte Hornets basketball team. He is the principal owner and CEO of the organization. He also made millions by partnering with brands like Nike, Chevy, Coke, and McDonald's. In addition, Jordan owns 6 restaurants, a car dealership, and a Motorsport team.

2. David Bing

Bing played for the Detroit Pistons from 1966 to 1975 and played his last season with the Boston Celtics in 1976. He was named to the All Star list 7 times. Upon retirement, Bing was denied a mortgage for a home. Not to be defeated, he took a job at the bank as a teller and a second job at a steel plant in Detroit. After 2 years, Bing not only got his mortgage, but he started his own steel processing business. Bing Steel eventually became one of the largest steel companies in Michigan.

3. Magic Johnson

Earvin "Magic" Johnson is arguably one of the best known NBA players of all time. Playing for the LA Lakers, Johnson was known as much for his sense of humor and rivalry with Larry Bird, as he was for his phenomenal playing ability. Johnson has 5 champions and was voted the NBA's most valuable player 3 times.

Since his retirement from basketball, Johnson has increased his already considerable net worth by partnering in and developing several business ventures. He started his own production company that produced television shows and films. He also developed a record label. Currently, Johnson heads Magic Johnson Enterprises, a conglomerate with a net worth of over $700 million. It includes ownership/partnerships in:

  • Pepsi
  • Burger King
  • T.G.I. Fridays
  • 24 Hour Fitness
  • Sodexo

His own movie theater chain

In addition to all that, he does commentary for ESPN and is a partial owner of his beloved LA Lakers.

4. Shaquille O'Neill

The gentle giant known as "Shaq", spent the bulk of his career playing for the LA Lakers, where he helped lead them to 4 championships . Since his retirement, Shaq has kept busy building his brand, doing things he loves, and always helping people in need. O'Neil loves music, so much so that he has put out rap albums, is a DJ, and has even conducted for the Boston Pops Orchestra.

He's got a podcast, has appeared in countless movies and television shows, and even produced some. But the bulk of his fortune, post basketball, has been through partnerships and careful investing. In the 1990s, Shaq took some of his basketball earnings and bought stock in GE, Pepsi, and Apple. Needless to say, Apple in the 1990s was an especially good investment. Over the years, he's partnered with brands like:

  • Reebok
  • Pepsi
  • Nestle
  • Gold Bond
  • Buick
  • Icy Hot
  • The General (insurance company)

Shaq has also made quite a few dollars from being part owner of the Sacramento Kings, owning a Krispy Kreme, and being a major stock holder in the Papa John's pizza chain. As if all that weren't enough, O'Neil is also a major real estate developer. He is well known in the Orlando, Florida area for helping families facing foreclosure. Often, buying homes from the bank and offering families affordable ways to meet their mortgage. Shaq O'Neil is worth an estimated $400 million.

5. Chris Webber

This 5-time NBA All-Star played for the Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons. When he hung up his jersey, Webber became a commentator and panelist for TNT's NBA coverage. He also began producing films and became a professor at Wake Forest University . His biggest entrepreneurial venture was the formation of an investment firm that represents real estate, football and basketball players and film projects and smaller minority-owned businesses. Recently, he launched "Player's Only", his cannabis brand.

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Allen Lee

Written by Allen Lee

Allen Lee is a Toronto-based freelance writer who studied business in school but has since turned to other pursuits. He spends more time than is perhaps wise with his eyes fixed on a screen either reading history books, keeping up with international news, or playing the latest releases on the Steam platform, which serve as the subject matter for much of his writing output. Currently, Lee is practicing the smidgen of Chinese that he picked up while visiting the Chinese mainland in hopes of someday being able to read certain historical texts in their original language.

Read more posts by Allen Lee

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