For Vinnie Johnson, a new game beckons

Vinnie Johnson, the celebrated sixth man for the Detroit Pistons teams that won NBA championships in 1989 and 1990, was nicknamed the "Microwave" for his ability to come off the bench and instantly heat up the offense.

He's doing it again.

Johnson's suburban Detroit auto parts business, Piston Group, last year paid a reported $175 million to acquire Irvin Automotive Products, a suburban Detroit supplier of interior trim and seating components, from the troubled Japanese airbag supplier Takata Corp.

Plenty of bigger acquisitions have made news of late. But Johnson's deal is a potential game changer for him, transforming his privately held Piston Group — a certified minority business enterprise, or MBE, focused primarily on assembly work — into a major league auto industry supplier with a shot at supporting vehicle programs globally.

If so, it will be a whole new ballgame for Johnson. The company is at the threshold of becoming not merely an MBE that is larger, but potentially a formidable global supplier that happens to be an MBE.

The Irvin acquisition increased Piston Group's annual sales from $1.3 billion to about $1.8 billion. Johnson expects the combined sales to exceed $2.6 billion in 2018. That revenue would put his company among the 75 or so biggest auto suppliers in the world, based on the Automotive News list of the top 100 global suppliers.

The deal took Johnson from 1,300 employees to 8,300 — not all of them dedicated to automotive — and added world-class manufacturing operations to Piston Group's assembly and sequencing operations. The company now runs 15 plants in North America.

The new question: Where does Johnson go now?

"My entire career in sports, I was willing to make adjustments," he told Automotive News at his company's low-profile corporate offices in Redford, Mich. "I know what I'm good at and I know what I'm not good at.

"I'm an ex-jock," the 61-year-old Johnson said. "I know that. But I also know if you put a good team around you, you can accomplish anything."

The conversations with customers are underway.

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