How Detroit Pistons legend Vinnie Johnson built an automotive company with nearly $3 billion in annual revenue

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 10, 2024 10:07 AM EDT
Vinnie Johnson. Photo credit: Piston Group

It is common knowledge that most athletes peak during their playing days. But for Detroit Pistons legend Vinnie Johnson, life after basketball was the start of something great. With a net worth of over $400 million, his wealth was neither amassed through on-court earnings, endorsement deals, or joint ventures. Johnson instead took the blue-collar path, establishing an automotive company with nearly $3 billion in annual revenue.

A Brooklyn native, Johnson began his collegiate basketball career at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas where he led the team to the NJCAA national tournament. He transferred to Baylor University where he was named a two-time all-American. Johnson still holds the school record-holder in points-per-game average and for most points scored in a game. He was drafted number seven overall by the Seattle Supersonics in the 1979 NBA draft, playing two seasons in Seattle before being traded to the Detroit Pistons.

Johnson because a fan favorite during his ten-year tenure with the Pistons. He was a key piece in the team’s back-to-back title runs and was an important role player coming off the bench. Johnson was nicknamed “the Microwave” for his ability to ignite an offense by scoring both fast and frequently when inserted into the game. He left the Pistons following the 1990–91 season and played a final season with the San Antonio Spurs before retiring from the NBA in 1992.  The Pistons retired his No. 15 jersey in 1994.

But Johnson wasn’t done being legendary.

“I really wanted to get into business and create some jobs and opportunities. I wanted to do something different outside of basketball, but the main thing was giving back to the city of Detroit for all the support they have given me,” Johnson explained why he established Piston Automotive.

In 1995, Johnson invested his career savings into Piston Automotive. He established the company as a means of creating economic vitality, jobs, and opportunity in Detroit. The startup immediately established itself as a supplier of choice for major international automotive companies, including Ford Motor Company and GM. It earned $1 million in gross revenue in its first year. In less than 15 years, the company hit $326 million and had reached the billion-dollar mark by 2015.

From a single shop in Detroit, the business has expanded to various locations across the Midwest in Ohio, Missouri, and Kentucky. The Piston Group portfolio holds four brands including Piston Automotive, Irvin Products, Detroit Thermal Systems, and AIREA. Johnson has led the company through successful joint ventures with industry leaders such as Lear Corporation, Continental Teves, and Sachs Automotive. Piston Group employs over 11,000 people and generates over $2.9 billion in annual revenue.

Johnson is a member of the Michigan Minority Business Development Council and the Detroit Chamber of Commerce.

He has also served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the joint ventures JL Automotive, LLC and PASA Modules, LLC. He actively supports many local community organizations including Alternatives for Girls, Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, Focus: HOPE, and Habitat for Humanity. His charity organization the Vinnie Johnson Foundation focuses on supporting educational opportunities for the children of Detroit.