Billy Vickers has quietly built one of the largest black-owned businesses in the U.S.
As the leader of a Dublin-based company with $1.2 billion in revenue, you’d think Billy Vickers might be pretty well-known in Central Ohio. You’d be wrong. Despite the soaring success of Vickers’ Modular Assembly Innovations, its president and CEO is somewhat of an enigma both locally and nationally.
Vickers, 62, of Delaware, admits he doesn’t seek the limelight and wouldn’t have agreed to be interviewed for this profile without a nudge from his mentor, Detroit businessman Joseph Anderson Jr., as well as his company’s sole customer, Honda. “He needs less humility,” chuckles Anderson, who’s known Vickers for 15 years and helped propel his success. “Did he tell you his company is in the top five of the Black Enterprise List of 100?”
No, he did not mention that Modular Assembly is ranked fifth in the list of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses for 2019. “He’s a stellar, outstanding business owner,” says Anderson. “He’s not content with doing OK or doing well; he has that thirst and hunger for continuous improvement, which is what good leaders are all about.”
The seed for that work ethic, says Vickers, was planted on his grandfather’s North Carolina cotton farm in Forest City near Charlotte and Asheville. It was the early 1960s, and everyone in the family pitched in with the hard work that began early each morning and ended late each night.
There were small pleasures, like riding a mule-drawn wagon into town for a Nehi soda and cookies and trying his first bite of pizza at age 10 in the segregated elementary school he attended. Church was a constant, with a deep faith in God instilled in him at an early age and more than a dozen family members immersed in the church as evangelists.
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He doesn’t remember stories of racism, but does remember fifth grade when he attended his first integrated school. “The world opened up to me, and there were people who looked different than me,” he says.
An “old ornery football coach” persuaded him to play football as a high school freshman, and he learned he could work well with a team, develop his athletic skills and play well enough to be courted by North Carolina State University –“my ticket out of rural North Carolina,” as he puts it, and the first in his family to attend college.
Vickers majored in animal science in college, but his real dream was to play in the National Football League. Two months before graduating, he tore his MCL, but still was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1980. He never played and was released because of his knee. He was able to sign with another team, but reinjured his knee, ending his football career. “Then I had to get a real job,” he says.
Up the business ladder
Vickers entered the business world as a management trainee at Corning Electronics in Raleigh, North Carolina, moved back to Forest City to work at a brass foundry, then was recruited to work at a steel mill in Ironton, Ohio, where he rose to plant superintendent. Eight years later he landed in Detroit running the largest minority-owned foundry at the time, making parts for Chrysler.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he says. “It introduced me to more of the automotive industry and I got the opportunity to run the plant and be the top guy.” Eventually, global competition became too stiff and, in 2003, Vickers helped shut the plant down.
By then he’d also established his own business, Quality Engineering, which focused on work for automotive suppliers. Then, in 2004, Anderson came calling. An Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, Anderson gained fame in the 1960s as the commander of the infantry platoon featured in acclaimed documentary, The Anderson Platoon. After a 13-year military career, he moved into the private sector for a 13-year career with General Motors, eventually heading a business unit with 7,000 employees and $1 billion in revenue. By the mid-1990s he had acquired a controlling interest in Chivas Products Limited, and a few years later started TAG Holdings LLC.
As chairman and CEO, Anderson was always looking for talented men and women to manage the companies TAG Holdings was acquiring. When he agreed to launch a modular assembly and supply chain management company as a joint venture with Honda, he searched for someone with the right background and found Vickers.
“He was a person who had a business operations background, who had been responsible for employees and who I knew was competitive,” Anderson says. “And there was a level of maturity I saw that said he had the motivation and drive to succeed.”
In January 2005, Vickers became president and CEO of the new venture, Great Lakes Assemblies LLC, with TAG as the majority owner and Midwest Express Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Honda, as a partner. The company produces automobile center console modules, tire and wheel assemblies, powertrain accessory modules, chassis components and engine components for Honda.
Two years later, TAG Holdings and Honda created Gulf Shore Assemblies LLC, in Lincoln, Alabama, and a year later Indiana Assemblies in Greensburg, Indiana. Both produce tire and wheel assemblies as well as other products for Honda plants in those locations. “When I started out it was a $200 million to $300 million business in Ohio, and that grew to a $700 million operation by 2010,” Anderson says.
Creating his own legacy
By that time Vickers was so successful that, with Anderson’s blessing, he bought out TAG and became the majority owner of three plants in January 2011, under the Modular Assembly Innovations name.
Anderson says his plan hadn’t been to sell the plants, but in Vickers he found someone who could further his ultimate goal: creating wealth and business ownership for black Americans.
“The black community is just beginning to be successful in wealth creation,” Anderson says. “Doing that has been part of my agenda, and Billy was the first (associated with TAG) to do that, but not the last. Others have followed.”
Since Vickers took over, he has expanded the products the plants produce for Honda and recently bought a new company in South Carolina. And although he isn’t finished expanding, he says growth has been so rapid that he’s decided to “settle down” for a time to concentrate on strategic planning.
As vice president of Honda of America Manufacturing, Pam Heminger oversees the company’s purchasing division and is responsible for developing the supply chain that supports Honda’s North America auto operations. In that position she’s worked closely with Vickers, who is one of the company’s top suppliers.
“We pride ourselves on working with some of the best in the nation, and he’s one of the best,” says Heminger. “What we saw in Billy was the ability to grow a business. We pride ourselves on working with a variety of businesses and our commitment to diversity is very strong. We saw that we could work with him and develop a long-term strategic partner with Honda.”
Vickers, she says, focuses on high-quality products sold at a reasonable price and made in a timely manner. He’s attuned to knowing any troublesome issues and addressing them quickly, and he understands both the challenges of manufacturing and those of running a business, Heminger says.
One business practice Heminger admires is Vickers’ dedication to developing his business associates.
“He’s provided opportunities for his high-talent associates to grow in the business so that individuals have multiple experiences and can work effectively in many areas of the company,” she says. “He wants to sustain this business beyond himself and to do that you need to be sure that others are prepared for those future roles.”
That includes a good training program that has been instrumental in helping Modular Assemblies weather the ups and downs of manufacturing. “He focuses on making sure his company is stable during any of those shifts in the economy,” Heminger says. “He’s given great opportunities for employment in this area and in his other locations.”
For his part, Vickers can’t say enough about what the partnership with Honda has meant.
“I can’t let this interview go without saying how good they are as a customer,” he says. “During the recession, Honda came to us and asked: ‘Are you OK?’ That was a big shock for me, but that’s the Honda way. They don’t want you to go out of business. That would be a failure on their part.”
The recession wasn’t easy for the supply plants, but Vickers says they survived by reducing expenses.
“We only bought what we needed, but we did not lay off a single person,” he says proudly. “We’ve never laid anyone off, and that’s part of being the type of company people want.”
Besides their Honda connection, Heminger and Vickers have worked together on the board of the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association.
“He’s very strategic, very passionate about manufacturing in Ohio,” she says. “I’ve gotten to know him in both a professional and personal level there and I’ve found he’s a visionary, a humble, compassionate person.”
Expanding his reach
Eric Burkland, president of the manufacturers’ association for the past 31 years, says it was an honor when Vickers accepted an invitation to become a member of the organization’s board about a decade ago. “He brings a combination of visionary and strategic leadership,” Burkland says. “He’s the kind of leader who, when he joins, does so not just to take up a chair but to get involved.”
In fact, Vickers says he carefully researches every organization he’s asked to join to make sure he can make a contribution and feel that the time spent away from his business and family is important and valuable. Burkland says Vickers helped spearhead the association’s Central Ohio Manufacturing Partnership, whose mission is to attract young people into manufacturing careers. He’s active in other association programs and soon will take over as chairman of the board.
“He’s thoughtful, listens well to others, ask questions and is curious,” Burkland says. “He’s reflective, and people gravitate to that kind of leader.” Vickers also is disciplined and methodical, which shows in the management and growth of Modular Assembly, Burkland says. “Manufacturing operations are complex today, with all the technology involved, the just-in-time delivery and the demands on the supply chain,” he says. “It’s not for the faint of heart. You have to be good at what you do, and it takes rigor.”
Still, Burkland says, Vickers makes time for his family and loves to share stories about them.
“I try to make sure I have a good work and family balance, which is easy to say but harder to do, especially when you own a company it is very difficult. It’s something that I work on continuously.”
His wife, Laura, works as Modular Assembly’s human resources manager, so talking about work at home can be hard to avoid.
“So we set some rules: We’re not going to talk about work at home unless it’s an emergency,” says Vickers.
A servant leader
Burkland calls Vickers a “servant leader,” someone who leads by helping associates identify a shared purpose and common vision and, through a collaborative process, brings out the best in each person.
What excites Vickers about his business, besides having a solid customer in Honda, are opportunities for associates to move up. He pointed to one employee who started at the company just out of college in 2005 and soon will become a senior executive.
“It’s so rewarding to know that you played a part in that, to know that our company provided that opportunity.” he says. “I enjoy seeing our associates become empowered, that they feel like they’re part of the company. They take so much pride in it; this is their company also.”
The company strives for diversity.
“I was brought up to treat people as you would want them to treat you, and that’s the way we live,” says Vickers. “It doesn’t matter to me where they come from. I try to make sure we practice that value as a company. It’s enlightening to me to see that we bring everyone to work together.”
There’s another advantage.
“I don’t want just people who think the same way that I think,” he says. “I’ve brought some really young people onto my staff who make us think, and I love having a different mix of people in the room as an African American businessman.”
His own family is equally diverse, what he calls a “rainbow family.” His wife is white and, including their children, “we’re all different shades.” He learned years ago in high school to get along with people of other races and cultures and not to pigeonhole himself because he’s a black male.
“When I was in high school I was president of the Future Farmers of America, and for an African American to be president, well, that was a stretch. African Americans didn’t even join the FFA.”
He also took a home economics class his junior year—bachelor living—where he learned to cook, sew a shirt and make gravy. He says it was one of the best classes he took, and to this day he—not his wife—does the cooking at home.
Vickers credits a high school English teacher for another important life lesson: never settling for second-best. He had run for vice president of student council and was proud to win the title, he says, until his teacher told him she was disappointed in him.
“You should have run for president,” he remembers her telling him.
“I’ve taken that lesson with me and, since that time, I don’t settle anymore. Go after the highest thing and if you lose, at least you’ve tried.”
How did your childhood shape you as a businessman? I grew up in North Carolina near the foothills on a farm. My grandfather had the farm and we all had to help. We grew cotton, and you didn’t make a lot of money with cotton back then. But we were fortunate that he had land. The entire family kind of pitched in. I think my work ethic actually comes from that. When you’re on a farm, you get up early in the morning and you work all day, into the night. You’ve got to take care of the animals; you’ve got to take care of the crops. And then, you know, living in the South, it’s all about religion. You grow up with that faith in God, and it’s instilled in you at a very early age, and I’m very thankful for that.
What does it take to run a large business in the U.S. when you are an African American male? I think it’s just surrounding yourself with good people and surrounding yourself with people that don’t necessarily look like you or think like you. I don’t want people that think the same way that I think. I want people that think differently who will challenge me. I love having a different mix of people in the room.
I also think it’s about being a good business person, a good individual, someone that people respect, someone that they trust that if you make a commitment, you keep it. I think the key to my success is that my customer knows that. If there’s a problem, then we’re going to come up with a solution; we’ll find a way to make it happen. I think probably the biggest thing is trust. My customer trusts me because it knows I’m going to do the right thing.
How do you achieve a work/family balance? I tell all of our associates: You’ve got to have a work/life balance, you’ve got to make sure that the time we put in here at work is efficient. I try to make sure that the time I put in here is efficient and the time I put in as a member of the boards that I sit on aligns with what’s important to me, because you have to sacrifice an amount of time for that from your family and work. I try to make sure I have a good work and family balance, which is easy to say but harder to do.
Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.