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Bring on the heavy metal

Hank Hayes • May 21, 2018 at 8:30 AM

KINGSPORT – Universal Machine & Tool is going heavy metal.

Universal is adding 12,000 square feet of space that will house a Doosan Puma VTS-1214 CNC Turning Center to fabricate large metal parts and a Davi rolling machine to bend large metal plates at its Brookside Industrial Park facility.

“We decided to go to heavier work. It’s not as competitive if your margins are higher, it’s a simpler type work,” Darrel Gillespie, Universal’s CEO and founder, explained. “We’re adding on to where we can take the company in a direction where we can handle a larger work size … that can help out people like Komatsu, Caterpillar and even Eastman.”

Gillespie noted the company expects to invest $1.5 million to $2 million in the expansion, which is expected to be operational in 30-45 days.

It’s a major step for the company founded by Gillespie and his wife, Carolyn, in 1988 in their Lynn Garden garage, initially just making repair parts for local industry.

At the same time, Gillespie worked as a maintenance mechanic at the former Arcata Graphics, the local book plant formerly known as the Kingsport Press.

Soon word spread about Gillespie’s operation, and in just a few years, he needed to hire extra hands to help handle the workload.

In 1992, the business had outgrown the small garage, and Gillespie moved the operation to the Brookside Industrial Park.

But Gillespie continued to work at the book factory, all the while growing his own business on the side. In 1999, he retired from the book plant and went to work full time at his own company. Three years later, he doubled the size of the operations facility to help meet growing demand.

Universal, with about 30 employees, makes a wide range of parts for industry, does machine design and building, makes replacement parts, prototype parts, stainless steel, carbon steel, various alloys, plastics, you name it, including welding. He also has a crane and millwright service.

Because of Gillespie’s background, Universal initially focused on manufacturing parts for the printing and bookbinding industries. Now it’s doing sophisticated water jet cutting.

“It’s gotten a lot more computerized, everything is going digital,” Gillespie pointed out. “We will add jobs because this equipment will add jobs and we could go to a second shift … I think at the present time we are the largest fully equipped machine shop within probably about 100 miles. It will give us more capacity to go after people and our competitors in Chattanooga and Marion, Va. I’m the type of person who says ‘I’m going to do it’ … in the next five years, I hope that we would hope to be up to 50 employees by then. Our sales now are around $4 million. I would hope we could grow that to $5-$6 million.”

Gillespie gives credit to his core team – Engineering Manager Wayne Smith, Accounting Manager Julia Hill, Shop Manager Shane McDavid and Receptionist Barbara Quillen – for moving the company forward.

“I sincerely believe we’ve got the most talented group of people here,” Gillespie insisted.

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