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Universal Machine & Tool grows from garage to industrial park

Sharon Hayes • Feb 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — For years, Universal Machine & Tool Co. has operated under the radar screen of most area residents, doing business in a nondescript building in the Brookside Industrial Park.

But this home-grown company has customers from across the nation and around the world.

Darrel Gillespie and his wife, Carolyn, started the business in 1988 in their garage, initially just making repair parts for local industry.

At the same time, Darrel worked as a maintenance mechanic at 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.

“We started out small in the garage, and then as things progressed, we built along and developed with it,” Gillespie said.

In 1992, the business had outgrown the small garage, and Gillespie moved the operation to a 15,000-square-foot building inside the Brookside Industrial Park.

Meanwhile, 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.

Today, Universal Machine & Tool operates in about 36,000 square feet of space containing top-of-the-line equipment to manufacture just about any and every part imaginable.

“We make a wide range of parts for industry, do machine design and building, make replacement parts, prototype parts, stainless steel, carbon steel, various alloys, plastics, you name it,” said Barney Brehl, estimating and sales manager. “The business was built on a combination of high quality and low price.”

Because of Gillespie’s background, Universal Machine & Tool initially focused on manufacturing parts for the printing and bookbinding industries. The company has designed and built its own specialty machines for that industry, including a book stacker and a hot foil stamper.

Universal also designs and manufactures specialized, custom machinery for other industries, and rebuilds and upgrades older production equipment for its customers. Its invested in equipment to offer a broad range of products and services. That equipment includes large computerized vertical machining centers to allow the company to produce extremely large parts for industry. The company also is equipped with a wire electro-discharge machine that uses an ultra fine wire with an electric charge to create complex metal parts immersed in a bath of specially treated water.

And the company has invested in a Zeiss coordinate measuring machine equipped with the latest software to allow the shop to measure dimensions to one micron. It also allows the shop to perform reverse-engineering operations.

“Customers bring old equipment parts to the shop, and those parts can be reserve-engineered to produce a new part,” Gillespie said.

Universal’s customers include small and large operations from across the country and around the world, including Ireland, China and India. Locally, customers include Eastman Chemical Co., Domtar, and BAE Systems.

“We’re totally customer satisfaction driven,” said Wayne Smith, engineering manager. “We embody the philosophy that the customer is always right.”

Gillespie, Brehl and Smith were long-time friends who had known one another from working at the book plant. Brehl was working as engineering manager at Quebecor World — formerly Arcata Graphics — in downtown Kingsport when the company started downsizing employees and eventually closed.

“Barney and I had had a good working relationship over the years — I always respected him for his knowledge, good work ethic and his honesty. So when they were downsizing (at Quebecor), I called Barney and asked him to join us — I thought he’d make a good asset to the company,” Gillespie said.

Meanwhile, Smith had been project manager and later engineer manager at the Hawkins County plant of Arcata Graphics — later Quebecor World. After leaving the book plant, he joined Holliston Mills as engineering services manager, retiring there after 10 or 11 years of service.

“One day I was really needing help in the engineering side of the business and I called Wayne,” Gillespie said. “I was thinking of somebody who had real good character — that I could trust, and he was the first person that popped in my mind.”

Smith joined the team and has been working at Universal for about 11 years now.

The three friends are joined at the business by Gillespie’s nephew, Shane McDavid, who serves as shop manager.

Today, Universal Machine & Tool employs more than 20 people. Most of the work is done at the company’s operations inside the Brookside Industrial Park, but the business can also fulfill customer needs at the customer’s place of operation.

Eventually, Gillespie hopes to move the business into a 60,000 to 80,000-square-foot facility — all under one roof — allowing the business to expand more quickly into the fabrication and heavy fabrication business.

At age 62, Gillespie says he can’t envision quitting anytime soon.

Smith is now 70 and Brehl is 65. The three friends joke about their age, and how long they’ve been in the business.

“I think our age and experience is an attribute — we’ve pretty well been there and done that,” Gillespie said.

For more information, visit www.universalmachine.com or call Universal Machine & Tool at (423) 378-5116 or (423) 378-5119.

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