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Universal Machine & Tool Company started in a home garage almost 25 years ago

February 1st, 2012 3:31 pm by Staff Report

Universal Machine & Tool Company started in a home garage almost 25 years ago

Universal is a full-service machine shop that makes product to customer "print." They can also design and build machines as requested by customers.

The story of Darrel Gillespie and his company, Universal Machine & Tool Company Inc., is a great American success story.

Born and raised in Nickelsville, Va., he graduated from Nickelsville High School in 1964 and attended college for a short time. He then moved to Kingsport and went to work at the former Kingsport Press. He started out operating the service and engineer stores, and was later transferred into the machine shop where he did maintenance and repair. It turned out Darrel had a real knack for being a machinist.

While working at the Press, Darrel and his wife, Carolyn, opened a small machine shop repair service in the garage of their Lynn Garden home and concentrated on making repair parts for local industry. That was in 1988 and, within a few years, the Gillespies found they needed to hire staff to handle the workload. This success was due in a large part to the quality work provided by the small shop.

A few years later, Darrel once again experienced growing pains and was forced to move his operation into a 15,000-square-foot building in the Brookside Industrial Park. Despite the company’s success and growth, Darrel continued to work at the Kingsport Press which, by that time, was owned by Arcata Graphics.

In 1992, Darrel finally retired from Arcata and went to work for his own company. As a machinist for a book manufacturer, the company initially specialized in building and repairing equipment for the printing industry. They had a customer, Bertlesman Inc., that needed a special high-speed stamping press.

"They basically gave us cost-plus to design and build that machine for them," he explained.

The machine is a "one-of-a-kind" foil stamper that was so successful the company ordered five additional machines. Since that time, Universal Tool & Machine has built similar systems for printing facilities throughout the country.

Universal is a full-service machine shop that makes product to customer "print." They can also design and build machines as requested by customers. Universal additionally rebuilds and upgrades older machines for their customers. Darrel also has another company, located next door, called Gillespie Inc., that provides crane service, heavy hauling and millwright work.

The company currently has 31 full-time employees, with the majority being machinists. And the company could hire more experienced machinists. Finding trained machinists has been the most difficult part of Darrel’s business.

"We generally try to hire young and provide on-the-job training. We have found hands-on training here has worked best for us," said Wayne Smith, engineering and design.

Wayne joined the Universal team several years ago when Darrel became overwhelmed in the engineering area and needed assistance. The pair had worked together at Arcata, and Darrel needed someone he knew and trusted and Wayne was the first person that came to mind.

Universal has customers all over the world, including Ireland, China and India. Local customers include Eastman, BAE, Portola, Hutchinson Sealing, Holliston Mills, AGC North American Flat Glass and Exide, as well as the occasional farmer.

"We are a customer-driven company so we try our best to accommodate all customers, no matter the size," Wayne said.

"I like a challenge and don’t back down from much," Darrel laughed.

Universal continues to grow, and last year invested heavily in new equipment to meet the continued demand for product and services. Although Darrel says retirement is not really on his mind, he admitted he is getting Universal ready for the next generation to take over. His nephew, Shane McDavid, is the shop foreman, and Darrel said he just plans on "giving" the company he started in his home garage almost 25 years ago to his employees.

When and if Darrel retires, he will have plenty to keep him busy. Over the years, he has built and raced cars. And although he doesn’t plan on returning to his glory days of Legend Car racing, he recently bought an old Swiss Army transporter that he has been working on for the last eight months. He plans on using the transporter to sightsee and haul other necessities on his Southwest Virginia family farm.

For more information, visit the website at or call 423-378-5116.

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