As a teenager he was working at a hamburger joint in the early seventies when he got to know a couple of guys who came in for lunch a few times each week. A senior in high school at the time, they offered him a job once he’d graduated, which he eagerly accepted. The company where the men were employed manufactured spline-rolling machines, and the young man enjoyed the work, having always been a self-described "gearhead." It wasn’t long, however, before he had an epiphany about what it would take to succeed in this particular field.
"I realized that, if I really wanted to do well, I needed to go to college," says Gary Hill. "I could also see that I’d stumbled upon a very small niche in the world, and that I could probably use that to my advantage if I played my cards right."
And so he did. Hill is now president of West Michigan Spline, which he founded in Holland, Michigan, in 1987. Much took place during the intervening time period, however—including years of night school before finally landing his degree—but he gained real-world knowledge that was every bit as valuable, if not more so, as what was absorbed in the classroom. "My supervisors at that first job quickly realized that I had an aptitude for this stuff, so they started sending me out on service calls," he says. "At 20 years of age, that gave me the opportunity to see the American automotive industry in its heyday. What a young man would see today is very, very different."
At that time, though, he made visits to Ford plants in Sterling Heights and Livonia, Michigan, and to companies such as New Process Gear in Syracuse, New York. Seeing these operations humming away at full capacity while servicing spline-rolling equipment was an education in itself, and he began building a network of acquaintances that he relies on to this day. One of them had been his boss in his first position who then retired and became an industry consultant. One of his clients was the Michigan Tool Division of Ex-Cell-O. “He called me one day and said ‘there’s a guy over here who wants to talk to you, but he’s not the type to try to steal you away from your current job, so you’d better get in touch with him if you’re interested,” Hill recalls. "So I did, and that’s when I became a Michigan Tool man."
The company, which was later renamed the Process Systems Division of Ex-Cell-O, was the manufacturer of the Roto-Flo spline-rolling machine. Internal restructuring resulted in that division being folded into another one, known as Micromatic, which was located in Holland and to which Hill was eventually transferred. He soon found himself in charge of R&D, but when his budget began dwindling he saw the writing on the wall. Not long after—and after consulting with his wife, Marie—he took the reins in his own hands and decided that it was time to move on. As it turned out Hill was right, as the Micromatic plant in Holland was closed and the division sold again.
Hill took some time to consider what to do next. It was hunting season, so he spent a lot of time in the woods, living off of his 401K and pondering his future. One day a friend who was the engineering manager at Ford-Connersville in Indiana called and said he was about to start shutting down assembly lines and needed Hill to visit the plant, pronto. "So I hopped in my 1976 Cougar and drove to the county seat, paid my 10 bucks for a business license, chose the name West Michigan Spline and registered it,” he says. "Then I drove to Connersville and my friend took me to the buyer, saying 'I need this guy on the floor as soon as you can get him there.’ Right then and there I was issued a Ford vendor number, which still exists to this day."
During the first two years Hill was able to pull from the network of contacts he’d developed over his career, but then the oil embargo of 1989 hit and “orders just dried up,” he says. So, instead of staying put and stewing over the situation, he decided to take his wife and two children on their first vacation in several years. “We had a little pop-up camper, and we packed up and headed to Yellowstone for six weeks,” he says. “This was before cell phones, so I had a phone card with me, and I made sales calls all along the way. I’d also taken a typewriter along so I could send out quotes. By the time we arrived back home, the orders had started coming in, and we basically never slowed down after that.”
Still, there were further challenges to be overcome, such as the death of a partner he’d taken on in 1991 while on a service call in Mexico. “His name was Dan Mathews, and losing him to a heart aneurysm in 1998 was a tremendous blow, because whenever something needed to happen around here, he made sure that it did,” Hill says. “He did a lot to grow the business while he was with us, and I really miss him.”
The company was so successful, in fact, that it had shifted from rebuilding spline rollers to actually designing and building its first machine from the ground up in 1993, of which it now offers five different models. “We’d been rebuilding machines by Roto-Flo, Anderson Cook, and others forever, so we took everything we’d learned over the years and incorporated that knowledge into our own design,” he says. “And let me tell you, it’s a hell of a machine.”
Clearly so, with many customers in the United States and Canada, as well as in countries as far away as China, India, Thailand, Brazil, Hungary, and Mexico purchasing new machines, or having existing equipment rebuilt. And all of them ship from West Michigan Spline’s 12,000 square-foot facility, where you will often find Gary Hill—and Marie, who joined the company in 1993—seated at his desk beside an object of particular affection. “It’s an old Michigan Tool sign that they mounted on Roto-Flo machines back in the sixties,” he says. “There are only a few of us left with such deep roots in this industry, and who care about it the way that I do. So I have that sign here because it’s part of my heritage.”