If you browsed our list of the 10 richest NBA players of all time, one name probably jumps out. Mixed in with some very unsurprising names like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James is… Vinnie Johnson?? I wouldn’t fault you if you had never even heard the name Vinnie Johnson before this article. And yet, his current $500 million personal fortune makes him not only one of the richest NBA players ever, but one of the richest athletes ever. And Vnnie pulled it all off after earning just $6 million during his entire NBA career. How?? Well, while most athletes might choose to spend retirement on the golf course, Vinnie Johnson decided to start a business. His original goal was to bring jobs and opportunity as well as economic vitality back to Detroit. Today that business, the Piston Group, is the world’s largest “Value Add Assembly” automotive supplier. We’ll get into what that means in a moment. For now, all you need to know is that the Piston Group employs over 11,000 people in the United States and generates $3 billion in annual revenue. So ya, while his colleagues played golf and got fat, Vinnie built an empire.
Who Is Vinnie Johnson?
Vinnie Johnson was born on September 1, 1956 in Brooklyn, New York. He started his basketball career in 1975 at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. He was the star player there for two years and led the team to the NJCAA national tournament in the 1976-77 season. He averaged 29 points per game and was named a junior college All-American. The following year, he transferred to Baylor University, also in Waco. He was a two-time All American at Baylor. He played the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons for the Baylor Bears and was one of the most prolific scorers in the University’s history. He averaged 24.1 points per game in his two seasons. He is still the school record holder in points per game average today. He also holds the school record for most points scored per game. He scored 50 points against TCU in 1979.
Vinnie was drafted 7th overall by the Seattle SuperSonics at the 1979 NBA draft. Early into the 1981 season he was traded to the Detroit Pistons. He would spent the next 10 years with Pistons, winning two NBA championships and earning two lasting nicknames. The first nickname, “the microwave,” was earned thanks to Vinnie’s penchant for heating up the offense immediately after coming off the bench. Later in his basketball career, Johnson earned a second nickname: “007.” He earned that nickname after sinking a 14 foot shot with 0.7 seconds left on the clock to beat the Portland Trail Blazers 92-90 in Game 5 of the NBA finals. That shot gave the Pistons their second championship in as many years.
Vinnie’s peak NBA salary was $1.4 million, which he earned in back-to-back seasons from the Pistons between 1990 and 1992. In total, during his NBA career Vinnie earned a little over $6 million.
Life After The NBA
Vinnie Johnson retired from the NBA at the end of the 1992-93 season after playing final two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. He was 35 years old. Like many a retired professional athlete before him, Vinnie had decades of life left to live. He needed to figure out what to do next. Sure he had a small fortune saved up. A couple million dollars at most. That wouldn’t be enough to last forever. He needed a new venture.
Vinnie’s first idea was a construction company, which he started with some friends. Unfortunately, the business went under after just one project.
Spotting what he thought was a very appropriate opportunity for a former “Piston,” Vinnie decided to start a company that made packaging supplies for automakers. He called it The Piston Group. He then read a fateful newspaper article.
The Piston Group
In 1995, about a year into the business, Vinnie read a newspaper interview with Harold Kutner, General Motors’ Vice President of Global Purchasing. In the article, Kutner laid out GM’s pledge to support local companies that created jobs and opportunities in Detroit, which had been ravaged over the years by the shrinking American automobile industry.
Johnson picked up the phone and called Kutner. At the time, his company was only doing $50,000 worth of business with GM. Kutner took the call and two months later, he was at Johnson’s plant checking out the business. Johnson told him his story. Kutner told him to get out of packaging and into auto supplies. If he did this, Kutner said he would support him with some opportunities. Two months later, the Piston Group had a new contract with GM.
Learning the ropes in the auto industry was a struggle. GM recognized Johnson’s potential and sent in a consultant to help. That consultant was Bill Diehl, the CEO of Detroit consulting firm BBK. Diehl was sent to turn Johnson’s company around operationally and financially. Diehl gives a lot of the credit to Johnson. He has said that the spark and personality of Johnson is what Kutner saw and liked. Johnson had not yet developed his business skills, but it was clear to the GM exec that he had an entrepreneurial spirit.
GM slowly funneled business to the Piston Group. By the end of 1996 the company had generated $1 million in gross revenue. Within a decade the company was generating $100 million per year. Here’s a breakdown of the Piston Group’s annual revenue:
- 1995: $100,000
- 1996: $1 million
- 2010: $326 million
- 2015: $1.2 billion
- 2017: $1.7 billion
- 2019: $2.88 billion
- 2021: $2.9 billion
What Does the Piston Group Make? (Other than money)…
Today the Piston Group is the world’s largest “value add assembly supplier.” What does that mean?
Sometimes, a large company like GM or Ford doesn’t have the capacity or skills to do all of their own assembly line production. So they outsource some of these jobs to companies like the Piston Group. The Piston Group maintains 9 facilities with 1.5 million square feet of manufacturing facilities where their army of employees assemble batteries, instrument panels, grille modules, bumpers, axles… and a thousand other specialized car parts.
As the industry rushes towards battery-powered electric fleets, the Piston Group has adapted and expanded. If you own an electric car made by Ford, it’s very likely the batter pack was assembled at one of Vinnie’s factories.
Today, the Piston Group’s customer list includes the big three in Detroit; Ford, GM and Chrysler, as well as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. Johnson is the Piston Group’s Chairman and CEO. Under his leadership, the company has expanded from its original factory in Detroit to several across the midwest including Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, and Kentucky, with 3.5 million square feet of facilities and 11,500+ global employees. Today the Piston Group generates just under $3 billion in annual revenue. And THAT is how Vinnie Johnson, who earned $6 million total in 12 seasons in the NBA, became one of the richest athletes in the world, with a net worth of $500 million and growing.
If you liked this story, you may enjoy reading about another NBA “sixth man” who made a huge fortune in retirement. Junior Bridgeman is one of the most successful fast food franchise owners in the world and currently sports a $600 million net worth 🙂