Persistence leads to success at Morrison Industries

A Tennessee company is reaping the benefits of dogged determination and the growth in packaging returnable auto parts

Growing up, Morrison Industries’ CEO Jacob Wilson spent most summer days and school-year Saturdays working with his father, Ron Wilson, who bought a family-owned tool-and-die shop in 1994 and began building a legacy.

Jacob Wilson. Photo credit: James Clark

Ron Wilson transitioned the company into manufacturing parts packaging that could be repurposed, an industry niche that needed to be filled.

“I was working in all different facets of the business from the time I was 7 years old,” Jacob Wilson says. “It was important to my dad for me to understand how it worked.”

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It was his father’s strong background in the automotive industry, working as plant manager for a Tier 1 auto supplier, that inspired the business which began in its namesake city, Morrison, Tennessee. Ron Wilson could see an industry shift coming, a move to returnable packaging, and that foresight gave him an edge.

Adapting to the dynamic nature of that business is what keeps Morrison Industries on top, producing more than 50,000 racks per year, and poised for expansion into other industries.

“As automotive companies moved labor from their assembly plants down to supply chains, the parts needed to come in more finished, and packaging has to be custom designed for each part,” Jacob Wilson says. “We started out only supplying to small Tier 1 suppliers and over the years have built a presence going directly to the OEMs and building a relationship with them.”

From the time the elder Wilson took the leap into business ownership in 1994, Morrison Industries has grown from a 12-team-member, 9,000-square-foot company, to 250 team members and 150,000 square feet. It is now a large-scale fabrication business and leading maker of specialized shipping racks for the automotive industry.

Morrison Industries has grown from 9,000 square feet to 150,000 and from 12 team members to 250. Photo credit: James Clark

Wilson inherited his father’s passion for creating excellent products and providing solutions to customers that they don’t even know they need.

“In 1994, we had zero relationships,” Wilson recalls of his father’s efforts. “Now we have relationships with all major OEMs in America. In the early days, my father had a bulldog mentality. He just kept showing up, and they finally gave him a shot. He developed the first couple of those relationships with Nissan and Honda.

“I took over in 2011 and, really, we try to add value for our customers and have grown mostly through word of mouth. Whenever we get an opportunity, we capitalize on it and have built relationship with all of the OEMs.”

Wilson credits his father’s persistence in those early days with growing the company to its new capacity, expanding its footprint into southeast Michigan and the Detroit metro area. “We intend to continue to grow in the automotive sector with different products related to businesses we are currently in, and we are developing technology to grow our design and engineering business,” Wilson says.

In June 2018, Morrison held the grand opening of its new 50,000 square-foot facility in Novi, Michigan, designed to serve the company’s customer base, including the top 10 automotive manufacturers in North America.

“The area is rich with diverse automotive talent and home to many of our customers,” Wilson says. “The Novi facility provides a strong geographic advantage to serve northern auto manufacturers and Tier 1 companies, and will also increase capacity at our Tennessee facility, which will benefit our customers nationwide.”

Morrison’s growth outside the auto industry is on the upswing, as well, and includes product development, engineering and design, project management, and fleet service and repair. “We’ve already started diversifying into agricultural, utilities and cable, and the high voltage cable industry, developing custom material and off-the-shelf handling equipment for several different industries,” Morrison says.

To be sure the company’s on track, Wilson spends a third of his time on the factory floor, keeping a finger on the pulse of operations. With the corporate office located in Lebanon, Tennessee, and two facilities, he’s never in one place for long.

“I get spread out a little bit,” he says. “I like to spend as much time as I can in the plant, interacting with the team on the floor and learning about the problems they face or giving them a pat on the back for their successes. Our primary philosophy is to treat people on the team the way we expect them to treat our customers.”

That’s a lot to live up to, with the company’s stated goal being to treat customers like royalty.

“Our philosophy is to offer ridiculous customer service,” Wilson says. “So, for employees, we want to be the best place they’ve ever worked.”

Wilson says that inside knowledge keeps him attuned to what it takes to attract and retain talent — the key, he says, to solid growth.

“I try to treat everybody like family, and we go out of our way to do whatever we can to create a positive outcome for people. Overall, we don’t want to treat employees like a number. We want to get to know them as individuals and work hard to develop their talents.”

Nurturing employee growth within the company allows Morrison to hire from within, creating what Wilson calls a domino effect in the company. When one person moves to a higher position, another automatically moves up.

A view inside the shop at Morrison Industries. Photo credit: James Clark

“Our philosophy is we only go outside if a company needs talent or expertise that we don’t have inside,” Morrison says. “When people join our team at entry level, it gives them a view of the opportunity in front of them. People who have been here a long time used to do the job they are supervising or leading. It’s a big thing in the industrial workforce to give employees a perspective that lets them feel they are not in a dead-end position. It really helps with engagement and retention of talent.”

Wilson bought his parents’ portion of the company, not only to allow them to enjoy retirement, but to establish the sincerity of his mission to keep the company on a prosperous path. He wanted “to have a really vested interest in continuing to grow and promote so the company didn’t plateau,” he explains.

Morrison is the only major automotive shipping rack company originated and headquartered in the South, and since Wilson took on the role of CEO, the company has increased its yearly revenue from $11 million in 2011 to an annual average of $25 million during the past three years.

Just as Wilson’s father knew in the beginning, relationship-building remains critical to success, whether with customers or employees. And retaining the right workforce is a piece of the puzzle he has solved for the most part.

“People and talent are one of the only things money can’t buy,” Wilson says. “We also face the challenges associated with being a fast-growing, family-owned business. There’s the constant tug of war between resources and needs, time constraints and everything else.”

Wilson is constantly looking ahead to opportunities, and the next level growth would probably be aimed at the Deep South.

“It’s been exciting to have a front row seat to see the growth of automotive in the Southeast,” Wilson says. It’s something I’m really proud to be part of, and I want to continue to be part of that growth.”

While he has three children, Wilson says it’s a different time and place from the days when he worked for his dad, learning the business from the ground up. And he’s quick to say his father wasn’t insistent that his son follow in his footsteps.

“My dad let me know, if this was my dream, he would accommodate it, but he didn’t want to push me into it,” Wilson says. “If Morrison Industries is my children’s dream, that’s fine, too, but I’m not going to press them to go into this business.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print edition of Southern Automotive Alliance magazine

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