Making ‘things that make things’ for 70 years

Slides, spindles made by Gilman Precision in Grafton found in everything from fighter jets to space ships
Ozaukee Press staff

When people ask Chris Hetzer, chief executive officer of Gilman Precision in Grafton, what his company does, he has a stock answer.

“I tell them we make things that make things,” Hetzer said.

That may be a bit of an understatement. Gilman makes industrial slides and spindles for industrial automation that require pinpoint accuracy, smooth motion control, pieces that are used by companies throughout the United States.

“Just about everything you touch, Gilman has been involved in,” Hetzer said.

The applications seem endless. Gilman products are used by medical supplier Becton Dickinson to make hypodermic needles, while other firms use them to make centrifuges that separate plasma from other blood products.

They’re used by the company that makes the cheese powder in the iconic Kraft Macaroni and Cheese boxes.

Disney uses Gilman slides to allow mechanics easy access to its famous “It’s a Small World” ride, and its products are also being used to in an adjustment slide guidance system for a 28-foot-diameter synoptic lens in a survey telescope in Chile.

Lockheed uses its products on the F35 Striker fighter, Blue Origin uses them on its spaceships, and Tesla uses them in its bumper mounts. A Texas customer even uses Gilman spindles to make pipes used in fracking.

Gilman, which is celebrating its 70th year in business, also repairs slides and spindles for other companies and does some subcontract machining.

It’s not an understatement to say Gilman has come a long way since its beginnings.

The company was founded in 1935 as Gilman Engineering by Russel T. Gilman Sr. and  his father George as a hobby. It produced small Swiss-type machines as well as small slides and spindles, mostly for Parker Pen — George was a manufacturing jeweler at Parker Pen and patented the mechanical pencil — and for watch manufacturers.

During World War II, the company made aircraft parts and a 4&1 machine that the Navy placed on ships so they could make replacement parts as needed.

Gilman Engineering was sold to Parker Pen in 1949 for $125,000.

In 1950, Russell Gilman Sr., his father and his fishing buddy W.J. Allen started Taylor Corp., which sold Swiss-made machines and specialized devices that produced parts for the Korean War effort.

In 1952, Russell bought out his partners and changed the company’s name to Russell T. Gilman Inc., which made dovetail slides and spindles. He also started a second firm, Module-Mation in the Town of Cedarburg, which unlike Gilman made entire machines instead of just parts.

In 1955, Russell T. Gilman Inc. moved to Beech Street in Grafton, where the company stayed until moving to its current 68,000-square-foot plant — later additions brought the square footage to 88,000 — at 1230 Cheyenne Ave.

Gilman died in 1995, and the company was held in trust between his son and two daughters until being sold to SKF, a Swedish ball bearing maker looking to become a global player for machine spindles and spindle repair, in 1998. The company was renamed SKF Precision Technologies.

In 2010, SKF decided to sell the company. It was ultimately purchased by Hetzer, Mark Ziebell and Michael Weiland, who renamed the firm Gilman Precision.

Ziebell, who had been a Gilman employee since 2000, became the chief financial officer, and Weiland, now the chief operating officer, previously worked for Master Lock, General Motors and other manufacturing firms.

Hetzer had been with the company since 1977, starting as a draftsman right after graduating from Cedarburg High School.

“I was going to work for the summer, then go the Marquette University,” he said. “I was having a great time here. They liked me.”

So, he said, he approached Gilman with a proposal — pay for night school and he would continue to work for the firm. Gilman agreed, and 13 years later he had a degree from Milwaukee School of Engineering and a career with the company.

Through the years, Gilman has added more types of spindles and slides to its repertoire, selling its products to numerous traditional manufacturers, including John Deere, Honda and Ford, Hetzer said.

But as traditional manufacturing took a hit in the U.S., Gilman’s customer base declined so the firm had to make some adjustments.

“We’re the engineer’s idea company,” Hetzer said. “If an engineer has a problem, we’ll help them design the solution.”

It has proven to be a successful strategy, Hetzer said, noting the company has about $10 million in annual sales.

While in the past Gilman had a significant warehouse of parts, Hetzer noted that today 70% of the pieces it supplies are custom made to order.

The company’s slides are as long as 120 inches and its spindles range in diameter from 1-1/4 inches to 8 inches.

Although Gilman has one large competitor, Hetzer said,  the remainder of its competition comes primarily from companies that want to build slides and spindles on their own. Gilman points out the efficiencies to be had in their processes as it woos these customers.

“It’s a good business,” Hetzer said. “We want more of it.”

That’s not the only change that Gilman’s seen.

Technology has led to significant changes in the operations, Hetzer said. Where it once took 122 employees to handle the business, today Gilman has 38.

“Computers made a big difference,” he said.

And like many other businesses, Gilman is looking to recruit employees.

“We had a lot of retirements in the last two years,” he said. But, he added, once employees come on staff, “they tend to stay.”

Gilman has also garnered a reputation for being an environmentally friendly firm, something sought after today. It was ISO 14000 rated, and while it no longer has the certification it continues to follow the standards.

The company also has a 2-1/2-acre solar field, located next to the factory, supplies 64% of the firm’s power, Hetzer said.

  But even through the firm has seen numerous changes through the years, the basic commitment to making a quality product remains the same.

Hetzer noted that Russell Gilman Jr. came through the plant after he and his partners bought the firm and said, ‘You haven’t changed much.”

“Why change a good thing?” Hetzer said.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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