High tech manufacturer Gentex surges forward

February 7, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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It would probably take a magnified rearview mirror to see any sign of the Great Recession in Gentex Corp.’s recent past.

The Zeeland-based manufacturer known throughout the global auto industry for its automatic-dimming rearview mirrors and rear-camera safety systems announced all-time record revenues for the fourth quarter and year that ended Dec. 31.

In the fourth quarter, Gentex had net sales of $222 million, up 25 percent from the same quarter in 2009. For the year, sales totaled $816 million compared to $544 million in 2009.

Gentex Chairman of the Board and CEO Fred Bauer said sales in the fourth quarter “were fueled by continued increases in unit shipments of our Rear Camera Display and SmartBeam mirrors. Increased light vehicle production and customer demand for those advanced electronic products were the primary reasons for the strong fourth quarter results."

Gentex Senior Vice President Enoch Jen said the December announcement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicating that all light vehicles may have to be equipped with rear backup cameras could potentially increase the company's shipments of mirrors that incorporate a rear-camera display.

Gentex had 2,800 employees in Zeeland in summer 2008; the crash of the auto industry meant that by December of that year, employment was down to 2,100 — the company's first mass layoff.

In its 2009 annual report issued in April 2010, the first line in the message to shareholders said: “What a difference a year makes!” Gentex was already well on the road to recovery.

2010 continued to add to the company’s recovery momentum. Last year, Gentex hired 500 employees — more than 100 of them salaried employees in engineering and other technical specialties. Today, Gentex has 2,900 employees in West Michigan and 3,000 worldwide.

As of late January, Gentex was “still looking for close to 100 hourly” employees and had more than “a hundred open positions on the engineering/technical side, as well,” according to Bruce Los, vice president of human resources.

Late in 2010, Gentex purchased the 108,000-square-foot Invensys Controls plant in Holland for increased production capacity, and that production has already begun.

While discussing the company’s 2010 year-end results in January, Jen noted that since Gentex introduced the auto-dimming mirror in 1987, it has “generally been able to increase units and revenue faster than the overall global (automotive) industry.” That’s because Gentex continues to increase its penetration in the automotive market, which means that even if light vehicle production around the world is flat, Gentex production and sales still increase.

Connie Hamblin, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, noted that the compounded annual growth for Gentex since 1987 has been 18 percent.

The company keeps investing in R&D, because, as Jen pointed out last June, “We really view ourselves as a high-technology electronics growth company that happens to be selling into the automotive” sector.

And aeronautics: Gentex is working with PPG Aerospace in production of auto-dimming passenger windows for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Beechcraft King Air 350i.

Gentex holds more than 400 U.S. patents and approximately 250 foreign patents. “In addition, we have over a hundred U.S. patent applications in process, as well as over 200 additional foreign patent applications in process,” said Jen.

Gentex is a high-tech manufacturer, and its pursuit of highly educated and skilled employees reflects that. Los said its recruiting for software engineering and other technical specialties tends to take the search “well outside of the region.”

“We do a huge amount of college recruiting,” said Los. Seventy new hires in 2010 came straight from college graduation. “We’re trying to change the perception of West Michigan to really be a high-tech electronics area,” he said. “That helps us build the ability to recruit people to this part of the world.”

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