Top Newsmaker High-tech Gentex Corp. surges forward

February 12, 2011
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Zeeland-based Gentex Corp., known throughout the global auto industry for its automatic-dimming rearview mirrors and rear-camera safety systems, recently announced all-time record revenues for the fourth quarter and year that ended Dec. 31.

It marked yet another milestone for the company that opened its doors in 1974 as a manufacturer of high-quality fire protection products.

For its continued and renewed long-term economic impact in West Michigan, Gentex Corp. was recognized last week as the Grand Rapids Business Journal Newsmaker of the Year. The top 10 nominees for the recognition were saluted at an Economic Club of Grand Rapids luncheon held at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

“This is the 19th year in which the Grand Rapids Business Journal has conducted the Newsmaker of the Year competition,” said Business Journal Publisher John Zwarensteyn. “All the finalists are winners in my book.

“The quality of this year’s Newsmaker finalists demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit is still alive and growing in metro Grand Rapids and West Michigan,” Zwarensteyn noted. “All the finalists are deserving of honors; all have made significant contributions to the West Michigan economy.

“The commitment to excellence and constant improvement really is the hallmark of this year’s Newsmaker of the Year. The excitement generated by this year’s finalists demonstrates clearly that we are leaders in the state, and if Michigan’s economy is to grow, it will be due to the growth of West Michigan enterprises.”

“The 10 top Newmakers of 2010 represent diversity and strengths within the regional economy,” said Carole Valade, editor of the Business Journal. “Selecting a single Newsmaker was a longer than usual process.

“Gentex represents not only a growing industry but one bringing the strengths of cutting-edge intellectual capital to this economy,” Valade said. “The company has been able to grow its customer base beyond a single industry, and during a worldwide recession. The number of patents held by Gentex rivals the best of the best in this region. The company’s progress is remarkable.”

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.

In accepting the recognition at the luncheon, Bruce Los, Gentex Corp. vice president of human resources, said the company’s hiring “grew by 600 people full-time in the last 12 months. Gentex’s position has been not to be a newsmaker at all, but 2010 changed all that. We grew by 50 percent last year and we’re really proud of the technology we’ve assembled and the team we’ve been able to recruit.  We’re going after the best of the best.”

Los said the Newsmaker recognition “tells us the importance of the community behaving like a community. We’re all in this together. It’s a very exciting thing. The number one reason we’re here is the work force. We plan to keep building parts in West Michigan.”

Noting Gentex does less than 25 percent of its business with the Detroit Three, Los said “our business is growing at a very rapid pace, including in Europe and Asia.”

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 Los.

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 continues to invest 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.”

“There is a huge amount of high-level technical activity that’s going on here in West Michigan that isn’t happening in a lot of locations around the country,” added Los. When Gentex discovers a region with a cluster of engineering talent that it needs, it tries to lure some of them here.

“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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