GVF Fills Ag Niche, Creating Custom Equipment for Customers in U.S., overseas

Over the past 45 years, Ron Gillison has built Gillison’s Variety Fabrication (GVF) in Benzonia into a successful agriculture equipment manufacturer. He’s relied on a simple formula: Listen to what farmers (especially orchard owners) really need, then work hard to design and build top-notch products.

In the beginning, Gillison depended on making parts for the auto industry, but based on his Up North farming background and training at Michigan State University, he discovered a niche in making custom machines.

“Basically we build equipment the big companies don’t make,” he said. “That’s especially true of our hedgers and manlifts.” (Manlifts are self-propelled and come in various sizes, making it easier to trim fruit-bearing trees.)

The company sells several brand-name hedgers and tractors like Bush Hog and Massey-Ferguson, most of which stay here in Michigan, but it is best known across the world for its own designs.

Roughly 80% of Gillison’s custom equipment goes to fruit growers in the U.S. Most of the remaining 20% of custom sales are to overseas operations, especially in Central and South America. At this point, GVF products are used in 90 different countries.

The international connection didn’t happen overnight, rather, it was the culmination of years of travel and trade shows. In fact, Gillison has traveled to so many trade fairs that folks notice if he doesn’t show up.

“We’ve had a presence at the International Ag Show in California for more than 40 years,” he said. “That’s where I’ve met a lot of foreign customers. Once you sell a piece of equipment internationally, people in the industry in other countries look at it and (buy) it,” he said.

Occasionally, GVF takes on non-ag projects, like completing the iron work for a 40-foot long architecturally designed bridge. (The well-to-do clients got tired of paddling to a small island they own and where their tennis court is located.) In conjunction with Michigan State, GVF produces lab equipment that makes it easier to analyze various in-ground chemicals. The company also produces especially sturdy hardware for storm shelter doors. At one point, Gillison created a one-of-a-kind can-crushing machine.

As the owner of a family business, Gillison relies on his wife, Dianne, who serves as CFO.

“She does most of the purchasing around here,” he said. “She keeps all the stuff we need on the shelves. That’s important.”

The company’s 35-person staff includes the Gillison’s two sons and their wives.

GVF has always been forward-looking. Its motto from the start: “Serving today’s ag with tomorrow’s tech.” Oldest son Matt Gillison, a graduate of Ferris State University’s manufacturing service and technology program, has accelerated that approach by introducing new hydraulic systems, electronics and computer-aided production.

Meanwhile, younger son Craig is on the road, handling sales. But that doesn’t mean the older Gillison has turned over everything to the next generation.

“I can’t walk away from the company,” he said. “I deal with regulation, banking, contracts, vendors and I still travel to the bigger shows. I’ve known a lot of the growers for nearly a half century.”

He keeps his eyes open for promising new employees.

“We struggle finding good mechanics,” he said. “The technologies have changed so much. And we’ve been looking for a parts person but haven’t found one.”

After a day in the shop, Gillison “relaxes” by tending his cattle and 1,500 acres of row crops on his Benzie Country farm.

“I love to work,” he said.

The Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council (GTAMC) sponsors this column. Its mission is to support a sustainable and globally competitive manufacturing sector for a stronger economy; makegreatthings.org.