Going up against Michael Jordan was no easy task, but neither was the training camp that Vinnie Johnson endured five years ago.

It was just like the training camps of Mr. Johnson's younger days as a Detroit Pistons guard, and before that at Baylor University, where the Seattle Supersonics found him in 1979 and made him their first-round draft pick.

Training camp in 1996 — a year after his No. 15 jersey was hoisted to the rafters at the Palace of Auburn Hills — was a sweaty, painful, nerve-wracking experience that drove home the importance of teamwork.

For four months, every weekday at 5 a.m. Mr. Johnson reported to General Motors Corp.'s Detroit Hamtramck Assembly Plant for his tryout to become an automotive parts supplier.

“GM wanted to make sure I was committed,” he says. “I learned a lot — like how not to shut down the assembly line. I learned about material flow. If there was a problem the night before, I had to tell them how we would fix it.”

He made the cut, and his company, Piston Automotive, was born, with a new plant on Michigan Avenue in southwest Detroit's Empowerment Zone. The company has three facilities in Detroit, employing 200 people.

Piston's first contract was with Delphi Automotive Systems to supply struts to GM.

Mr. Johnson arrived as the Big Three were buying more parts from minority-owned suppliers and as sourcing decisions were being based on whether a Tier 1 had a minority partner.

Today, at 44, he has several partners, and every one is integral in keeping Piston Automotive alive. With Lear Corp., Mr. Johnson formed JL Automotive, a joint venture to assemble headrests for Ford Motor Co. and pre-production component packaging for GM.

Recently, Mr. Johnson pairs up with two other heavy hitters. With Continental Teves Inc. he forms Piston Modules LLC and will assemble brake corner modules (150,000 a year) for GM luxury cars, beginning this fall.

With Sachs Automotive, Mr. Johnson forms PASA Modules LLC, a joint venture to assemble shock absorber modules for Ford and Lincoln sport/utility vehicles. Next year, PASA Modules will supply suspension modules for GM's Sigma platform for the new Cadillac CTS.

Germany's ZF Friedrichshafen AG is acquiring Sachs from Siemens AG, but it's too early to say how the acquisition will impact PASA. ZF would be wise to nurture the joint venture, as it will improve ZF's prospects for Big Three business.

And the “Microwave,” who could heat up quickly when coming off the bench, has yet another partnership. With GKN plc, Piston Automotive will assemble halfshafts for Chrysler minivans, beginning this fall.

Piston Automotive does not manufacture anything, but does assembly work and parts sequencing, which was part of the lesson learned on those early mornings in Hamtramck.

For the Ford SUVs, Piston Automotive can assemble and ship in sequence 48 different suspension setups. The vehicle, for instance, offers six different coil springs, two different air springs and two different shocks.

Sachs didn't have the capability to ship such a diverse product mix in sequence, admits Sachs Vice President Ronald Gesquiere. That's what made Piston Automotive so attractive, he says.

Mr. Johnson has retired from basketball, but the daily grind as an automotive supplier always reminds him of training camp. As if he were hitting a long jumper, it keeps him on his toes.

Listen to Tom Murphy and other Ward's editors Monday and Thursday on WJR 760 AM radio in Detroit.
tmurphy@intertec.com