Gill looks to make leap to new site

URBANA - Gill Athletics, which has manufactured track -and-field equipment in Urbana for more than 70 years, is making a leap to Champaign.

The company plans to move from its offices just north of downtown Urbana to the Apollo Industrial Subdivision off North Market Street in Champaign this summer.

Company President David Hodge said Gill's new 82,320-square-foot facility, now under construction at 2808 Gemini Court, will al-low expansion and greater ef-ficiency in production.

"Certainly we've grown substantially the last 10 years, with sales up about fourfold in that time period," he said.

There's virtually no room for expansion at the company's current location, 201 Courtesy Road. That site - just north of the County Market store on Broadway Avenue - is landlocked by the Boneyard Creek, Broadway Avenue and the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.

Gill Athletics is the largest manufacturer of track-and-field equipment in the world, Hodge said. It employs 60 people in Urbana and 10 people at its javelin and discus facility in Eugene, Ore.

The Urbana plant turns out hurdles, vaulting poles, pole-vaulting pits and track carts. It also makes cages for hammer and discus throwers, and standards for pole vaulters and high jumpers.

Hodge, who has been with Gill Athletics for 12 years, bought the company July 2 from Vince Atkins. Atkins - the brother of Apollo In-dustrial Subdivision develop- er Clint Atkins - will lease the new building to Gill.

Vince Atkins also owns Gill's 2.5-acre site in Urbana and says he doesn't know precisely what will happen to it.

"It's currently listed with Ramshaw Real Estate," he said. "All options are currently open. I may be reletting it, selling the building or doing some other development there."

The property includes Gill's 50,000-square-foot plant as well as a former radio station building on Broadway Avenue.

Hodge said Gill Athletics will remain at the Urbana site for at least the first half of this year.

"July 1 is when the move is scheduled to start, and we're estimating 90 to 120 days for the move," he said.

Atkins said the move should give the company ample room to grow. He noted it would give Gill seven truck docks, 30-foot-high ceilings, 6,400 square feet of office space and 90-plus parking places on a lighted parking lot.

Plus, the new building can be expanded if needed, Hodge said.

Gill Athletics has had a long history in Urbana.

Developed by Harry Gill, who was the University of Illinois track coach from 1904 to 1933, the company traces its origins to the early part of the 20th century. Hodge said he believes the oldest part of the complex dates back to the 1930s.

The entrance to the Urbana plant is from Broadway Ave-nue, on a dead-end lane called Courtesy Road. It's a remnant of Cunningham Avenue, from the days when Cunningham ex-tended south of University Ave-nue and ended at Broadway.

Hodge said he'll miss the Urbana facility, even though it's not designed for modern fabrication and shipping.

"Some of the lowest times and highest times of my career, I've spent here," Hodge said. "We'd bring people here from around the world. What was neat is it had such character to it, it always made friends.

"It's not state-of-the-art, but it's disarming. It shows who we are and who we are not," he said.

Hodge said the new Champaign location, though roomy and efficient, may not be as handy in some respects.

"It's easy to get around to places to eat at lunchtime and to banks," he said of the current facility.

"We'll miss some of that, for sure."

Atkins said Gill Athletics has agreed to lease the new building for three years, with options to renew for five-year terms. Hodge said the company has an option to buy the building after three years.

Company's passion for sport no coincidence

URBANA - If Gill Athletics employees seem passionate about the track-and-field products they sell, it's probably because they love the sport.

Many competed in track-and- field events during college. Company President David Hodge was a three-time All-American in the pole vault at Baylor University. Fred Dixon, the vice president of sales, was a two-time Olympian in the decathlon.

The director of engineering was a high jumper for the Coast Guard Academy. Three technical sales reps competed in the pole vault, steeplechase and javelin throw. And the list goes on.

"We're all fitness nuts. ... In our little industry, it's kind of an essential," said Dixon, the former decathlete now based at the company's Eugene, Ore., facility. "We deal with track coaches at the collegiate level who have a high level of expertise. It really requires you to understand how events work, how performances are evaluated and how athletes train."

Gill didn't always have athletes on its front line, said Dixon, who joined the company 10 years ago.

"Just the opposite," he said. "The company had lost touch with the market in that way. There were a lot of fine people making decisions about products for the market, without consulting the market. There was a credibility gap before we got involved."

Hodge joined the company as a financial officer in November 1990, a couple years after Gill had changed its sales strategy. It had abandoned its 800-dealer network to sell directly to high schools. That strategy didn't work out, Hodge said.

"The company was essentially going to go bankrupt in 1992," Hodge said. "Vince (Atkins) stepped in. He told me if I stayed on, he'd eventually sell the company to me. The company expanded really dramatically. He held it 10 years, and we worked out a deal last July 2."

Atkins said he bought the company in 1992 after serving about a year on its board of directors.

"Things were not going the way they should have been going," he said. "I made an offer to buy the company. I'm not a track-and-field person, and I needed to have a good management person. I installed Dave Hodge, who had been controller."

In the years before the purchase, Gill had branched out into volleyball, soccer and tennis equipment, but in 1992, the company realized its future was in state-of-the-art track-and-field equipment.

"Track and field was its forte," Atkins said. "That's where it was making money."

Today Gill supplies a full line of track-and-field products, as well as training and conditioning products for athletes.

"Other companies sell poles or javelins or hurdles," Atkins said. "But I don't know of another company that makes all the products."

Hodge wouldn't disclose specific sales figures for the fiscal year that ended June 30, but said sales were between $15 million and $20 million. That compares with $3.6 million in sales in 1992.

Gill Athletics has "as little as 25 percent of the market and as high as 35 percent for worldwide track and field," Hodge said. Principal competitors are Blazer Manufacturing in Fremont, Neb.; UCS Inc. (formerly United Canvas & Sling) in Kearny, N.J.; Aluminum Athletic Equipment in West Conshohocken, Pa.; and Sweden-based Nordic Sport.

Gill has been strongest at the high school level, but has been trying to increase its share of the collegiate market the last four or five years, Hodge said.

The company recently provided equipment for the Commonwealth Games in Man- chester, England.

Gill also has been named a supplier for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, although at this point Hodge doesn't know specifically what Gill will supply.

Overseas sales account for about 10 percent of total sales, Hodge said, and some of Gill's products come from overseas. About 80 percent of Gill's products are made in the United States, and about 20 percent come from Asian countries. Factories in China, Taiwan and India supply some of the products at the lower end of the price spectrum.

Until last year, Gill Athletics employed several residents of the Illinois Department of Corrections' work release center in Urbana. The center closed last year, and many of the residents were transferred to Peoria.

"That kind of hurt," Hodge said. But some of those people have been released and have come back to Champaign-Urbana to work for Gill full time.

"There are some who are key employees," he said.

Atkins said he had mixed emotions about selling Gill Athletics last year.

"Gill is such an apple pie-and-motherhood company. It doesn't pollute; it just hires people. It's a quiet company, and no one knows it's there," he said.

"You should never be emotional about a business," he added. "But we took the company and pulled it up by the bootstraps. And when you sell it, you do have an emotional attachment there."

Nevertheless, Atkins said, it's Hodge and his staff that should get the credit for Gill's success.

"They're the ones I give credit to for the resurrection of the company," he said. "Those guys love that business. They love the sport."

Gill Athletics

Business: Manufacturer of track-and-field equipment. Products include hurdles, vaulting poles and pole-vaulting pits.

Address: 201 Courtesy Road, U; next summer the company is scheduled to move to 2808 Gemini Court in Champaign's Apollo Industrial Subdivision.

Employment: 60 in Urbana, 10 at the company's discus and javelin facility in Eugene, Ore.

President: David Hodge.

Sales: Between $15 million and $20 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2002.

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