A West Coast native, Joe Robillard never had visited Oklahoma before his final interview to lead the Autoquip Corp. lift manufacturing plant in Guthrie. In his first three screenings, company executives and owners kept asking Robillard — then a Connecticut resident — the same question: “Would you seriously consider relocating to Oklahoma?
His answer: “Of course, for the right opportunity.”
Fourteen years later, Oklahoma is where Robillard has lived longest over his lifetime, which includes residency in eight states.
“We love it here,” said Robillard, who lives near Oak Tree Country Club where he golfs weekly and his wife plays tennis.
Meanwhile Autoquip — which employs 100 and has annual revenues of $20 million — has proved to be the pinnacle of his manufacturing career, he said.
The 65-year-old company — a subsidiary of Miner Enterprises in Chicago where Autoquip operated until opening in Guthrie in 1974 — specializes in custom-designed lifts for companies across all industries. Products range from portable dock lifts to “big, heavy honkin' lifts,” Robillard said, including freight lifts for Gallo wine, movable work platforms for Boeing and Airbus in Europe, and car lifts installed in people's homes.
From Autoquip's 175,000-square-foot plant at 1058 W Industrial Ave., Robillard, 66, sat down with The Oklahoman on Tuesday to talk about his professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your childhood.
A: I lived near Yakima, in the middle of Washington state, until my teens when my family moved outside Portland to Hood River, Ore. My parents had a small 45-acre fruit ranch, mainly apple and pear trees, which they eventually lost to a series of weather and technical failures. I'm the fourth of their five children; three boys and two girls. My oldest sibling is nine years my senior and baby of the family, five years younger. But one of my brothers is only a year and half older. We were very close growing up.
Q: What were the highlights of your school years?
A: I lived in a town of only 3,000, so if you were a boy, you played football and basketball, and ran track. I went on to earn an economics degree from Linfield, a small private liberal arts school in McMinnville, Ore. I was the only one of my siblings to go to college. I went on an athletic scholarship, and played defensive back on the football team for four years. I was drafted by New Orleans but, partway through my initial season, they decided I was a better college player than pro. I'm not sure how they even found me, since my college was only 900 kids.
Q: And life after football?
A: I was awarded a fellowship to earn my master's in business at Michigan State. Following graduation, I spent the next 16 years in human resources for Eaton Corp., a large manufacturer of automotive and truck components. I joined Eaton in Cleveland and moved from there to Tennessee, North Carolina and back to Ohio — Columbus.
Q: How'd you settle in Connecticut, where you lived before coming here?
A: A friend at Eaton had left and gone to work for United Dominion, now SPX, which makes rotor assemblies for helicopters. I joined United Dominion in HR but, over the 10 years I worked there, moved to vice president of operations. I was out of a job before I came to Oklahoma. I tried to buy the Connecticut company one day and was relieved of my job the next.
Q: You've always worked for manufacturing companies. What do you like about the sector?
A: You're contributing; adding value to the rest of the world.
Q: Tell us a little more about Autoquip.
A: We have a cadre of 12 mechanical engineers, who custom design 70 percent of our lifts to meet our clients' unique lifting needs for material handling. In 2009, we acquired American Lifts, a competitor that was based outside Indianapolis, and have maintained that brand and technology. We manufacture some 1,200 lifts annually, which can take anywhere from four weeks to 14 weeks and longer to make, including sheering pieces, welding and assembling. We believe we have the best employee base in the industry. We have a union shop with an average base salary of $20 an hour plus benefits. Eighty percent of our workers live in Guthrie and average service is 28 years.