Narcisso Carrillo, left, Rafael Rodriguez, center, and Ignacio Flores spread carbon material at Gaffoglio Family Metalcrafters, where technology used in concept car development helps them produce plane parts, including windows for the Boeing 787. - TPN

Aiming higher: Gaffoglios say sky's no limit

When 7-foot-1, 325-pound Shaquille O'Neal could not fit into his new ground-hugging, $200,000 Lamborghini Gallardo, the Miami Heat center turned to a Fountain Valley, Calif., family to do a little magic.

The Gaffoglios meticulously extended the doors, roof and side windows so the towering O'Neal could drive in comfort in what is now one of the longest Lamborghinis in the world.

Bending and twisting cars into all kinds of shapes is nothing new to the Gaffoglio family. They are well known in the auto industry for rolling out eye-popping concept cars and futuristic prototypes. But now the family is looking to stretch its wings and grow in an entirely new way.

Gaffoglio Family Metalcrafters Inc., which started three decades ago as a small auto-body shop, is quietly venturing into aerospace, hoping one day its name will be as familiar to aircraft makers as it is to Detroit.

"What we do has a lot of great applications in aerospace," said George Gaffoglio, chief executive and son of the founder and family patriarch, John Gaffoglio.

The Gaffoglios are far from becoming an aerospace giant like Boeing Co. or Northrop Grumman Corp., but the family is convinced that their future lies in applying their know-how making concept cars to shaping advanced jet parts.

The family's move into aerospace illustrates how a small business can expand into unfamiliar territory without straying too far from its core competency.

The company recently secured an aerospace contract making glass windshields for Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner, the hottest-selling jet ever, at a time when the commercial aircraft industry is enjoying one of the biggest booms in decades.

Metalcrafters has a long history of seizing opportunities, often with uncanny timing.

Shortly after starting their automobile restoration shop in 1979 with $18,000 of family money, the Gaffoglios received a call from Chrysler.

At the time, the Detroit carmaker was on the verge of collapse and its chairman, Lee Iacocca, was seeking federal government loan guarantees. To get it he needed to show Congress that he had working prototypes of the economical "K" cars that the company had designed. But Chrysler didn't have the time or the cash to hire prototype builders, most of whom were based in Europe.

A member of Iacocca's staff had seen the Gaffoglios' work and suggested that the shop might be able to turn out prototypes quickly and at bargain prices.

Since then, Metalcrafters has built almost all of Chrysler's prototypes. It now has 180 engineers, painters and mechanics who not only build concept cars for automakers but also million-dollar custom cars for private collectors.

Hollywood also has come calling for so-called camera-ready, one-of-kind vehicles for automakers and movie makers. Last year the company had revenue of about $30 million.

John Gaffoglio retired last year, but the company is still run by family members, including his two sons. George is the chief executive, and Ruben is the company's president. An additional half a dozen family members work in various departments. The only outsider is Mike Alexander, who formerly oversaw the production line for McDonnell Douglas Corp's MD-11 jumbo jet.

About three years ago, as the industry began to recover, aircraft makers began calling the company, one of the few that still had the machines and the skills to make highly specialized parts.

Among the first to call was Canadian aircraft maker Bombardier, which needed Metalcrafters' expertise making curved windshields for its Learjet and Global Express business planes.

That led to a contract from PPG Industries to make the windshield for Boeing's 787 passenger jet, the Gaffoglios' biggest contract so far.

"We don't have to invest in capital. Its already here," George Gaffoglio said, noting that the company is utilizing only about 60 percent of its manufacturing capacity.

Though aerospace work has already grown to account for about 30 percent of revenue, Gaffoglio said it's "not as much as I want. ... There is a lot more room for growth."

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