GEORGETOWN — Fujio Cho, a respected former leader of Georgetown's Toyota plant, visited the Bluegrass this weekend to celebrate the automaker's 25 years here.
Cho led the plant from December 1988, less than six months after it began regular automotive assembly, to October 1994. He is now chairman of all of Toyota's operations.
"I was afraid that once I first introduced him, you all would clap so long that I wouldn't be able to get through the rest of my speech," Wil James, the plant's current president, told an audience of executives, employees and community supporters at Keeneland on Saturday.
The event marked a day of celebration, commemorating Toyota breaking ground on its first wholly owned American plant in Scott County on May 5, 1986. The company decided to wait until later this year to celebrate the 25-year milestone because of the earthquake and tsunami that befell their Japanese counterparts in March. Instead of celebrating on the actual anniversary, the company and its employees raised relief funds.
Saturday's event at Keeneland was followed by a celebration for all employees and retirees at Rupp Arena. The company booked country music star Tim McGraw and comedian George Lopez for an evening of entertainment expected to attract more than 10,000.
"It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since I stood before you and proclaimed, 'Oh, what a feeling,' and it's been that feeling for 25 years," former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, who lured the automaker to the state, told the Keeneland crowd.
The economic success of the plant is unquestioned. Originally anticipated to employ a few thousand, it has about 7,000 workers today. It has served as a training ground for Toyota leaders across the world and led to the company establishing its North American manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger in Northern Kentucky.
"Think about it. Fourteen (North American) plants in 25 years, and it all started here," said Steve St. Angelo, chairman of the Georgetown plant and the company's chief quality officer for North America.
Toyota has shared its economic success with the region, donating more than $40 million to area causes — $52 million, if you include donations to initiatives in Northern Kentucky.
In that spirit, Toyota on Saturday donated $25,000 each to Georgetown College, the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County, the Louisville Urban League and the Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts. The automaker also donated a 2012 Camry Hybrid to the environmental group Bluegrass PRIDE.
"Chairman Fujio Cho set the stage for Toyota being such a tremendous corporate citizen," Collins said. "Mr. Cho set that very clearly by being involved in the community.
"He lived the vision that he had. He was and really still is Toyota to many people."
Cho thanked the crowd for "the outpouring of support" they gave to Japan after this year's natural disasters.
"True friendships and partnership mean supporting each other during challenging times, as well as celebrating accomplishments," Cho told the crowd in English.
Afterward, via an interpreter, Cho said he was humbled by the praise for his contributions here.
"People are telling me you set the foundation and you created the basis for this successful plant," Cho said. "I appreciate it very much, but to me ... we did it all together."
Reach Scott Sloan at (859) 231-1447 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1447.