GEORGETOWN — When the first in the latest generation of Toyota's best-selling Camry sedans rolled off the lines in Georgetown last month, it was a sight that plant president Wil James hadn't expected to see.
He had been at Georgetown more than five years earlier when planning began for the redesigned Camry, but the rising executive who had spent two decades in Georgetown was soon to be tapped to lead other Toyota sites, first in California and then in Indiana.
"I went out there with the thought that one day I would be able to work my way back home," James recalled.
And sure enough, he made it back in time to not only see the redesigned Camry come off the line but supervise the final stages of changes needed to produce it at the plant, Toyota's U.S. flagship. It's a role that James, the plant's third American and first black president, has earned during his two-decade rise, which began when he was hired as a group leader before the plant opened.
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Though James, 55, was born in Virginia, he has long called Kentucky home and hoped that his work elsewhere for the automaker would provide him with the knowledge to be chosen for one of the company's most plum North American assignments.
Driven from the start
Growing up in Norfolk, Va., the only boy among four children, it was almost as if James was destined to be in the automotive industry. His father was a truck driver and bus driver who eventually owned a charter bus company.
"I grew up driving buses around, cleaning buses on the weekend and working on the cars," he said. "Being the only son, my Saturdays were working with my dad."
Being the only son wasn't without benefits: "I always got a chance to eat good," he said.
James graduated from Old Dominion University in Norfolk with a degree in mechanical engineering technology and left home one week after graduation in 1978.
His first job was as a field service engineer with Babcock & Wilcox in Houston. He traveled from city to city across Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, fixing utility boilers.
"It was great. Here I am, a young kid out of college and I've got a company car and trunk full of gadgets and was sent out on my own," he recalled.
In 1981, he moved to Charlotte, N.C., a six-hour drive from Norfolk, to work for Fiber Industries, but the company would soon begin sending its work overseas. It was a problem that confronted James at his next job, too, when Olin Corp. closed its plant in Pennsylvania, sending him back to its Louisiana operations.
Starting at Toyota
His next employer had no intention of turning things upside down for him. Through a friend involved in human resources, James heard of Toyota's plans to build its first wholly owned North American assembly plant in Georgetown.
"There was one picture he sent me with a sky view of the plant," James recalled. "It just looked like a young engineer's dream come true to get involved in something like that on the ground floor."
James applied and became the 276th employee hired at the plant when he was brought on board in October 1987.
He started out as a group leader, and it wasn't long before others saw James' talents.
By 1988, he had been promoted to assistant manager. Three years after that, he was given responsibility for facilities, maintenance and engineering.
Ken Kreafle, a general manager at the plant today, was among James' first colleagues; he was the 214th person hired at the plant.
"He's always been sincerely interested in the people who work for him," said Kreafle, whom Toyota has loaned to the University of Kentucky College of Engineering as executive in residence. "On top of that, he's a really good engineer."
One of James' most endearing talents is his "open mind," added Kreafle, who is director of the Lean Systems Program at UK.
"He's the type of person who listens first. ... Some people just overreact, and he's not in that category," Kreafle said. "It doesn't always have to be his way. He's swayed by good logic and common sense."
As time went on, James' role grew. In 2000, he was moved from engineering to the manufacturing side of the business.
"Assembly was about 2,000 people," he said. "That was a big jump from 700 or so."
Within three years, he had been given control of almost all of the plant's manufacturing operations.
Then, as the newest Camry was first being discussed, James got the call that would mean an end to his nearly two decades in Georgetown. He was asked to take a leadership role at TABC, Toyota's parts plant in Long Beach, Calif.
"Having had that early experience of moving around from city to city, it was kind of exciting again," he said. "I was kind of feeling my youth again and getting a fresh start in another place."
And the environment was a major change, with the rolling hills of Georgetown replaced by the bustling port city south of Los Angeles, and with the plant in the middle of the urban area.
Within a year, he would be elevated to the role of president, becoming the first black plant president for Toyota in North America. The promotion came as the Long Beach plant was going through a radical change, with some of its core products moved to other factories.
"We were trying to decide what to do with the company and trying to identify new business for that location," he said.
That challenge set the stage for his next one, serving as senior vice president of Toyota's plant in Princeton, Ind. He made the move in January 2009 during the height of the recession.
It marked more than just an occupational change for James. Craving the feel of a larger city, his wife, Michaelene, chose to live a couple of hours away in Louisville rather than in Princeton, population about 8,000.
"That was a big adjustment because we never had been apart like that," she recalled.
Toyota provided Wil James with an apartment in Princeton, where he lived and worked during the week, and he would join Michaelene in Louisville on weekends.
"It was probably a really good decision we decided to do that," she said. "It gave him ample time to stay in the plant as long as he needed."
And it was a challenge indeed because of the recession, Wil James said.
"They were hit much more significantly than Kentucky," he said. "We worked through ... how to keep team members motivated and how to keep work moving with almost no volume at all."
The answer came when the plant was given the task of beginning to produce the Highlander sport-utility vehicle.
"The additional part of our challenge was to launch the Highlander in October 2009 and be preparing for the launch of the all-new Sienna in April in just six months," he said.
Coming back to Georgetown
Throughout his new assignments, James had never given up his hope of returning to Georgetown.
Among the many reasons was family, including his daughter Danielle Graham, a specialist for Toyota's North American manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger who is stationed at the Georgetown plant.
Graham grew up watching her father entertain numerous visitors at their home.
"He's very gifted with his ability to relate to people," she said. "Regardless of how long he's known someone or their title or rank or nationality, he's able to build a relationship and talk to them as if they're just like a neighbor.
"That's one of the biggest things I've gained from him and one of the things I've tried to do as well."
That ability to relate might very well have been what persuaded his superiors to move James back to Georgetown.
"I never stopped talking about Kentucky the entire time from when I left," he said. "I made it clear I would do whatever the company needed me to do, but I would like to come back."
Right after the Sienna launched, he was given the green light to head back to Georgetown to take over for Steve St. Angelo, who had been pulling double duty as plant president and Toyota's new North American chief quality officer to address the recalls that plagued the automaker last year.
"I could have had anybody in the world to replace me, and I hand-picked Wil because he grew up at" Georgetown, St. Angelo said. "I thought the plant had had enough of outsiders, including me.
"His heart is to do what's best for Toyota but also do what's best for the team members, and I'm talking everyone in the plant," said St. Angelo, who came to Georgetown from a former Toyota plant in California that was a joint venture with General Motors.
In an exclusive interview with the Herald-Leader during the Camry launch, Toyota president Akio Toyoda emphasized James' background on the factory floor as a crucial reason for his selection as the plant president.
"Wil James started out in the earlier part of his career using his own hands to make the cars, and therefore he can really understand how people on those production lines are feeling," Toyoda said through an interpreter.
Toyoda said that upbringing, along with James' leadership posts elsewhere, "gave him a very strong foundation for creating an excellent Camry team in the Kentucky plant."
James says his return was emotional.
"I was supposed to start working on a Monday, and I drove over here on the Saturday before just to drive around the plant and ... get all my emotion out of the way so I wasn't teary-eyed on Monday morning," he said. "It was just like that feeling of being away from home for college or something and you come back home to see family; it's that nice warm comfortable feeling."
The role of Georgetown president is one that often leads to promotions. Many of the plant's Japanese presidents, who ran it before Americans took over the role in 2001, returned to Japan to higher-profile roles within the automotive giant.
Gary Convis, the first American president, became one of only a few non-Japanese managing officers of the company. After he retired, he was named chief executive officer of automotive supplier Dana Corp.
St. Angelo has been elevated within the company and also is a managing officer for the corporation.
James said he's "having the time of my life" and has his eyes set on nothing but the plant.
"I don't have any preconceived plans," he said. "My plan is to see the next Camry come here, which will be 2016."