Toyota leader asks more to provide work for disabled

Lex-Pro workers have done sub-assembly work on exhaust brackets at Toyota's Georgetown plant since Jan. 3. An 11-person team rotates in, five at a time.
Lex-Pro workers have done sub-assembly work on exhaust brackets at Toyota's Georgetown plant since Jan. 3. An 11-person team rotates in, five at a time.

One of Toyota's top executives appealed to Lexington business leaders Friday, asking them to offer not money but work to non-profit Lex-Pro, which arranges work for people with disabilities.

"We are asking for some ideas and suggestions or for you to keep Lex-Pro in mind if something comes up," said Steve St. Angelo, Toyota's chief quality officer for North America and chairman of its sprawling Georgetown plant.

St. Angelo knows firsthand that Lex-Pro's workers are capable. He gave an enthusiastic approval this year for a group of them to work inside the plant doing sub-assembly work on exhaust brackets. An 11-person team started Jan. 3 and rotates in five at a time. Their work is checked by assembly-line workers.

"It's amazing to see the individuals — the smiles on their faces — be a part of (Toyota)," Lex-Pro's Dan Wills told the 20 or so people at the luncheon. "Toyota's done some amazing things for us in the short period of time we've known them. First of all, they invited us into their plant. Not too many people will take that step."

Toyota's work with the group began a few years ago when St. Angelo visited Lex-Pro's facility in Lexington.

"I went there and I didn't want to leave," he recalled. "The people were so friendly and so great ... and I felt helpless because I wasn't sure how I could help them."

Over the years, Wills would send requests for items like forklifts or furniture, and St. Angelo and his workers would check to see what Toyota could offer. But the group didn't stop looking for ways to employ the workers. Last year, they determined the sub-assembly work could be done by Lex-Pro workers. Instrumental in arranging that was Toyota employee and Lex-Pro volunteer Tim Turner.

It probably would have been easier for Toyota to donate money to Lex-Pro, but "that's not what they want," Turner said of Lex-Pro. "They want to work, and that's what we did."

It's also been a way for Toyota to help a non-profit — that is, without just writing a check, a common move for the company that declined with the onset of the recession.

"Just like the (Alltech FEI World) Equestrian Games, there was some criticism we weren't very involved," St. Angelo said, referring to the surprise that Ford was the official automotive sponsor of the Games rather than Toyota. "We were involved, but we couldn't have been more because we couldn't afford it."

Toyota had pulled its non-profits in for a meeting, St. Angelo recalled, and told them the company would go about supporting them in different ways, such as sending employees to them for volunteer work.

Among the invited guests Friday was Duke Thompson, a Northern Kentucky University finance professor and a member of the board of Bluegrass Bancshares.

"It's amazing what a group of dedicated people can do," he said. "This community responds to this kind of thing very well."

And so do the people assisted by Lex-Pro, Wills said.

"They feel good about working. It raises their self-esteem," he said. "Everybody wants to feel like they contribute, even if they have a disability."