Martha Layne Collins used savvy, fireworks, Stephen Foster to lure Toyota to Kentucky

Then-Governor Martha Layne Collins presented a print of My Old Kentucky Home to Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda, president of Toyota, on May 5, 1986. Kentucky was chosen from at least 20 other states as the location for a new plant.
Then-Governor Martha Layne Collins presented a print of My Old Kentucky Home to Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda, president of Toyota, on May 5, 1986. Kentucky was chosen from at least 20 other states as the location for a new plant.

Arguably no one is credited more with bringing Toyota to Georgetown than former Gov. Martha Layne Collins. Her dogged pursuit of the automaker has been hailed for the 25 years since its 1986 groundbreaking as one of the best economic moves in the state's history. The former governor, who is now chairwoman of the Kentucky World Trade Center business group, sat down last week with the Herald-Leader. Collins, 74, also an honorary consul general of Japan in Kentucky, lauded the efforts of her staff at the time, recalled how Kentucky one-upped Tennessee by offering a spectacle of a dinner to Toyota executives, and reflected on the legacy of the plant.

On luring automakers: "We started out calling on the domestic (automotive) companies first to see if any of them wanted to expand. When we didn't get any nibbles there, we started going overseas.

"Every time we went to Japan, I called on Toyota. That was before they said they were coming to North America. .... It was the relationship that we built. What I would tell anybody who I was visiting with was I was looking for a good corporate citizen, somebody who wanted to come to hire my people.

"I always carried a United States map and had the outline of Kentucky in black, so they could see the roads and know the location was appealing."

On Toyota's announcement that it planned to build a North American plant, about 1984: "It became really serious when they said they were coming to North America. They were opening it up to everybody to compete, and there were at least 20 states competing."

On standing out against other states: "When it got down to about eight to 10 states, Toyota asked for more information. I just had this feeling that we didn't want to just keep putting this information in a folder and envelope and putting it on a plane and shipping it.

"I suggested to Ted Sauer Jr. (the executive director of the Commerce Cabinet's Office of International Marketing) that he hand deliver the information and asked him to stay there and be sure all of their questions were answered. I said, 'Don't come back until you answer all their questions.' He was gone four to five days."

On the final two states being Kentucky and Tennessee: "I can remember I was ecstatic; I was so excited they were coming. They were visiting Tennessee first during the day, and I didn't know if we really wanted to come after Tennessee. We had to decide how we were going to set ourselves apart.

"There was going to be a dinner, and we were all talking about a nice business dinner. But those start at 6 and are over at 9 on the dot. I thought, 'This is my last chance. If we don't get them this time, we won't have another chance.' That's when I decided we were going to have something special.

"We went to the airport, brought them back to the Governor's Mansion and we had good food — beef and baked Alaskas for dessert. We stuck sparklers in the baked Alaskas and turned down the lights because I knew they liked fireworks. I heard them say 'ooh' and 'ahhh.'

"I had also learned over there that people in that part of the world study folk music. They had studied Stephen Foster, so we brought in singers from Bardstown from My Old Kentucky Home to sing Camptown Races, Oh! Susanna and those songs. It was way past 9 o'clock, and we were singing. They knew all the words, and they were clapping their hands, tapping their feet and having a good time.

"I had people behind the Capitol Annex shooting fireworks over the Capitol dome. The idea was just to let them know we were friends and appreciated their relationship and that we knew some of the things they liked."

On the groundbreaking in May 1986: "It was raining, and I was so upset. ... I thought, 'Why couldn't we have a beautiful sunny day?' Dr. (Shoichiro) Toyoda said, 'Don't worry, it's a good omen.' After that, I was fine."

On the legacy of luring the automaker: "Even now, I can be out shopping and people walk up and say, 'Thank you.' I think, 'What have I done?' They say, 'You brought Toyota. My husband has a job there and because of that, my children will go to college.'

"So many people come up to tell me that plant changed their lives. ... I told the company I wanted a good corporate citizen, and they have been such a tremendous contributor to so many things from arts and health care to education and sports."

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