The Herald-Leader caught up last week with Steve St. Angelo, the former president of Toyota's plant in Georgetown who was tapped in the wake of the company's recalls last year to become chief quality officer for North America.
While he continues to be the chairman of the Georgetown plant, which is now led by President Wil James, St. Angelo focuses far more on his chief quality officer duties.
Question: Tell me about the progress you're making on quality initiatives.
Answer: "Our Star Safety System is now standard on all our vehicles, and so is our Smart Stop Technology. If you press on the gas and also the brake, the brake will always win. That's now standard on every car we make in North America. ... We also set up what's called a Design Quality Innovation Division and transferred 1,000 of our finest engineers to this division to look at each component, each system to make sure each is designed to be the most reliable and durable it can be.
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"We also expanded our development cycle by an additional four weeks. Those four weeks cost us millions and millions of dollars and the salespeople always want the cars as fast as possible to sell, but this allows us more time to test the entire vehicle as a system.
"The Special Committee for Global Quality is meeting, and that's the one that's run by (Toyota President) Akio Toyoda. We have another meeting coming up in this quarter."
Q: What are other changes that have been made as you progress on quality initiatives?
A: "We're very much more active in communicating and much more involved in the recalls. You've seen quite a few recently. In the past, before those, what would happen is we would provide analysis and data to Japan on vehicles we built here. Japan would do all the deciding on whether there should be a recall. ... Today, we're involved with all the vehicles.
"We not only provide the data and analysis, we also do the engineering behind it and make a recommendation. The decision today is a consensus. It's not based on one person's decision whether we should do a recall or not. ... If I'm not satisfied, I have a direct line to Akio Toyoda. Fortunately, I have never had to use that.
"There have been a lot of recalls, and I'll take the criticism on that and I'll tell you why. Even in the most difficult times, our customers stayed loyal to us. ... I made a commitment to Akio Toyoda that if there's anything I feel uncomfortable about, I'm going to do a recall to protect those customers who stood by us.
"So, yes, there's been a lot of recalls, but we're taking every rock and every stone and looking underneath. If there's something we don't like, we're taking fast action."
Q: What is your favorite aspect of your new role of chief quality officer?
A: "My favorite thing is I'm learning so much and I'm learning a lot fast. I have an opportunity to work with people in our government and, frankly, I'm quite impressed.
"I've had a chance to work more with the media and everyone within North America versus just the manufacturing guys.
"The best part with all my travel is I'm now a diamond with Delta," he said with a chuckle. "That means when they're late, I still get to board the plane first."
Q: What do you miss most about your former position as president of the Georgetown plant?
A: "I miss being on the floor with the team members. I miss joking with them, seeing their faces, listening to what they've done to improve their jobs and listening to their concerns.
"Also, I'm traveling so much I haven't been able to be in the community as much as I have in the past."
Q: Tell me about the breakdown of your new job with how much time you focus on Georgetown in your chairman role along with your other responsibilities.
A: "I have several offices: one in Japan, one in Erlanger (site of the headquarters of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North American, known as TEMA), one in Georgetown, one in Mississippi (site of Toyota's newest plant), and one in Washington.
"My main office is still Georgetown. I'm very blessed to have such a great leadership team there. They've taken quality to the next level. My role is more of a mentor and coaching versus the day-to-day kind of thing, and my influence on the Kentucky plant is becoming less each day.
"I'm also chairman of the Mississippi plant. That project is coming along very, very well. The executive vice president of TEMA role takes quite a bit of time, but the chief quality officer is the majority of my job right now."
Q: Tell me your thoughts on the sales of models produced in Georgetown (Camry, Camry Hybrid, Avalon and Venza).
A: "We're very proud that the Camry this year was once again named the most American-made car built (by Cars.com, which analyzes factors including where parts are built and cars are assembled). If you want to buy an American car, buy a Camry. The Camry was also the best-selling car again and has been for 13 of the last 14 years.
"Another hidden statistic that's going on is we were basically down in January (2010) building vehicles, so our yearly sales were really only 11 months. But when you keep that in mind, we were still the No. 1 retail seller. ... Yes, our competitors did more, but that includes fleet sales. And if you ask me who you would rather have, retail or fleet, I say retail because that's people spending their own money to buy vehicles that are safe. ... That's why I'm so obsessed with making sure the vehicles they drive are safe."