Silver anniversary for a good match; Toyota, Kentucky both benefit

Wil James, who became president of Toyota's Georgetown plant last year, spoke with employee Jade James on the plant's assembly lines. James was one of the plant's early supervisors.
Wil James, who became president of Toyota's Georgetown plant last year, spoke with employee Jade James on the plant's assembly lines. James was one of the plant's early supervisors. Courtesy Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky

Former Gov. Martha Layne Collins said she was shopping not just for a big employer but also a good corporate citizen when she convinced Toyota to build its first wholly-owned North American plant in Kentucky.

Collins succeeded and, with her, Kentucky.

At the time of the groundbreaking of the Georgetown plant in 1986, estimates were it would produce 200,000 Camrys a year and employ 3,000.

Today, as many as 500,000 cars (three models) roll off the assembly lines annually, produced by 6,800 workers.

Toyota's contributions go beyond wages. In the 25 years this month since the plant opened, it has donated more than $40 million to charitable activities in Kentucky.

With the clarity of hindsight we can see that it's been a good investment and a successful partnership.

However, that wasn't always clear. In the early 1980s, there was still a lingering wariness among many Americans about the Japanese. "Buy American" was a common slogan.

For Toyota, it was not completely clear American workers could adapt to its manufacturing system and produce cars with few, if any, flaws. It was also not evident that Toyota could make the inroads into the market here to sell the cars that would be produced.

About 125,000 Japanese-made Camrys were selling in the U.S. at that time so this was a considerable ramp-up. Also, Toyota was late to join production in the U.S. Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Mitsubishi were already producing vehicles here.

In The End of Detroit, Micheline Maynard, a veteran reporter of the auto industry who now writes for The New York Times, wrote that Toyota's long view involved selecting Fujio Cho, a rising star in the company, to run the new plant. "Cho was determined to make Georgetown successful," she wrote.

As were the Kentuckians who got jobs at the new plant.

Maynard tells this story: "Soon after the Georgetown plant opened, Northern Kentucky was paralyzed by a snowstorm that began during the day shift. Cho was not sure that enough workers would make it in for the night shift, so he asked for volunteers for a double assignment.

Virtually the entire shift offered to stay on, and to Cho's surprise nearly all the second shift showed up as well. Many of those workers drove in hours early because they were afraid they would be late."

In Kentucky, at least, American workers proved their value.

It's a great story that has yielded enormous wealth for Georgetown, Scott County, Central Kentucky and thousands of families.

Toyota is struggling to rebuild production after March's earthquake disrupted supply lines from Japanese parts manufacturers. The earthquake disruptions pushed first-quarter profits down 75 percent.

This setback came as the company was rebounding nicely from last year's recall crisis. In the midst of all those challenges, Toyota earlier this month pledged $1 million to tornado relief efforts in this country.

In state economic development discussions, we often hear about the importance of going after "another Toyota." But that's probably not the best lesson to learn from the successful quarter-century partnership between Toyota and Kentucky.

The elements of success include setting aside prejudices (on both sides), choosing the right people, working hard and investing for the long haul.

Congratulations, Toyota. Congratulations, Kentucky.