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How will Toyota affect existing plants in region?

Toyota’s decision to locate an assembly plant in North Mississippi will have an effect on existing manufacturers there. Exactly how it will affect them remains to be seen.

One of the closest plants to the Toyota site at Blue Springs along U.S. 78 is EPI LLC, a plastics firm in Sherman. That plant is approximately four miles from where more than 300 acres of land is currently being cleared for the $1.3-billion Toyota plant.

“We make injection molds for various industries, such as lawnmowers,” said Renee Talbert, EPI’s plant controller.
Since many parts of cars are plastic, one might think Toyota would find a plant like EPI close by a ready-made asset. Talbert isn’t so sure.

“I would hope EPI would get some business but rumor says Toyota brings its own suppliers with it,” said Talbert. The plastics firm employs 60 in what she terms is a somewhat seasonal business since lawn equipment demand increases in spring and summer, falling off as cooler weather ensues.

So far, Talbert said, EPI officials “have not discussed” any potential labor issues once Toyota begins its hiring of approximately 2,000 employees to assemble the Highlander sport utility vehicles planned for the massive facility.

Talbert admitted that EPI employees’ skill sets “could translate” to the skills the automaker needs. They might be the type of worker Toyota will be seeking when it begins the hiring process sometime in the early part of 2008. Operating injection-mold machinery — and maintaining it — requires a degree of technical skill and ability.

Dale Manning, president and owner of Leather Works in New Albany, doesn’t worry about Toyota’s eventual labor needs. Currently employing 14, a quarter of what he employed prior to Chinese incursion into his cut-and-sew process, Manning is taking something of a wait-and-see approach.

“Losing employees is probably going to be a concern, but I’m not concerned about a mass exodus,” said Manning. “My employees have been here a long time. They don’t make $20 an hour, but they make good money.”

As Chinese imports have eaten into his market base, Manning has naturally retained his best employees, some of whom came on board when the company was founded in 1995, even as others departed.

“Toyota’s bar will be higher than in the furniture industry,” Manning related.

Manning said that larger furniture companies such as Action, Lane and Ashley could be more at risk for losing employees to Toyota.

He related that the automaker’s hiring process will begin with an aptitude test. Those passing the test will be brought together in teams to be tested in problem solving. The ones successful at that exercise will then, and only then, be granted an interview for a Toyota position.

“A lot of furniture employees are not going to qualify,” said Manning.

Manning added that he doesn’t expect there to be much opportunity for Leather Works in Toyota’s move to the area. He does, however, think Toyota will precipitate an improvement in his other business, a retail lawn equipment sales and service enterprise. “We could see an increase,” he said.

He bases that prediction on people moving into the area — as many as 2,000 people could be employed by Toyota suppliers locating in the areas surrounding the Blue Springs site — and buying houses and the lawn equipment to maintain them.
Rusty Berryhill, co-owner of Kevin Charles Fine Upholstery in New Albany, employs 93 to make his medium-priced living room furniture.

“Am I worried Toyota is going to get all the good associates?” Berryhill asked. “No. This is a win-win situation.”

Berryhill stands on his own record of the relationship he maintains with his employees, which he calls associates. “We treat our associates well,” Berryhill said. “We have a good, clean working environment, we pay above average and our benefits are comparable to other companies’.

“We are not intimidated. We value our associates.”
He reports Kevin Charles “is already doing what Toyota says they’re going to be doing.”

Berryhill said there are “a lot of factors” that will come along with Toyota’s move into the area, most all of them positive. He anticipates that the Japanese firm’s commitment to improving education will have a “trickle-down” effect on his company and employees.

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