On October 12, Dave Boyer walked out of his office at the Nissan North America automotive assembly plant in Canton for the last time as vice president of manufacturing. The smile on his face was hard to miss.
After completing a 39-year career in manufacturing management, the 61-year-old vice president of manufacturing for Nissan was retiring from his post and handing the reins to Dan Bednarzyk, former director of engineering and maintenance at the Canton plant.
Boyer, a former Ford Motor Company manager who joined Nissan in 1991 as a department manager in product quality at the automaker’s assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., moved to Central Mississippi in February 2002 to lead what is arguably the world’s most efficient automotive assembly operation. He oversaw the Canton plant’s production rollout in May 2003 and product lines including Nissan Titan and Armada full-size trucks, Nissan Altima sedan, Nissan Quest minivan and Infiniti QX56 full-size luxury sports-utility vehicle.
“Dave had a critical role in establishing the Canton plant from its beginning,” said Bill Krueger, senior vice president of manufacturing, purchasing and supply chain management. “We appreciate his many contributions to Canton’s success and the leadership he has demonstrated in central Mississippi.”
The Mississippi Business Journal caught up with Boyer to talk about the state’s foray into automotive manufacturing, the daunting task of hiring thousands of employees unskilled in automotive assembly processes and other challenges. He candidly discussed some missteps along the way, and shared his new daily plans.
Mississippi Business Journal: Congratulations on a job well done. How was your last week on site?
Dave Boyer: Take my word for it, I’m smiling. I’ve been mostly helping Dan transition — and I’ve talked to a lot of people. I appreciate all the good words I’ve heard, but that works both ways. I want to thank the community and the local governments. No matter what we did here, we received a huge level of support. My thanks go out to everybody for supporting Nissan.
MBJ: It was such a monumental task to get the plant constructed and into production, including the expansion announced even before production began. What drove you through all those 17- and 18-hour days?
DB: When I look back on it now, it was even more challenging than I realized at the time. It was really more a matter of pride to get it done. We all knew we were doing something that had never been tried before in the history of the automobile business — getting so many production lines going at the same time. It was a challenge. It took a lot of work and the credit doesn’t go to me, but rather all the people involved. I just happened to be the guy who was vice president. We were an ordinary group — no ex-astronauts, no Olympians — but we were chasing a gold medal of another sort, and we’re all real proud of our accomplishments. It took a lot of sacrifice and determination, but we did it and did it well, and we can all be proud of it for the rest of our lives.
MBJ: Did you ever think: how did I get here?
DB: It has to be destiny or luck that got me here. I’ve been in the car business all my life. Even as a child, I was fascinated by cars. To be able to get an assignment like this was an absolute cap to a career that I could never have dreamt of. What an opportunity. I’m just a real fortunate guy.
MBJ: What was the greater challenge, getting the technicalities and quality control worked out or cultivating within all the employees the team approach to making the plant successful?
DB: The team part wasn’t difficult. We hired a lot of good people. That came together on its own. We do some things in the way we run the company to enhance teamwork like talking with and listening to everybody. The communication goes two ways — from the floor up and from the office down. It’s all about communicating. You take good people and put systems in place. It happened quickly without a lot of difficulty.
The hardest part is when you turn on all the equipment, getting it to work — and to work in sequence. There were a lot of people anxious to get things going and they may have thought they understood some things and they may have pressed a wrong button here or there and the next thing you know, we had a problem. That’s part of learning. But we teach here that it’s okay to make mistakes. The idea is to learn from the mistake and not put yourself in a position to do it again.
The way this plant is designed, it runs in sequence all the way through, so any stop any place affects everybody. To get that coordination all the way through and to get everything running at the same time was the issue. It took a while for that to happen, but that would be the same challenge no matter who was doing it, or where it was being done.
MBJ: Before the Nissan plant opened in Canton, folks in Michigan were fond of saying things like “they can’t build cars down there” and when there were a few glitches to begin with, there was a lot of “told you so.” What do you say to manufacturing leaders around the country about the workforce here?
DB: What I remember back then from reading some of the automotive papers and magazines — “either they’ve got a secret or they’re crazy as hell.” We didn’t have any secrets and I certainly don’t think we were crazy. We were very optimistic about what we had to do. We had no secret other than the way to do business, which was simply the right way, from a team standpoint.
What would I say to those people now? We did do it, and it came out great, and it happened because there were a lot of hardworking, optimistic people who made it happen. I’m the kind of guy who, if you tell me what I can’t do, I’m damn sure going to make sure I do it to prove you’re wrong. That’s what we did.
The workforce part of it has been a challenge sometimes, but also a lot of fun. Other than the 40 guys we brought down from Smyrna, pretty much everybody we hired knew nothing about this business. We spent a lot of time and effort training people. To see them come in not knowing what was going on and beginning to learn and mature and take pride in what they were doing has probably been the greatest work experience of my life. That’s what I’m proudest of.
MBJ: You’ve had many milestones since the plant began production. Which one is dearest to you?
DB: The very first vehicle launched. What that signified was that every person and everything came together to hit that one point. When you talk about all the complex systems and processes that are here — and there’s thousands of them — they all had to come together to get that first one to come off the line. That’s monumental. Once that’s done, you’re off and running. Not that the other launches didn’t have their troubles because each one presented new issues, but that first one was the toughest and most important because it made all the other ones easier. The launch of the last line was important, too, because you realize, we did it five times and got it done.
MBJ: A facility can go into a location, get into production and quietly go about its business. But you’ve seen to it that employees, management and especially you have been very involved in community development and giving back to the metro area. Why has that been such an important part of your efforts?
DB: There are a couple of reasons for that. One is this company’s belief that our people are our most valuable resource. We really mean that. Without good people putting their hands on every vehicle every day, there wouldn’t be a job for the rest of us. Building a vehicle is what this plant is all about. Those people and their families are important to us. It’s our obligation to support the community and our employees because they’re really one and the same.
Our corporate philosophy has been to be good corporate citizens. We support education at all levels. Not only do we say it, but we put up the money, as well. Also, our employees have big hearts. They sent three truckloads of relief to the victims of Katrina. We have two blood drives here every year, totally voluntary. This year, we’re the biggest supplier of blood in the entire State of Mississippi. We’ve built several Habitat for Humanity houses. Our employees — and the company itself — give between $400,000 and $500,000 to United Way every year.
MBJ: You and your family plan to continue living here after you retire. What are you going to do with your days?
DB: I’m going to kick back. I used to take good care of myself by going to the gym every day. When I came to this project, there wasn’t enough time to do that. The little time I did have was for the family. I cheated them a lot.
I’m going to stay active in the community, at least on a couple of boards, for sure MEC (Mississippi Economic Council). Even though I may not be working here, I have a lot of friends here and I’ll stay in touch with them constantly.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.