By NASH NUNNERY
Nearly three years ago, Yokohama Tire Corp. president Hikomitsu Noji compared his company’s relationship with Mississippi to “a marriage…and we are proud parents of our first child.”
That “child”, officially known as Yokohama Tire Manufacturing Mississippi, is now a toddler. The $300 million commercial tire manufacturing facility, built on a 570-acre site carved out of pasture land to the northeast of downtown West Point, has brought hope to the city and Clay County residents.
“It’s been all positive and we couldn’t be more pleased with having Yokohama here,” said West Point mayor Robbie Robinson. “There’s always hiccups with any new venture and there have been some. When they chose to build the facility here, it was like we hit the lottery.
“West Point and Clay County are very happy.”
Before Yokohama’s arrival, the county suffered with one of the highest unemployment rates (22 percent) in the state following the closure of the iconic Bryan Foods plant in 2007. Sara Lee, Bryan’s parent company, laid off the last 1,200 of Bryan’s shrinking workforce, with another 1,500 jobs indirectly affected.
After an exhaustive year-long search of over 3,000 sites in 48 states, Yokohama selected West Point as the location for its first ‘built from scratch’ U.S. facility in 2013. The company then engaged in an accelerated construction schedule to bring Yokohama Tire Manufacturing Mississippi’s massive plant to fruition in October 2015.
The tipping point for Yokohama officials to choose West Point, according to Joe Max Higgins, involved a rented helicopter ride over the razed Bryan Foods plant during a critical stage in the selection process.
Higgins, the energetic, pull-no-punches CEO of the Golden Triangle Development LINK, said Yokohama officials had narrowed their choices to Alabama, South Carolina and West Point. He related to the Yokohama team during the final visit that four generations of West Pointers had toiled for Bryan Foods/Sara Lee.
“The Yokohama president told me ‘I want to see Sara Lee’ and we loaded up in the helicopter we’d rented for the day and took three or four passes over the demolished site”, said Higgins. “After the fourth pass, the man just looked at me and nodded without a word. There was an emotional connection.
“I knew at that moment that we’d landed Yokohama.”
Five years later, Yokohama Tire Manufacturing Mississippi boasts 650 full-time employees, exceeding the promised 500 workers to be hired during Phase 1. The company has invested $300 million in the project, but three additional proposed expansions would add another 1,500 jobs.
Though he can’t comment on sales figures, Yokohama senior director for new plant development Alan Easome says customers are “extremely happy” that the company has a plant in the U.S. to provide truck tire needs.
“The future of Yokohama Tire Manufacturing Mississippi is bright,” said Easome. “We are happy to call West Point home and look forward to many years ahead as a corporate neighbor.”
Dan Funkhouser, Yokohama’s vice-president of commercial sales added that the addition of the West Point plant is critical to the company’s continued growth in North America.
“The commercial tire market is very strong and growing,” he said. “Both the replacement and OEM tire markets are expanding. This fits in perfectly with the Mississippi plant, which will increase our capabilities to service our OEM and replacement partners as they grow.”
Higgins, who’s been credited with bringing over 6,000 jobs to the Golden Triangle and was once featured as an economic development ‘miracle worker’ on CBS news magazine ’60 Minutes’, couldn’t be happier with Yokohama and what the company has brought to the region.
“There was a learning curve to start, but they’ve met all their obligations with us,” Higgins said. “Just look around West Point. There’s now a Love’s Travel Stop, Burger King, wellness center, and hotels being built. Peco Foods announced a couple of months ago they’re constructing a $40 million chicken processing plant and hiring 300 workers.
“I think West Point and Clay County have turned the corner.”
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