BLUE SPRINGS – Last week, Toyota Mississippi quietly reached a significant landmark: five years of production.
There was no big celebration to mark the occasion, however. That will come next year, when Toyota recognizes the 10-year anniversary of its initial announcement that Blue Springs would be the site of its eighth North American manufacturing plant.
“Reaching our fifth year of production is a major milestone,” said Sean Suggs, Toyota Mississippi vice president of manufacturing. “It shows the growth and success of team members on many levels. From going through a complete model change to producing 500,000 vehicles in record time to winning our first J.D. Power award, our team members have seen the vehicle and production process in every lifecycle and they have grown exponentially.”
While the Great Recession delayed the original opening date of the plant by a couple of years, Toyota didn’t slow down once it got the plant up and running five years ago.
In February 2015, the facility built its 500,000th Corolla, reaching the half-million production mark faster than any of the other Toyota plants in North America.
Sometime late next year, the one millionth Corolla will roll off the line at Toyota Mississippi, which already cranks out a car every 71 seconds.
And American car buyers continue to love the Corolla as well. Through September, Toyota has sold more than 289,000 Corollas, which is 3 percent higher than last year.
The Corolla also is produced in Canada, and in 2015, Toyota sold a total of 363,332 of the vehicles made in both facilities.
Last year’s results were the third-most in its history, surpassed only by 2006 (387,388 sold) and 2007 (371,390). It also was the third consecutive year more than 300,000 Corollas were sold.
Clearly, the Corolla is as popular as ever, and the 2,000 team members at Toyota Mississippi have been doing their part to ensure quality also is tied to quantity.
This year, the Corolla took the top spot in the compact car category in the J.D. Power U.S. Initial Quality Study.
“This accomplishment is possible because of the dedicated team members at Toyota Mississippi who are committed to quality every day,” said Masa Hamaguchi, Toyota Mississippi president. “We love Corolla.”
Changing the landscape
The arrival of Toyota brought a new industry to the area, which has long been a bastion of upholstered furniture manufacturing.
Automotive manufacturing was part of a long-term plan to diversify the economy, and Toyota has raised the level of expectations for and of many.
“First, they have fulfilled the promise they made when they announced, which is hire 2,000 people and invest nearly $1 billion in capital,” said David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation. “You always want to seek people who will fulfill their promises, and they’ve carried that over in the community with their involvement.”
Perhaps one of Toyota’s biggest impacts is the expansion of the famed Toyota Way, which is the foundation for it’s famous lean production method called the Toyota Production System. While lean manufacturing isn’t a new concept, Toyota’s arrival has raised the level of awareness of it.
“The hospital (North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo) has even done a Toyota Production System evaluation of the emergency room, and several companies have tutored under TPS,” Rumbarger said.
Mississippi is home to two automotive OEMs (original equipment manufacturers): Nissan in Canton and Toyota in Blue Springs. That’s a feather in the cap of not only Northeast Mississippi, but the entire Magnolia State, Rumbarger said.
“It makes all of Mississippi proud to have an OEM that builds the world’s most popular car,” he said.
The best is yet to come, Rumbarger said of Toyota.
Noting a 2007 visit to Georgetown, Kentucky, where Toyota built its first North American plant in 1984, Rumbarger recalled officials hammering home the idea that the community’s growth tied to Toyota took time.
“What we found was the real strides the community made were made in the fourth to seventh year. We’re in the middle of that here,” Rumbarger said. “They’re in the schools, they’re sponsoring teams, they’re in every philanthropic event … they have been involved in so many things during the first five years of production, I can’t wait to see what the next five years will bring.
“Toyota has distinguished themselves by their own right,” Rumbarger added. “Everybody is experiencing a tight labor market, and in that situation you’re looking for stars. Certainly Toyota leads the way in those stars.”
More than building cars
While their production numbers speak volumes, it’s what employees do away from the plant that also is impressive.
Since 2011, they’ve volunteered more than 20,000 hours for community projects. They helped build the Toyota-Blue Springs Water Garden and Education Park in Blue Springs, and every year, hundreds of volunteers have worked on beautification and restoration projects at area schools, parks and the Natchez Trace.
“Our team members are smart, honest, loyal and giving,” said Mike Botkin, vice president of administration. “They volunteer their time and resources to improve the quality of life in local communities; they are truly our life line and the backbone to our success.”
Toyota Mississippi also has given nearly $3 million in grants to community organizations across Northeast Mississippi. It’s also donated 46 cars to local community colleges, vocational programs and emergency management agencies.
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