Toyota plant to mark milestone
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller thinks about the years-long fight to bring the Toyota plant to Putnam County, he remembers the bridge.
After almost 10 visits to Japan to meet with Toyota Motor Corp. officials in the 1980s and 1990s, building the Buffalo Bridge was key to bringing Toyota to West Virginia, Rockefeller said recently.
The senator remembered the battle as he prepared to mark the 10 millionth power-train unit rolling off the Buffalo facility's assembly line. The ceremony is set for 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia plant in Buffalo.
When they were considering where to build the plant, Toyota officials asked to be near Interstate 64, Rockefeller said. The world's largest automaker wanted to have easier access to its Kentucky plant. State and county development officials said the bridge would make the site more attractive to companies.
But state highways officials didn't know how quickly a bridge could be built. Former Highways Commissioner Fred VanKirk told the county transportation committee in 1995 -- the year before Toyota broke ground on its Buffalo site -- that the project wouldn't get started for another 25 or 30 years.
As it turns out, the bridge was built in three years -- a fact Rockefeller credits largely to former Gov. Gaston Caperton. It crosses the Kanawha River, connects U.S. 35 and W.Va. 62 and provides faster access to I-64, which is 12 miles away from the Buffalo plant.
Toyota opened a $400 million engine plant and hired 300 people.
"They're very I-64 conscious, so we literally built them a bridge, which made all the difference in the world," Rockefeller said of Toyota. "It tied them into I-64 psychologically, but it was a big thing for West Virginia to say 'we want you here' or otherwise we wouldn't have built them a bridge because bridges are expensive."
On Wednesday, Rockefeller and Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda, former chairman of Toyota Motor Corp., are expected to meet to celebrate production of the Buffalo plant's 10 millionth unit.
This is the first time Toyoda, a friend of the U.S. senator, has traveled from Japan to visit the plant since its opening. He and his wife are having dinner at Rockefeller's South Hills home this week, the senator said.
Rockefeller said maintaining a good relationship with Toyoda since he formally met the then-chairman in January 1986 has been a priority of his. And a reason their respectful relationship -- and Toyota, for that matter -- is where it is today.
"After my first meeting with Dr. Toyoda, I look at that and I don't think what a long time that was, I think what a productive time that was," Rockefeller said. "With this 10 millionth unit, that's going to startle and make a lot of people in West Virginia say 'wow.'
"For me, it's profoundly satisfying because it's something I set out to do, but I couldn't set out with the idea that it was going to end up happily."
When Toyota announced it would build a manufacturing plant in West Virginia in the mid-1990s, 25,000 people applied for 300 jobs.
The Buffalo plant employs almost 1,200 workers today, nearly quadruple its opening-day employment.
West Virginians from 47 of the state's 55 counties have worked at Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia to build transmissions for Toyota Avalon, Camry, Sienna and Venza, and the Lexus RX 350, according to the company. The factory also manufactures four- and six-cylinder engines for several Toyota models.
The Harbour Report ranked the manufacturing plant -- which produced the first automatic transmission outside Japan -- the most productive engine plant in the United States from 2004 to 2011.
"It turned out our workforce was ideal for them because they were, and still are, hardworking," Rockefeller said. "They have always been happy with our workforce, and so that sounds promising to me."
The Putnam County plant announced its seventh expansion in March 2012. The company will spend $45 million to add 80 jobs and increase its production of six-speed automatic transmissions from about 400,000 to 520,000.
Toyota has invested more than $1.2 billion in West Virginia since 1996, making it the largest industrial investment in West Virginia in the last 50 years, according to the senator.
Rockefeller, who drives a Toyota Sequoia, said the Buffalo plant has been a huge economic engine for the state. More than 20 other Japanese companies have opened businesses in West Virginia since Toyota started making engines, he said.
"We had no idea it was going to expand and expand," Rockefeller said. "This is one of the biggest diversifications that has ever happened here because we didn't make cars before.
"If Toyota puts a plant in your state, you're a good state because it's like a stamp of approval."
Receiving a stamp of approval from the Japanese businessmen took time, Rockefeller said.
To do "something really major" in West Virginia like he set out to do, Rockefeller had to travel on numerous trade missions to Japan and encourage the Japanese to take mission trips to the U.S.
While every American state in the 1980s had commercial offices in Tokyo, Rockefeller chose Nagoya. As the first state to locate there, West Virginia got free office space in return, he said.
He ate at the oldest restaurant in Nagoya -- at least 800 years old, he guessed -- to form the necessary relationships to sell West Virginia to the Japanese company.
It's all part of the deal, he said.
"You fold yourself into their tradition and ways," Rockefeller recalled, "I sort of knew we were getting into a long-haul, 10-year project then.
"The Japanese are very shrewd in that they hold their cards very close to their vest and are always polite. You constantly work to show how much you want them there and that's why the time I spent there was very important."
As for Toyota's 18 years of successful business in West Virginia?
"I loved the process of it all. And it's not politics or campaign contributions -- it's cold, hard analysis on the part of a major Japanese company to think 'What is it going to be like to do business in West Virginia?' and it turns out they really like what they got."
Reach Megan Workman at email@example.com or 304-348-5113.