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2012-05-31

Toyota Texas transforms South San

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

San Antonio scored a coup when city fathers enticed Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas, Inc. to construct a manufacturing plant for Tundra and Tacoma pickups in the municipality's once impoverished South San section.

Likewise, it took local entrepreneur Gary Johnston two years to book a Toyota executive to speak at his annual Bandera Economic Development Luncheon. But, he finally prevailed at the 10th annual "economic summit," held Friday, May 11, at Brick's Riverside Café.

"This county faces two challenges in the coming years," Johnston said in his opening remarks. "We need to expand our leadership resources and identify and develop new leaders. And we need to provide decent jobs in this community that pay at least $30,000 and provide medical coverage and retirement benefits." He noted that Bandera's median per capita income is just $24,000.

Long finding it problematic that local high school graduates must leave the area to find jobs, Johnston said, "Our best resources are being outsourced."

Traditionally, the real estate mogul assembles a coterie of community movers and shakers to hear what other communities are doing to encourage business growth. And, Brandyn Moore, communications director for Toyota Texas, happily obliged Johnston, regarding the status of the car manufacturer and South San.

Construction on the TMMTX plant - designed to build full-sized Toyota Tundras - began in 2003. After a quick ramp up, pickup trucks began rolling off the line in 2006. In 2008, the plant was selected for the prestigious JD Powers Silver Plant Award. The award, which signifies exemplary quality, is rarely given to plants in the first year of production.

Things were rolling along, according to Moore. "Then - bam! - the 2008 recession hit. The economy went down and gas prices went up," Moore said.

In August 2008, the plant went off-line for three months. "However, during that time, no team members were let go. Some took early retirement and others were retrained." However, when Tacoma trucks began being built at Toyota Texas, the highly trained retired team members were re-hired.

Then, just as things were getting back to normal for the automaker, Toyota faced recalls in 2009 and 2010 due reports of a sticking accelerator pedals.

According to en.wikipedia.org, "In February 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) - in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) - released its findings from the investigation into the Toyota drive-by-wire throttle system. After a 10-month search NHTSA and NASA scientists found no electronic defect in Toyota vehicles.

Driver error or 'pedal misapplication' were found responsible for most of the accidents. The report ended stating, 'Our conclusion is Toyota's problems were mechanical, not electrical. This included sticking accelerator pedals, and pedals caught under floor mats'."

The carmaker's second bump in the road was behind it. "In June 2010, the Tacoma pickup began being built in San Antonio with one rolling off the lines every 65 seconds," Moore said, adding, "Then in 2011, the earthquake hit. It affected our production because some of our parts were parts from Japan."

However, despite a trio of significant setbacks, Toyota Texas has hit its stride at last, Moore said. "Since then, it's been full steam ahead. Now, the demand for our vehicles is back and our team members are working overtime."

Both Tundra and Tacoma pickups are produced on the same line, which is reconfigured as needed for the different pickups. Toyota Texas builds 800 trucks per day.

The full-sized Tundra is only manufactured in San Antonio. "Although at this point we have only a small share of this market, our sales outlook continues to climb," Moore said. "We have a large share of the market for the mid-sized Tacoma, which is 10 percent smaller than the Tundra by dimension and 30 percent smaller by overall size."

Moore continued, "We don't build a vehicle until an order comes in for it so we don't have a huge inventory out there."

Toyota Texas employs 5,500 team members who work two shifts. Since hiring practices mirror the population of South San Antonio, the majority of team members are Hispanic. Additionally, 30 percent of the employees are women. The plant covers 2,000 acres and employee amenities include a health clinic, pharmacy and dental care, among others.

Pay averages from $16 to $21 per hour, excluding benefits, and the Toyota plant is not unionized

With its emphasis on education, Toyota Texas sponsors high school students from the local school districts with a paid six-weeks internship programs. "We also donate trial vehicles produced after down time to high school automotive programs," Moore said. "Great jobs are available in our community and we want everyone to see Toyota Texas as a pathway to secure jobs."

At some point in the future, Johnston is hoping that Bandera County will also be in a position to offer its residents "A pathway to secure jobs."