GEORGETOWN, Ky. (WDRB) – Susan Elkington recalls being “scared to death” when she became a production manager at Toyota’s Princeton, Ind. plant while still in her early 30s, overseeing 110 line workers on the night shift.
An introvert who grew up on a farm in Huntingburg, Ind. (population 6,057), Elkington drew on the planning skills she learned as a mechanical engineer.
She made a schedule of workers to get to know each night, and within three months, she had learned every employee’s first name and a little bit about each, she said.
“So as I came into the production area, it was like working with family and friends, and that is one of the things that I think has been important for me to be successful,” she said.
Elkington, 46, said she still tries to apply that personal touch, even though her role has grown: She now leads Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky. plant and more than 8,000 employees.
On the cusp of her 20th year with the Japanese automaker, Elkington became president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky Inc. last week, succeeding Wil James, who retired after holding the plant’s top job since 2010.
She is the first female president in the plant’s 30-year history.
Elkington’s promotion is another milestone for gender equality in the traditionally male-dominated auto industry, said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with Autotrader.com.
“Mary Barra (the CEO of General Motors) was a huge breakthrough for women and maybe is prodding other automakers to focus more on diversity,” Krebs said. “Frankly, Toyota has been a laggard.”
For her part, Elkington said she wants to be an example for women and girls getting into scientific fields. She noted that one of her daughters, Leah Eckert, is about to start working at the Princeton plant after graduating from the University of Louisville’s Speed School of Engineering.
“I always want it to be known that I got my position because of my skill, but I know other women look towards me,” Elkington said.
From Indiana to Kentucky, via Japan
The Georgetown plant, which opened in 1988, was the first of Toyota’s 14 North American factories and remains its largest in the world – covering the equivalent of 169 football fields in Scott County, about 20 miles north of Lexington.
Its primary product, the Camry, has been the United States’ best-selling sedan for the last 16 years.
“This facility is Toyota’s success of saying, ‘We can produce in the United States – or probably any other country,’” Elkington said.
It’s the automaker’s “flagship” plant, Elkington said. And she should know.
Before becoming a vice president at the Georgetown facility a year ago, Elkington spent three years at the automaker’s headquarters in Japan in a role overseeing production control at the 53 Toyota plants worldwide. (Again, she was the first woman in that job).
She said she visited more than 200 plants, supplier factories and other worksites – from South Africa to Argentina to France to Indonesia.
The global gig came after Elkington rose through the ranks at Toyota’s Princeton, Ind. plant, where she started around the plant’s founding in 1998, five years after graduating from the University of Evansville with a mechanical engineering degree.
In Elkington’s first supervisory job overseeing the plant’s industrial maintenance crew, she recalls asking a male employee why he didn’t speak up in meetings.
“‘Well ma’am, I have never worked for a female before and I don’t know what to say,’” she recalled him saying.
Elkington said she told the man to say whatever he would say to a male boss, and she would let him know if he “crossed the line.” The two had a “great relationship” from then on, she said.
Investments visible at Georgetown plant
Toyota’s recent investment spree in Georgetown is visible, including the construction of a new paint shop – where vehicles are painted after rolling off the line.
Inside the plant, Toyota is in the midst of $1.3 billion conversion of its production system with new equipment in a smaller area. The “new global architecture” system will result in a more flexible way of building vehicles, according to executives.
Elkington calls it the most significant upgrade to the plant’s equipment in 20 years.
Yet, despite the investment, Elkington’s predecessor, James, made national news in November when he told employees in a video that the plant needs to cut costs because it’s cheaper for Toyota to build a Camry in Japan and to import it to the U.S., than to build one in Georgetown.
“I’m not sharing this to scare you, but to heighten your awareness of the current risk we now have,” he said, according to Bloomberg, which obtained the video.
Elkington said part of the cost gap has to do with a stronger U.S. dollar that has increased the relative cost of producing a car in the United States, compared with Japan.
“We have to challenge ourselves – no matter what that exchange rate is – to be competitive,” she said.
She added that the plant is relying on employees to suggest ways to improve the operation and to defray the increased costs of the new manufacturing platform, but there is no imminent risk to jobs.
“If you ever get to the point where a team member has fear that they are going to lose their job, why would they ever give a suggestion?,” she said. “…That’s just not the right thing to do.”
Shift away from sedans a challenge
Elkington, however, acknowledged that industry trends aren’t favoring the kind of vehicles built in Georgetown, which raises questions about the direction of the plant.
While more than 80 percent of the plant’s production is the Camry (and its hybrid version), workers here also make the more upscale Toyota Avalon and the Lexus ES 350, which was added in 2015.
All are sedans, and sales of each model fell last year amid a years-long shift in consumer tastes: small-and mid-sized sport utility vehicles are in, and traditional cars are out.
“It’s not just a U.S. shift; it is a global shift,” said Krebs, of Autotrader.com.
She said younger car buyers like the higher seating position and increased cargo space offered by crossovers and small SUVs, and those vehicles get about the same gas mileage as cars.
“Even if there is a bit of fuel economy penalty and a higher price, (consumers) think it’s worth it,” she said.
While the Camry remains the top sedan in the U.S., it was overtaken in 2017 by Toyota’s RAV4 compact SUV as the nation’s best-selling vehicle, excluding pickup trucks, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
“The sedan market is decreasing, and that has had an impact on our production volume here (in Georgetown),” Elkington said.
The Georgetown plant is currently running about 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles short of its capacity of 550,000 a year, said Rick Hesterberg, a Toyota spokesman.
Elkington’s solution? She hopes to convince Toyota to add another vehicle to the Georgetown mix.
The change to Toyota’s “new global architecture” platform will help the plant’s case, Elkington said, as more space will be available and it will be “even easier” for the production lines to handle multiple models.
She declined to say which vehicle would be a good fit for the plant, and she noted it could take two years to start production once a new product is announced.
“That plant needs an SUV,” Krebs said.