In the 1990s, Nissan cars and trucks were rarely exciting. But they were well-made and inexpensive. Manufacturing chief Jerry Benefield fed America's desire for high-quality cars.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1980
Role: CEO, Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A.
Key influence: Ran efficient U.S. factories that churned out high-quality cars and trucks for Americans increasingly disenchanted with vehicles from Detroit.
Jerry Benefield made that happen.
As CEO of Nissan's wholly owned American manufacturing subsidiary, Benefield operated the automaker's sole U.S. plant as an independent profit center from 1988 until his retirement in 2000.
Benefield, a cigar-chewing Georgian with a love for horses and cowboy boots, kept his eye on his mission during significant expansion. He was trained by Ford Motor Co., and he built Nissans for consumers disappointed by vehicles from Detroit.
Output at his Smyrna, Tenn., plant grew from about 205,000 vehicles a year when he took over the job from Marvin Runyon in 1988 to a peak of 465,786 in 1995. Smyrna routinely was spotlighted as North America's most productive auto plant by the annual industry monitor, the Harbour Report.
“We wanted to build cars cheaper than the competition,” a 68-year-old Benefield explains today. “And to do that, you need motivated people who could be flexible in how they did their jobs.”
And that, Benefield notes, meant maintaining a nonunion work force at Smyrna.
“We didn't hate the unions,” emphasizes Benefield, who had previously been manager of Ford's Dearborn, Mich., assembly plant. “We just felt like they would make it harder for us to move forward. With a union, in order to fix a problem on the line, you had to have five guys show up to take care of it. Our people were trained to identify a problem and take care of it themselves. So we were able to operate with a lot less people.”
He asked for a 4 to 5 percent annual productivity gain — but no more. One manager recalls being told to scale back a more aggressive plan to avoid irritating workers.
Benefield made it clear that workers would not suffer the consequences of improved efficiency. Even if an associate figured out how to eliminate his job, there must be a new one waiting.
Benefield also maintained an unspoken agreement with employees that Nissan wouldn't lay them off when production volumes sagged. During one spring slowdown, Benefield ran workers through training classes to keep them busy. Later, in the company's first UAW election at the plant, workers rejected the union by a 2-1 ratio. Ten years after that, the work force rejected unionization by an even wider vote.
“I always thought Americans could build cars as well as anybody, and I think we proved that,” Benefield says, summing up his 12 years. “What attracted a lot of us to work at Nissan — management and hourly people — was the chance to create a new auto company, which is something you rarely get to do. We did things in some new ways. And looking back, you'd have to admit it all went pretty smoothly.”
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at email@example.com.