Gamble in rural Ohio pays off big
Honda's flexible, efficient Marysville plant began with inexperienced farmhands
Workers and managers wore white uniforms, a symbol of Honda's one-team philosophy. Honda described employees as associates. Each was trained for multiple jobs.
Many employees, including managers, were plucked from the farms that surround Marysville in central Ohio. Most had no manufacturing experience.
Even the plant itself was different: Under one roof were metal stamping, welding, painting, plastic injection molding and, ultimately, two final assembly lines.
In 1982, Honda's critics questioned whether American workers could build the same high-quality products that Japanese workers assemble. Honda took a risk, they said, by setting up shop in rural Ohio and hiring people with little or no experience building cars.
Not only has the Marysville Auto Plant proved its detractors wrong, but it also has evolved into one of the most flexible and consistently efficient assembly plants in the United States.
The plant, which churned out 55,337 Accords during its first full year of production in 1983, assembled 459,700 cars and light trucks in 2008.
Honda laid the foundation for its assembly plant by first building a motorcycle factory in 1979 on the same site. That gave Honda three years' experience working with and training Americans before the Marysville Auto Plant began mass production.
Brad Alty, one of the motorcycle plant's Original 64: Honda “believed in us.”
When the first Accord -- a gray four-door sedan -- was driven off the assembly line, Honda became the first Japanese auto manufacturer to produce cars in the United States. More than 26 years later, Marysville still is assembling the Accord, now in its eighth generation. But today the car is on the same line with the Acura RDX crossover and Acura TL sports sedan.
In stark contrast to other U.S. auto plants, Marysville began production without employees represented by the UAW. It remains a nonunion plant.
The absence of a union was an important factor in drawing Brad Alty to work for Honda -- first in the motorcycle plant as one of the so-called Original 64 and then in the auto plant as it prepared to launch the Accord.
"I've never had a problem speaking my mind, and I'm darn sure not going to pay somebody to speak for me," said Alty, who today is a senior staff administrator in the auto plant. "So that meant a lot to me that there wasn't a union."
The Original 64 included 53 Americans, the first hires for the motorcycle plant. When combined with the first 11 Japanese, they became known as the Original 64.
"When we first started building motorcycles, we saw it as a challenge and a gamble based on what we heard from the outside -- that we would never make it, that Americans couldn't produce Honda quality," Alty recalled. "The majority of us were just a bunch of farm boys. But farmers know how to work. We were going to survive, we were going to make it, and we were going to show them.
"So when they announced that they were going to build this place, it was a bit of victory for us. They believed in us."Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. was created to operate the Marysville Motorcycle Plant, which began production in September 1979, and the Marysville Auto Plant. Honda arrived during difficult times.
"I think times were kind of tough in the '70s, and I think a lot of us appreciated the fact that somebody like Honda picked our community and helped us probably survive," said Sam Harpest, manager of the Marysville Auto Plant.
Harpest was 30 when he joined Honda in 1983 in the welding department, leaving a farming partnership with his father. Of the many plant milestones achieved in his 26 years, none was more gratifying than that first Accord sedan leaving the assembly line, he said.
"That was the most important because we knew we could do it," Harpest said. "Then when [Honda of America Manufacturing] had faith in us to build a second assembly line -- by doing that, it showed it had a lot of confidence in our products."
Harpest cited other achievements, including the addition of the Accord hatchback, coupe and wagon models; retaining Accord production for more than 26 years; the continual plant improvements to keep the aging factory modern and flexible; and landing the Acura TL and RDX.
Said Harpest: "Change is constant here. I don't see that stopping, but it did slow down due to the economy. But that gives us a chance to reset ourselves."