In 1987, Cheryl Jones was hired as an assembly group leader at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. and was sent to Japan to be trained. It was there, for the first time in her life, that she set foot in a factory and saw an assembly line.
Her thought: 'I'm not sure I'm going to be able to pull this off,' Jones recalled.
Just a few months earlier, Jones, 24, had been a customer service manager at a Kroger grocery store in Georgetown, Ky. She had started there as a cashier at age 16. But in 1987, she had just earned her associate's degree from a local community college and was looking for a change.
Then Toyota came to town.
Today, Jones is assistant general manager of the $4 billion factory's paint operations. Last year, when Georgetown launched the Sienna, the first minivan Toyota has built in-house, many of the startup responsibilities fell onto her shoulders as assistant general manager of assembly.
This is the story of one manager from the trenches of a new American automaker. But it could be the story of dozens of them.
For decades, General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. have pulled the best and brightest managers from generations of automotively inclined labor pools. The factories of Southeast Michigan alone offer hundreds of thousands of experienced auto workers, executives and part supplier managers to fill new management positions that come open.
But for the past decade and a half, the U.S. industry newcomers have coped with a different reality. The immediate opportunities they offered were often overshadowed by Big 3 security and prestige. The locations the new manufacturers chose were typically in rural settings, hundreds of miles from the Motor City. The Japanese and European companies that arrived often expected management recruits to do things differently from what they were accustomed to - for instance, wearing several hats around the factory and working closely with the shop floor. On top of that, the transplants themselves sometimes preferred management candidates who had no preconceived ideas about how auto plants are supposed to be run.
As a result, the new U.S. auto industry is populated today with managers who arrived on the scene with little more than a positive attitude.
Jones' grocery co-workers chided her for applying for a job at an auto plant, since she had no automotive experience. But she saw it as an opportunity to do something bigger in the small town. For her initial interview, Jones had her fingernails freshly painted. It occurred to her during the interview that this may have given the wrong impression.
'I don't have a problem getting my hands dirty,' she told her interviewers - explaining that she was used to rolling up her sleeves and helping bag groceries at Kroger.
Toyota put Jones in charge of a 24-person team. Over the next 10 years, she rose through the ranks. Today, she is in charge of two paint shops and about 900 people.
Jones is not the only one, says Toyota spokesman Tom Harris. 'Over 90 percent of our employees are Kentuckians with no automotive experience,' he says. In hiring its managers, or 'team leaders,' Toyota sought not credentials but a 'willingness to jump in and do whatever it takes' to get the job done.
At Honda of America Manufacturing in Marysville, Ohio, two of its better-known alums, Al Kinzer and Bob Simcox, had no auto manufacturing experience when they joined the company early on. Both rose to become plant managers and then senior vice presidents there. Simcox is now president of Benteler Automotive Corp. in Grand Rapids, Mich. Kinzer, now president of BMW Manufacturing Corp. in Spartanburg, S.C., helped that company set up shop in this country. Simcox came out of a shipyard. Kinzer began his career as the part-time mayor of Radford, Va.
Another need for managers in Marysville prompted Honda to hire two of its outside lawyers to serve as plant managers.
Tim Downing, 39, Honda's new-model group associate chief engineer and engineering project leader for the 1998 redesigned Accord, has a similar story. He joined Honda in 1982 from retailer G.C. Murphy Co., where he had worked since high school. When Downing left Murphy, he was in charge of new store development. At Honda, he started out in assembly.
Yet Downing recalls that during his Honda interview process, his lack of specific skills or preconceived notions of what manufacturing should be was a plus. The retail experience - which included constant customer interaction, on-the-job training and working within small groups - had prepared him well for the Honda experience. Tending to the details of opening new stores was similar to launching a new car, he says.
This outsider-making-good phenomenon is going on in many industries today, says John Kimberly, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. With ever-increasing levels of competition, Kimberly says, employers have to do things differently to build staffs. The old rule of promoting from within has been blown out of the water, Kimberly says.
But Christine Greeneisen, president of the Farmington Hills, Mich., management search firm Search Plus International, says that when the new auto manufacturers arrived, they hired green managers for more than rosy philosophical reasons. The transplants generally paid lower salaries, she argues. And with plants in far-flung places like Tennessee and Kentucky, they couldn't lure people away from Detroit.
Plus, says Greeneisen, there were - and still are - ceilings on advancement, with the real power positions remaining back in Japan or Germany.
But for others, the transplants represented a new career path.
'We had plenty of applications from the auto industry,' says Sam Heltman, vice president of administration at Toyota's Erlanger, Ky., U.S. manufacturing headquarters, Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America Inc. And Toyota did hire veterans from within the industry, Heltman says. But after a few years, there was what he calls a 'sorting out' process. Some of those management recruits decided Toyota's way was not the right way for them after all.
'The John Wayne, shoot-from-the-hip managers probably didn't like it,' Heltman says.
THE PEOPLE THING
Jones believes she was given a shot at Toyota management because the company 'looked at people and skills, not just a resume and a degree.'
Downing, too, believes that Honda recognized that 'if you're willing to apply yourself, you can accomplish anything.'
Heltman says that Toyota's most sought-after skill was character. 'We looked for the best fit, and we didn't begin with the assumption that the person who is the best fit comes from the auto industry,' he said. 'The technical skills are ones that can be learned if we find the person with the right character.'
But the question arises: Weren't the new manufacturers worried that handing the reins to inexperienced managers would result in costly mistakes in a highly technical world?
Jones believes she has flourished because Toyota let her make mistakes, especially during her training process. In the end, she better understood the way things work. Jones recalls of one trainer: 'Whenever you had a stumbling block, he'd ask you a question, then let you go back and think about it.'
Like many nontraditional managers at the transplants, Jones never anticipated getting into the auto business. Now she says she is addicted to the industry's fast pace and constant challenges.
'There is so much that goes into completing a vehicle,' she says. 'Once it gets in your blood, you love it.'