BOAZ, Ala. -- The name on the mailbox still reads "Lee Apparel Co.," as though textile workers still were inside sewing blue jeans.
TS Tech Inc., a Honda-controlled producer of seating, is spending $9 million to gut the old blue jeans building and install sophisticated conveyers and assembly tooling to begin supplying the Honda Odyssey minivan late this year. The old plant closed in 1998, throwing hundreds of mostly female textile workers in this rural east Alabama county out of work. In the past three years, the county has lost 2,000 textile jobs. But now, an auto industry eruption in the region is promising to take its economy in a new direction.
The traditional U.S. auto sector may be downsizing, but its international competitors are in full throttle. In small towns along the Alabama-Georgia state line, in farm communities across southern Tennessee and southern Indiana, human resource managers are recruiting thousands of U.S. autoworkers.
"We see big things coming for Mississippi," says J.C. Burns Jr., that state's executive director of economic development. "We don't know what the numbers will be, but we know this has to mean a lot of new jobs for some of our counties that need them."
Nissan North America Inc.'s plan to invest $935 million in Canton, Miss., will transform that area, Burns predicts. "But we're also having conversations with 22 different suppliers about sites in the state."
Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. has begun hiring the first of 2,000 workers for its expansion in Vance, Ala.
Just 43 miles from TS Tech, Honda Manufacturing Alabama Inc. is training 2,000 workers to build Odyssey minivans.
Nissan is hiring 1,000 at its factories in Decherd and Smyrna, Tenn., in addition to the 4,000 it will hire in central Mississippi.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America now needs 350 workers from North Alabama and 2,000 more from south Indiana.
BMW is hiring the last 400 of the 1,400 additional workers it needs to expand production in Greer, S.C.
But all of these hiring waves - and all of those that will follow as dozens of suppliers recruit their work forces over the next 24 months - are taking place not in the big cities of the South, but in small towns and rural settings where 350 workers constitute a major economic force.
In the 1980s, this practice of building greenfield plants in far-removed locations from the industry center raised doubts and suspicions. Critics accused the New American Manufacturers of selecting Southern sites simply to avoid the UAW. Whether or not that motivated or continues to motivate site selections, it is true that the vast majority of international automotive companies who came here in the past two decades are non-union.
And some onlookers speculated that rural workers would have a tough time matching the quality and efficiency levels that made Japan's auto industry successful enough to come to America in the first place.
The latter argument proved flatly wrong. Even the newly trained workers of Toyota's central Kentucky Camry plant and Nissan's Sentra and pickup plant in Smyrna, Tenn., built vehicles at higher quality and productivity levels than their highly skilled U.S. competitors, according to industry measurements from the likes of J.D. Power and Associates and Harbour and Associates.
"Obviously, Bubba builds good cars," says Larry Edwards, an automotive consultant from Harrisburg, N.C. "Whatever these automakers are doing to train their workers, it's working."
The question is: Have the New American Manufacturers succeeded to a large extent because they invest in Small Town, America? Or have they succeeded despite their locations?
It is a question that smacks of Big City chauvinism, although rural plants do have their share of challenges. Logistics, for one. Nissan's big-truck project will require dozens of North American suppliers to either ship parts some 400 miles beyond Nissan's Smyrna, Tenn., production lines or build plants closer to Canton, Miss.
Honda's Alabama minivan and engine plant will have to duplicate the technology and skill levels of Honda's North American engine plant in Anna, Ohio. That will mean hiring and training workers who have never built an automobile engine, nor ever worked in a factory.
Toyota's $800 million expansion project in Gibson County, Ind., has made the automaker wonder about the long-term supply of workers in the sparsely populated farming region. The company is working with agencies to consider ways of attracting residential growth.
"Over the past two to three years the availability of workers has been a real issue," says Chris Pfaff, a project manager for the area with Indiana's Department of Commerce.
Big fish, small pond
But none of these challenges appears to be stopping anyone. Two supplier firms have announced new plants for the Toyota project area in the past three months alone.
"There's a comfort level that small towns offer a company," Pfaff says. "You trade off some of the cultural things that you'd find in a large city. But small communities probably do a lot more to welcome and support new companies."
They also provide New American suppliers, in particular, something they seem to crave: a low profile.
"I think a lot of suppliers - and the Japanese especially - want to maintain a low profile," argues Mike Cole, general manager for manufacturing at Japanese-owned Franklin Precision Industry Inc. in Franklin, Ky. "They don't want to draw a lot of attention to themselves. They don't want to attract the union, because that would mean giving up control of production decisions. They just want to get in and do their business."
A subsidiary of Aisan Industry Co. Ltd., Franklin produces throttle bodies and charcoal canisters for Toyota Camrys and Corollas and other customers. It employs about 350 non-union workers near the Kentucky-Tennessee state line. This year, the plant is expanding to add a die-castings line. Next year, the plant will add another building when it becomes one of the suppliers contributing to a new Toyota fuel-pump module.
"You want certain things when you locate a plant," Cole says. "You want affordable land, which isn't usually available in a bigger city. You want a ready pool of labor. And you want some assurance of a stable local community and economy, with a government that's ready to assist you."
Give and take
That relationship works both ways, the manufacturing manager notes. "We also have to maintain the good graces of the community," he says. "You do that by being a stable employer and by not polluting. We reuse 90 percent of our wasted plastic."
Last year, Franklin celebrated its 10th anniversary. As a token of thanks, the company donated a $25,000 cupola that stands in the town square.
"We try to be a good neighbor," Cole says. "We want to be there and I think they want us to be there."