Steve St. Angelo was a GM lifer. He started his career with General Motors on the production line at the Fisher Body Fleetwood plant in Detroit in 1974. Thirty years later, having moved up the corporate ladder to run plants in the United States and Mexico, he retired, still in his late 40s. But along the way, he encountered Toyota Motor Corp. He sampled the production line at GM's 50-50 joint venture with Toyota, New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., and later held an executive job at NUMMI.
After retiring last year as manufacturing director of GM de Mexico, St. Angelo took a job as vice president with Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky Inc., the subsidiary that builds Camrys, Avalons, Solaras and engines. A year later, he was promoted to president of the business unit. He spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell about his move from GM to Toyota.
We don't hear about too many Detroiters becoming presidents at Toyota. You're only 50. Did you literally retire from GM?
Yes, I took a 30-and-out. It was a voluntary retirement. I didn't get a package or anything like that.
I do get a pension check. It's not a very big one. I still get my health care through GM. I get the GM discount if I ever want to purchase a Corvette or something.
You were named president, with Gary Convis moving from president to chairman. What is the thinking there?
At Toyota, the process of handing over the reins is to have the previous president mentor and coach and kind of keep an eye on things for a short time. I'm going to do exactly what Gary was doing before, be responsible for all of TMMK.
Convis has been responsible for preparing the Subaru factory in Indiana to build Camrys. Will he retain responsibility for that?
No, he'll still be involved, but I'm responsible for the Subaru support project. But Gary has a number of roles. He's still Toyota's executive vice president for all North American manufacturing, and he's also a managing officer for Toyota Motor Corp. in Japan. So he's going to take more responsibility for overseeing North America.
You worked under him when you were still at GM. You worked at NUMMI, where he was responsible for manufacturing.
I actually worked at NUMMI twice. I was the vice president of manufacturing from 2001 to 2003. But the first time, in 1994, I did work with Gary, and basically, I worked on the production line for eight weeks.
That probably wasn't what you had in mind as a GM executive.
My wife thought I was crazy for doing it. I worked a couple weeks as a team leader, and eight or nine weeks as a group leader, and then as a manager for truck assembly. So I got to learn the Toyota Production System from the roots up. I really gained firsthand knowledge of the Toyota Production System.
When I started there, I read every Toyota book possible and every paper I could find. I thought I knew andon inside and out. I thought I could've written my own book on andon. But when I was actually doing the team member job and I pulled the andon for the first time and brought the line down, you know - coming from a culture where you never stop the line, it was a weird and strange feeling in my gut. I felt like everyone was staring at me. I felt all kinds of pressure.
Was there a moment when you went from perceiving the world and the process of manufacturing as GM sees it to perceiving the process as Toyota sees it?
I can't say there was a single moment when I suddenly became a believer in the Toyota system. But you know, I also started as a team member on the line with GM. And I think, because of that, I had a grass-roots knowledge of what goes on out on the factory floor maybe more than some others. But every time I took a trip to NUMMI, I always learned something, and I made a point to implement whatever I learned. Going back and forth, from Toyota to GM, I felt like it was the best way for me to truly understand what Toyota was saying.
You've been at Georgetown now for about a year and a half leading up to this. Are there still ideas that surprise you, where you say, "We never would've done it this way at GM"?
The biggest difference that surprised was the culture here. It's something you really can't see on a plant tour. It's just a different culture. Everyone here is a problem solver. People gravitate toward participating in quality circles. There are no barriers between management and the team members on the line. I park in the same parking spots as everyone else. I eat in the same cafeteria. My office is a small cubicle just like all the other offices. At GM, I had a nice office. So there is a lack of barriers between team members and management. That encourages people to bring problems forward and suggest ideas.