NASHVILLE -- If having the neighborhood root for you counts for anything, Randy Knight should have an easy time running Nissan's big assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., this year.
Knight is the proverbial "hometown kid who made good."
He was hired from the local community in 1983, at 22, to work on what was then a brand new assembly line. Knight, now 53, became vice president of manufacturing in charge of Smyrna in November.
His to-do list is daunting.
He must increase production of the recently launched Rogue crossover, which is being built outside Japan for the first time. Nissan's sales team believes it can sell more than 200,000 Rogues a year in the United States.
He must boost output of the electric Leaf and its complex battery modules. Smyrna has been producing around 2,000 Leafs a month. Dealers want Smyrna nearly to double that, and Knight is working on it.
He must boost production of the Nissan Pathfinder and the Infiniti QX60 crossover, which has become one of Infiniti's biggest-volume products.
He also wants to improve plant quality. In the past two years Smyrna undertook multiple key product launches on a tight schedule. Knight admits that quality suffered.
"There just wasn't enough time for us to do 'lessons learned' to make improvements as we went," he says of the hectic period. "We've gotten a breather now, and we're going to use it to review what we need to do better."
Smyrna plans to build 550,000 vehicles in the fiscal year that ends March 31. That would be up from about 230,000 produced in economically depressed 2009, thanks to a surge in hiring that boosted Smyrna to more than 7,000 employees. Knight forecasts production of 620,000 vehicles next year.
To run their U.S. factories, international automakers typically have relied on manufacturing talent from the home office in Japan, Germany or Korea, or have hired away Detroit executives. Nissan itself has relied for the past 30 years on a steady stream of former Ford, General Motors and Toyota managers to run Smyrna.
Knight will have the rare ability to greet Nissan's new local hires at the door and tell them that he, too, came from the neighborhood, and that they, too, have a shot at rising to the top of the organization someday.
"I wasn't even sure this was what I wanted to do for my career," Knight recalls, with some amusement, of starting at Smyrna. His twin brother, Ricky, graduated with him from nearby Middle Tennessee State University, and both brothers were hired to work at the new Nissan plant just weeks later.
Ricky Knight is now Nissan's director of supply chain management. Randy Knight's son, Griffin, also now works at the plant in quality assurance.
The manufacturing chief professes to have no insight into whether the UAW will attempt to step up organizing efforts at nonunion Smyrna now, after its rejection by workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant, two hours away. Union organizers have been hot after both Smyrna and Nissan's Canton, Miss., plant for the past year.
"I want to concentrate during my tenure on being the best we can be," Knight says. "I want to be the best employer we can be. I've been working here for 31 years. I want us to make the best decisions to make us secure for the next 31 years."