Denso Corp. launched plans last year to invest $1 billion in its Maryville, Tenn., parts manufacturing operations, deepening its East Tennessee roots, where it has invested about $3 billion over the past 30 years.
But it is anything but "more of the same" for the Japanese giant.
The new 1,000-worker expansion will set the Maryville complex up to supply an array of new-generation auto technologies - such as inverters for electric-vehicles, radar components and data control modules for electric and connected vehicles.
Early this year, Denso also said it will spend another $190 million to expand its nearby Athens, Tenn., plant, adding 320 jobs. The two projects combined will bring Denso to nearly 6,000 workers in the state.
Jack Helmboldt, president of Denso Manufacturing Tennessee, says the investment will allow the company to localize production of the emerging technologies for North American customers.
"This move prepares us for the sales growth as the industry shifts to electrification and the advanced safety mechanisms that are needed for the future," Helmboldt said.
"Why Tennessee?" he asked. "Our skill level is here. Probably 90 percent of all of that type of manufacturing already takes place in Tennessee." Expanding the existing location rather than investing in a greenfield site allows Denso to take advantage of proven assets - both people and infrastructure - at Maryville and Athens.
But the Denso of 2018 faces a challenge that the Denso of 1988 did not: Low unemployment. The company's earlier efforts found an ample pool of unemployed people in East Tennessee. That's no longer the case, Helmboldt says.
But today, Denso has the advantage of a state program called "The Drive to 55 Tennessee Promise" to build up a skilled workforce, said Bob Rolfe, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. It is a program to boost education and skill levels across the state. Under the program, any graduating high school senior can receive free tuition for two years of community or technical college.
"The early returns are so successful," Rolfe said. "We're elevating the game when it comes to workforce development."