President, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana, Toyota Motor North America
Location: Princeton, Ind.
Education: Studied chemistry at University of Evansville; completed a three-year internship in industrial electronics to be a skilled maintenance team member
What drew you to the auto industry? I was working in pharmaceutical/nutritional, on the technical side of that business, and I was on an advisory committee at Ivy Tech, a local college, to help improve their curriculum for technical maintenance, and I met a Toyota member on that board. They started talking to me about what Toyota is all about and the opportunities that Toyota had. This [plant] was a new announcement in our area at that time and had not broken ground yet. But the more I heard about the company, the more I realized our values aligned, and I was pretty excited about it. I took the leap.
First automotive job: I started as a team member here in this plant in 1997.
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Big break: When I first came here, my whole goal was to be a manager of a production shop, and that was as high as I could see. When I achieved that, I thought, “OK, I’ve really come a long way.” But another person who got this [Leading Women] honor, Susan Elkington, was my supervisor at the time. And when I was able to progress from the manager position to an executive position, that’s where huge opportunities opened up for me. As far as going through that broken rung on the ladder, she was able to repair that broken rung that we didn’t see a lot of women [get to], and she helped me get to that level. We’ve been great friends ever since. She helped me see that I was capable of doing [the job] and even more capable than some of my team members I was working with, which were all men.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Before COVID-19? The downturn that we had around 2009. We produced the Toyota Tundra here, and gas prices were very high. We didn’t produce one vehicle here for three months. We didn’t lay anyone off, and we really focused on training and development of our team members. For me, it was a huge challenge to be able to keep that many people engaged in training, but we’ve seen many people just sparkle from that. From then on, my main passion has been, how do we develop our members to be the best that they can be and add value and make them feel like they’re adding value so that they love their job?
You’ve been in the industry 23 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? I’d have to say COVID-19. We are still looking for the future — electrification, autonomous driving and other types of futuristic things that we know are coming. The key, though, is when things change, how your focus can be diverted. We’re still working on those issues that are up and coming, but a portion of our staff had to be focused on how to keep people safe during a pandemic. We have to make sure that they feel safe and to make sure that we help them stay safe when they go home and when they’re out in the community.
What work achievement are you most proud of? I was leading a “reborn” strategy here at [Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana]. We were looking at new model changes, for the Highlander and Sienna. When you have an opportunity to make a major change — a platform change as well as the upper body change — that’s an opportunity to say, “How do we make our processes and our equipment and the work environment much better for our team members?” That was a couple-year-type of project that I was leading. And then I went to [Toyota Motor Manufacturing, West Virginia] for three years as president. When I came back to Indiana, the leadership team was taking that vision that we had developed three years earlier, and they applied it, and they improved it because they were vested in that vision.
What do you struggle with? I struggle a lot of times with the balance of being able to communicate the strategic mentality that we need to be in to see our future. My biggest goal is to make sure that [our team members] have income stability and that we have products to make at our plant for many generations to come. I’ve already seen several generations of new members coming in. The struggle point is making sure our team members understand what the future is going to look like.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? Early in my career, I was in the welding shop, and I did a lot of different functions. I think I was there too long, and I should have rotated to other positions sooner. So I would encourage anyone to raise their hand sooner for other opportunities, even if you don’t know what they’re all about or you don’t feel fully prepared for it. Be a little more of a risk taker.
What’s the best part of your day? The best part of my day is when I get to be on the production floor with team members, listening to them, talking to them. The best part of my day is when I can see their growth, with all the people and their different backgrounds and their different cultures and what they’re interested in because as you grow older, you can become detached from the younger generation very quickly.
How do you bring your best self to work? It starts with faith and with family. And then it’s making time for myself mentally and physically to stay healthy and to unplug, especially from our electronics. Giving myself time to meditate and to decompress.
Are you able to achieve work-life balance? I think early in my career, I was terrible at it. I felt like I had to prove myself — do more, stay later. But as my career grew, I decided to set boundaries. The work is always going to be there. You empower your team, and you understand that you don’t have to do everything yourself. It’s your team doing it; let them go. You need family, and you need work, but if I’m a good leader, I can show others that it’s OK to go home at a certain time.
— Larry P. Vellequette