BILL LAWSON COLUMN
Who’s Playing Whom
750 employees soon to be 850
My free advice to Toyota and Hino last week went over about as well as the last free advice I gave to Wal-Mart. The year was 1979, and I was working for Jim Faulkner’s advertising agency and we were making a pitch for the then $10 million Wal-Mart account based upon the work we did for Dillards. Wal-Mart was especially impressed with Dillard’s merchandising and they hoped to benefit from our retail skills. After evaluating the bright fluorescent off color schemes they used in every store, two of my recommendations were that they use warmer softer colors and remove those overfilled bins in the middle of the aisles.
Mr. Sam told me quickly that those colors were his choice and that he thought the bright colors attracted customers, although Wal-Mart implemented the changes I suggested a few years later. He also said that the overstuffed bins made people think they were getting a bargain. However, you won’t find one in their stores today. TV was where they really wanted help and we did a few projects for them but they decided in the long run to stay with their Kansas City agency. We even had Nashville WSM’s Ralph Emery on retainer to do their commercials at $1,000 a month.
There’s a lot of similarity between Wal-Mart and Toyota. They both didn’t get to be number one in their field without knowing what they’re doing. Both have strong corporate cultures unique among business. Somewhat akin to Ross Perot’s strict white shirt and thin black tie with a 1950s GI haircut environment that built his EDS into a company that GM so envied that it bought the company. But rather than concentrating on dress, they both carefully forge their best employees through intense corporate oversight.
Neither allows regular employees to speak with reporters. Whenever they expand into foreign countries, they bring their own management staff with them. They both have a very successful marketing plan. Its more than obvious they both have well thought out business plans.
While we’ve been waiting on Toyota and its Hino subsidiary to build a super plant in Marion, they’ve already built it. At least a miniature version of one has been compiled. In a facility built for 350 employees and while most people think they only have 150, they quietly have built up a plant with approximately 750 people working in it with plans to add another 100 within the next month. About 100 of those are Japanese management staff that the company imported. Most speak no English and with only four translators it makes communicating with them difficult. That may be part of the workforce problem.
Paying 750 people $10 an hour means a payroll of around $16 million a year, management staff excluded. That’s huge but paying $15 an hour would cost another $8 million a year.
Let’s recap. They are turning out axles right and left and adding new employees by the hundreds so maybe the Delta workforce that has been working 60 to 70 hours a week for them isn’t so bad after all. Although Toyota won’t admit it, they may be holding out for more incentives from the state. They read about the $1 billion dollar state surplus like the rest of us, even though the legislature spent most of it. Or maybe they’re trying to play us so we’ll be thrilled to get their Hino truck assembly plant rather than disappointed because its not a Toyota truck plant.
When I suggested that Hino hire laid off nearby auto workers from a closing water pump plant, I had no idea they’d already hired the cream of the crop from that plant when they first came to town. When I said workers at the Hino plant referred by the state couldn’t read a pressure gauge, my older and wiser brother Thomas, a resident of Marion who is an engineer for FedEx in Memphis, told me it was measurement gauges used on assembly lines not pressure gauges. He went on to explain in great detail that some assembly line gauges actually used lasers to set tolerances to a millimeter. I thought he just bought trucks for FedEx’s worldwide fleet, but he also designs them. He also pointed out that most machinists in the Memphis area make closer to $30 an hour than the $15 I suggested.
In summary, I don’t know much. But I do know that Hino is paying a lot less than the going rate. They’re saving a ton of money by doing it and yes, they’re having employee problems. When you work people that hard and pay them those rates, its bound to happen. Just Friday a couple weeks back, sources say that 14 Hino employees celebrated their last day at the plant with an impromptu party at a local watering hole. The fact that 14 would leave the same day and be celebrating it speaks volumes.
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