GEORGETOWN, Kentucky (Reuters) - This small Bible Belt town knows how to help when one of its own is in trouble.
As local employer Toyota Motor Corp struggles with a vehicle safety crisis, residents of Georgetown are closing ranks and turning to prayer.
“They are our great corporate citizen. We’ve got to pray for Toyota,” State Representative Charlie Hoffman told community leaders at a breakfast on the outskirts of town and near the automaker’s flagship U.S. plant in rolling Kentucky horse country.
The Georgetown plant has been key to Toyota’s growth over the past two decades and builds the Camry, Toyota’s perennial top-seller and a vehicle that dominates the mid-sedan market.
But with more than 800,000 Camrys under recall, Toyota’s reputation for world-beating quality is under harsh new scrutiny and the plant has been idled for a week to allow Toyota time to rush out a fix for sticky accelerator pedals.
While Toyota’s critics are circling, the goodwill runs deep in Georgetown.
That support could be important as Toyota heads into a congressional investigation of how it has handled reports of sudden acceleration in its vehicles.
“Georgetown is Toyota and Toyota is Georgetown,” said mayor Karen Tingle-Sames.
Workers “are not just employees of Toyota — they are our friends and family members. The people we go to church with and the people we shop at Wal-Mart with, and the people we go to school with,” she added.
Since setting up shop here in the 1980s, Toyota has invested over $5 billion in Kentucky. Some 6,600 people work full time at its Georgetown factory, the firm’s largest outside Japan and its first in the United States.
Last week, the company halted work at the plant, which also makes Avalon and Venza. Production is expected to restart on Monday although Toyota has said output may remain slow.
“Much of the community is taking personally what is happening right now,” said Mary Robey Singer, a Toyota employee who’s father, an uncle and a cousin also work at the plant.
“I’ve had people from the community that know I work at Toyota approach me and say ‘Gosh, I’m sorry about what’s happening, is there anything we can do? Please know that we support you all 100 percent.’”
The match pairing Toyota with this small Kentucky town, with its antique shops, cafes and annual horse festival, seemed unlikely to many at the outset in 1985.
“In the beginning when Toyota came here, people thought we would lose a sense of community,” said Tingle-Sames, who was born, raised and went to college in Georgetown.
“But actually over the last 20 years it has got stronger. Our community is a family, and Toyota is a part of that family,” added the official, who goes about her civic duties in a donated Toyota Camry she calls her “Mayor-Mobile.”
The bond grew with the jobs Toyota brought. All told just under 20,000 people in the state now either work directly for the firm or for 90 of its suppliers, transforming the economic landscape, local leaders say.
“We’re famous for horses, coal, bourbon, tobacco and automotive manufacturing — primarily because of Toyota,” said Damon Thayer, a Republican state Senator whose district includes the sprawling Toyota complex, which is equivalent to 156 football fields under a single roof
Toyota has made more than $30 million in corporate gifts and sponsorship since it came to Kentucky. Its presence in Georgetown has been cemented with a friendship garden outside town and a twinning link with Tahara, Japan.
Backing for Toyota reaches beyond just the work force, where line workers make around $30 an hour.
“I feel loyalty to Toyota even though I don’t work there,” said Colleen London, whose Lock and Key Cafe and Boutique sells sausage bake, coffee and gifts on Main Street.
“Probably a good majority of my customers work there or have a spouse there, a family member works there. They’ve just done so much good.”
The company’s crises in the news brings out a strong response from London. “I probably feel protective I guess,” she said. “It’s kind of odd to feel that way about a car company.”
As costs for Toyota mount, the firm’s Georgetown employees — who refer to themselves in Toyota-speak as “team members” — are searching for answers.
Gene Childress has worked with Toyota in Georgetown since the late 1980s, first selecting workers for the plant and now taking Toyota’s corporate philosophy out into the local community, passing on the company’s practices in leadership, brainstorming, and problem solving in schools.
“From the workers point of view I think they will say, ‘our responsibility is to say could we have done something to find this problem earlier?’” he said.
“We’re not trying to find somebody to blame, we’re trying to find out what really happened. For Toyota, when a problem comes up, it’s not who’s at fault, but what have we learned as a result of this?”
Watching Toyota’s President Akio Toyoda apologize over the recall last week, some in Kentucky said they felt that the automaker was getting back on the right track.
“They have been apologetic and they have been humble, which I would expect from a large corporate citizen that wants to continue to create good will,” said Hoffman, a Democrat.
“We here feel that they don’t have anything to apologize for. We feel that way here. But across the nation we know that those types of things are the beginnings of regaining trust and the high ground,” he added.
Editing by Bernard Orr