By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
BLUE SPRINGS – Masafumi Hamaguchi has been in Mississippi a little more than two years, working for Toyota.
But he’s not just any Toyota team member.
Hamaguchi is president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi, overseeing the operations of Toyota’s newest automotive assembly plant and its 2,000 employees.
“Time passes quickly,” Hamaguchi said. “People have been very kind, especially to Japanese people. And not just me, but everybody with Toyota Motor Corp. It has been a very great opportunity to be in Tupelo and the area.”
His assignment at Blue Springs isn’t his first job in the United States. Before being named president of TMMMS, he was senior adviser of production control and on-site supplier support for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas in San Antonio, Texas. He helped establish that plant, which opened in 2006.
Coincidentally, he worked under Misao Fukuda at the Texas plant. Fukuda was later named president of Toyota Mississippi in 2007, and Hamaguchi followed in his footsteps three years later.
Hamaguchi, 51, joined Toyota in Japan in 1985 after graduating from Kobe University with a degree in economics. But he didn’t get into the car-building business right away.
“When I joined Toyota, my first department was external affairs,” he said. “I worked with the internal communications group. I made the company newspaper and the company TV news. I enjoyed it.”
His biggest moment was interviewing Shoichiro Toyoda, the son of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda and father of current Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda. Now honorary chairman of the company, Shoichiro Toyoda was the TMC president when Hamaguchi interviewed him.
“I was very nervous,” Hamaguchi said.
In 1992, Hamaguchi joined the administrative division at Toyota’s Tsutsumi plant, one of the company’s largest plants in Japan.
Five years later, he was named assistant manager of production control at TMC. In 2004, he joined Toyota Texas.
Hamaguchi doesn’t have much time for hobbies during the week, but the weekends are when he’s able to relax a little.
“On Saturdays and Sundays I run if possible,” he said. “About five miles; very slow.”
He’s even run in three 5k races and said he’s gotten better each race.
“Every time it has been a personal record,” he said with a broad smile.
When he’s not running, he likes to read and watch TV.
His favorite shows?
“Professional wrestling,” he said with a laugh. “A few months ago, I even went to the BancorpSouth Arena and watched WWE.”
While he prefers Japanese wrestling, he said he really likes American-style wrestling.
The only downside to being the top executive of a U.S. assembly plant is that Hamaguchi’s wife and two children remain in Japan. But he does get to speak to them and see them occasionally.
However, living alone presented another challenge for him: learning how to cook.
“I do very simple cooking,” he said. “Very simple. It’s the first time I have had to cook for myself. … of course, we have good Japanese restaurants in Tupelo, also.”
Now after building cars for 14 months, Toyota Mississippi and its workers are still “very young” Hamaguchi said.
But, he said, “I am very happy to say they are eager to learn. … I can see their passion. They are very good. Many people didn’t have auto manufacturing experience, but that has not been an issue. We can learn together.”
Less than a year into production, TMMMS built its 100,000th car this summer, a significant milestone.
At full capacity, the plant can build 150,000 Corollas a year. Hamaguchi said TMMMS is building about 600 cars a day, which means it is at or near capacity production.
“Compared to other Toyota plants, our team members still are very young,” he said. “It was a bit difficult in the beginning, but we have been getting better and better every day. That makes me very proud and very happy.”
The next-generation Corolla “will be coming soon and we are very excited,” he said.
Toyota officials haven’t confirmed when the new model will roll out, but industry sources say it will be introduced in the third quarter of next year.
As for continued rumors that Toyota Mississippi will be adding another vehicle to its assembly lines sooner rather than later, Hamaguchi demurred.
“We need to build our Toyota Corolla with the best quality, and then perhaps the next opportunity will come to us,” he said with a smile.