Toyota committed to state, former exec says

By Dennis Seid
Daily Journal
FULTON – Pardon Dennis Cuneo when he scoffs at talk that Toyota plans to abandon its Blue Springs assembly plant.
The former senior vice president for Toyota Motor North America said Monday the automaker will open the plant when the economy gets better.
“The rumor that Toyota is trying to renegotiate its deal – there’s no truth to it at all,” said Cuneo, who spoke to students, school officials and business leaders at Itawamba Community College on Wednesday.
“Toyota has delayed the project to conserve cash; all companies are in that mode right now as the economy deteriorates.”
In December, Toyota said it would delay indefinitely the opening of the Blue Springs plant, which was scheduled to begin production of the Prius hybrid vehicle in late 2010.
Cuneo isn’t sure when the plant will open, either, but is convinced the company won’t abandon the site.
“Toyota has invested $300 million in the facility, which is just a shell of a building right now with no equipment in it,” said Cuneo, who still advises the company and auto suppliers.
Toyota is expected to invest about $1.3 billion in the plant when it’s complete and hire about 2,000 workers. Suppliers for the plant are expected to hire thousands more.
But with the economy in a tailspin, all companies in every industry are in a holding pattern, Cuneo said.
“I’ve been in the automotive industry for 25 years and I’ve never seen it this bad,” he said. “Nobody is immune, including Toyota.”
In perspective
Through February, total annualized auto sales are tracking at about 9.1 million, about 6.3 million fewer vehicles than last year.
“To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of 42 Blue Springs assembly plants,” Cuneo said. “As you can see, it’s a difficult time for the auto industry, no matter who you are. It caught us all by surprise. Some have talked about the recession in the economy; we’re talking about a depression in the auto industry.”
Fulton Mayor Paul Walker said he understands the Toyota delay and its impact. Toyota Boshoku, a supplier for Toyota Mississippi, also has had to suspend production plans until Toyota decides on its next step.
Boshoku has invested about $20 million in a plant in nearby Fawn Grove. Initially, it was to be an $80 million plant employing about 500 workers.
“We’d like to see them open as soon as possible, but we know that the economy is affected worldwide, not just in the U.S.,” Walker said. “But we do feel very positive that they will open when the economy improves.”
Contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or dennis.seid@djournal.com.

Dennis Seid/Daily Journal