By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – Carl Phillips calmly walked to the podium on the stage at the BancorpSouth Arena to tell everyone how proud he is to work for Toyota.
“That wasn’t too bad,” he said later, “especially in front of a few thousand people.”
Indeed, as many as 9,000 people jammed the BancorpSouth Arena and the east parking lot on Saturday as Toyota threw a celebration for its employees, suppliers and their families.
There were aerial performers, fire performers, an illusionist and several other performers – along with fireworks and confetti – inside the arena, while a carnival was held outside.
It was all part of Toyota’s Team Mississippi Appreciation Day, marking the new Corolla model the company’s plant in Blue Springs is producing.
“The Corolla is not built with one part. It is not built by one person. And it is not built by one company,” said Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi President Masafumi Hamaguchi. “It takes all of us, Toyota Mississippi and our strong supplier support, working together as one team, to produce high-quality Corollas.”
The 11th-generation Toyota is assembled by 2,000 employees – called team members by Toyota – at TMMMS. Five area suppliers employ another 1,300 workers.
Phillips has worked at Toyota Mississippi’s tool and die department for three years. He was working in Alabama when he interviewed and landed the job in Blue Springs. His job is to fix any errors in the dies, which stamp sheet metal used for doors, hoods and other parts of the vehicle.
“If there’s the smallest problem, you’ll notice it right away,” he said. “So it’s our job to get anything fixed. … I’m glad to be a part of the team there.”
Another team member enjoying the festivities was Joe Corley, who’s been on the assembly line at TMMMS for two years.
He was standing in line at one of the rides at the carnival outside, soaking in the atmosphere.
“I think it’s great to be able to bring the family and letting us enjoy ourselves,” he said. “I’ve got great people I work with, and it’s a great job.”
Phil Rodi, TMMMS’ vice president of production, praised the efforts of team members like Phillips and Corley, who have had to build two different vehicles in as many years.
Toyota Mississippi began production in October 2011 with the last-generation Corolla. While it was ramping up production, it changed equipment to the new Corolla, which it began building last month.
“For a new plant, it’s unheard of,” Rodi said. “But we’ve been very happy. … I’ve done a few of these over the years and it’s gone better than expected. The workforce here wants to learn and that’s been a big part of it.”
Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales, the automaker’s marketing and sales arm in the U.S., said reaction to the new Corolla has been positive.
“The sedan has a lot of heritage,” said Fay, noting the model’s 47-year heritage and worldwide sales of more than 40 million.
“We sold 1,100 of the new model alongside the old model,” Fay said.
Total Corolla sales are expected to reach 300,000 this year, but Toyota expects to sell 330,000 next year.
“That’s not just good for Toyota, that’s good for the dealerships and that’s good for the people here today,” Fay said.