By Yvonne Coleman Bach
Special to the NNPA from the Louisville Defender
Toyota recently unveiled their 2013 Avalon at a press tour in Cincinnati. The event not only provided the traveling media with a look at the newly designed vehicle, but also an inside look at the company that builds it and its strong commitment to diversity.
Billed a luxury car without the luxury price tag, the Avalon is sure to be a favorite among the African-American consumer market. Members of the press got the chance to drive the impressive vehicle and see it being made at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. (TMMK) plant.
The plant sits on 1,300 acres and employs about 6,600 people with an annual payroll of approximately $492 million. The annual production capacity is 500,000 vehicles and 600,000 engines. In addition to the Avalon, the plant produces Camry, Camry Hybrid, Avalon Hybrid, Venza, 4-cylinder and V6 engines, axles steering components, machined blocks, cylinder heads, crankshafts, camshafts, rods and axles assemblies/dyes.
James S. Colon, Vice President-Toyota Product Communications, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., said, “Great cars do not happen without great people.” And great companies are great because of exceptionally talented people such as Colon, who participated in the media event. Toyota is proud of its diversity strategy. According to Colon, 30 percent of the workforce are people of color.
Colon is responsible for gathering and managing information and promotion initiatives for Toyota brand vehicles in addition to conducting product and sales training. He began his career in 1980 and he has held various roles at Toyota regional offices and at TMS headquarters in Torrance, Calif., as well as serving as general manager for the Portland and Chicago regions. He was also vice president of sales and dealer development for the Lexus Division. Most recently, he served as vice president for sales for the Toyota Division and was responsible for sales support for Toyota’s regional offices, public companies and private distributors.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and business at Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind. He currently serves on the board of trustees of his alma mater as well as Clark University in Atlanta, the Black Star Project, The First Tee of South Los Angeles and California State University -Los Angeles. Colon was recently appointed to the board of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, where he concentrates on developing leaders, forming policy and educating the public.
He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Human Letters last year by Martin University in Indianapolis.
Another key member of the leadership team is Wilbert W. (Wil) James, Jr., president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., the largest plant in North America. He provided an overview of the facility to the visiting media and said, “We are proud of the way we do business.” James became the seventh president of TMMK in July 2010.
His began working for the company in 1987. Over a 26-year period, he served in a variety of positions, including General Manager of Assembly and General Manager of Production Administration. He served as Vice President of Manufacturing from 2003-2006. He has also worked at other facilities, including Toyota’s Princeton, Indiana facility, as Senior Vice President for Manufacturing and Quality. In addition, he worked in Long Beach, Calif. as President of TABC Inc.
James received his Associate’s degree (1976) and his Bachelors of Science degree (1978) in mechanical engineering technology from Old Dominion University in Virginia. He directs Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc.’s (TEMA) company-wide diversity and inclusion initiatives. He is an active member of the community, serving on the boards of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. He is also involved with the Executive Leadership Conference and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.
James insists that everyone be involved in diversity, saying, “That is the Toyota Way.” He said the company develops programs that unite both employees and members of the community. As a good corporate citizen, Toyota donates money to worthy causes in the community.
The company has received numerous awards for diversity, including:
- “Top 50 Company for Diversity” by DiversityInc for six years. In 2012, in addition to being included in the list of Top 50 Companies for Diversity overall, Toyota also ranked seventh in DiversityInc’s Top 10 Companies for LGBT Employees.
- “40 Best Companies for Diversity” by Black Enterprise Magazine for the past seven years.
- Hispanic Business Magazine’s “Top 60 Company for Diversity” for the past three years.
- 2011 “Corporation of the Year” by the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC).
Proud member of the “Billion Dollar Roundtable” , recognizing more than $1 billion in annual spending with certified ethnic and women-owned suppliers.
Toyota’s Rob McConnell (principal engineer), Latondra Newton (Group VP, Toyota Motor North America), Wil James (President, Toyota Motor Company Manufacturing/Kentucky) and Jim Colon (Vice President of Product Communications, Toyota Motor Sales/USA).
Another valued member of the Toyota leadership team is Latondra Newton, who was promoted to Group Vice President at TEMA in 2013. She began her career at Toyota in 1991 and has held a variety of positions, including General Manager of the Team Member Development Center at TEMA. As Assistant General Manager of Human Resources, Newton started the corporate diversity function for North American manufacturing. She was also responsible for state and federal legislative/regulatory activity, media relations and community relations in her role as Assistant General Manager of Corporate Affairs.
Newton received her bachelor’s degree in management systems from Kettering University in Michigan. She was named one of the 100 Leading Women in the North American Automotive Industry in 2010 and was recognized as a Rising Star under 35 in 2000. As a member of the board of directors for the Manufacturing Institute, she chairs a new initiative focused on enhancing opportunities for women to enter and grow in professional careers in the manufacturing industry.
It was Rob McConnell, Senior Design Engineer at the Toyota Technical Center in Michigan, who brought the new focus to the Avalon. McConnell was the Principal Engineer of the design team that created the 2013 Avalon.
At 35 years old, McConnell is a rising star in the industry. He has been with Toyota his entire professional career. Before graduating from the University of Michigan, he worked at Toyota as an intern. After graduating in 2001 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he remained at the Technical Center, working in the Body Design Department. Now, he leads that department’s team of designers.
Because of his youth, McConnell relates well with his team members, many of whom are also young. Far from getting lost in corporate culture, members of McConnell’s group can be spotted with headphones on rocking to The Roots or Common as they seek inspiration. That inspiration seems to be paying off. McConnell’s team has taken the lead in designing seven different Toyota vehicles, including the Venza, Solara and Tundra. The Avalon was the first car that was totally designed and built outside of Japan. It has completely been re-styled and it has been eight years in the making.
The sleek design and body style of the 2013 Avalon makes it “sexy.” The vehicle makes a bold statement with the larger grill, the larger standard rim sizes and the innovative headlamps. The car has been designed to attract the African-American and urban markets. Actor Idis Elba is the vehicle’s new spokesperson.
As long as McConnell’s team can design vehicles like the 2013 Avalon, no one is going to complain about whatever music his team listens to while coming up with the next fresh idea.