Sunday, July 14, 2024

Power List interview: Toyota North Carolina Battery Manufacturing President Sean Suggs

Toyota North Carolina Battery Manufacturing President Sean Suggs joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the Power List interview, a partnership for discussion with some of the state’s most influential leaders. Business North Carolina’s annual Power List publication spotlights the state’s powerbrokers.

Sean Suggs oversees the state’s biggest economic development prize, a Toyota operation that expects to entail an investment of $14 billion and employ 5,000 within four years. The automaker has already hired 700 for the Randolph County site. Toyota is making its Liberty operation an essential hub as the industry transitions from gas-consumption vehicles to hybrid and electric options. Suggs grew up in Maryland and served in the military before starting his 26-year career at a Toyota plant near Evansville, Indiana. He has an MBA from Auburn University.

This story includes excerpts from Scuggs’ interview and was edited for clarity.

w did a gentleman born in Maryland and who served in the Army for eight years rise to be president of Toyota Battery Manufacturing?

I have been very, very blessed in my life to have had a lot of adventures, starting in Maryland, moving to Indiana, joining the military, which helped me pay for college. I got my bachelor’s degree at Oakland City University [in Indiana.] There was a golden opportunity at the Toyota truck plant in Indiana, and I was one of the new hires. Eight promotions later, I sit before you today as the president of Toyota North Carolina Battery. It’s been a phenomenal ride. It started 26 years ago. You cannot do that without having a great team and great leaders around me and surrounding me.

Well, you’ve certainly earned it, Sean. Toyota is investing something like $14 billion in building the North Carolina site. Tell us about that.
It’s the largest investment in our company’s history. It’s also the largest investment in North Carolina. We feel like the electrification movement is real; however, we also believe in a multi-pathway approach. North Carolina offered us everything we needed, including the infrastructure. The talent pool is amazing. It’s all in this area, and we’re going to try to take full advantage of that, giving the customers exactly what they need from a hybrid,
plug-in hybrid and all electric battery. We feel like what we’re going to produce here is going to provide batteries for all the vehicles in North America production. That’s our goal.

I read that the size of the plant is going to equal something like 1,300 times the size of a football field. I can’t even imagine that?
The site is 2 by 2 miles. It’s 1,800 acres, and we’ll build on about 1,000 acres, with seven solid buildings there. The smallest building will be about 500,000 square feet, and the largest will be 1 million square feet, and we’ll have three of those. The most important thing that we’re excited about is we’re going to employ 5,000 people and
we’ll be able to impact 5,000 families and their lives. We’re really excited about that.

Where do you find these people, Sean?
The good news is in the 12-county area where our plant is located, there’s 1.7 million people. So we’re going to take full advantage of the population, the population growth, and the partnerships that we’ve already established with the community colleges and great universities throughout the state. We also believe that the Toyota Way is attractive to people that want to try something new in an innovative company. We’ve already hired more than 700 people in a short period of time, and we haven’t had any issues to date.

What is the Toyota Way?
That is something that is ingrained in all of our team members. It’s continuous improvement and respect for people. We’re always looking for a better way, every single day, to make our company better. Most important is the respect for people. We treat everyone with dignity and respect, and it’s a core principle for us. So when a new hire comes in, from day one to twenty-six years later, we hope they have that passion. That respect for people is paramount.

You started with Toyota making pickup trucks?
Yes, the original Tundra was built in Indiana. It has since moved to San Antonio, Texas. But that plant in Indiana started with 1,200 team members, and now it’s got 7,000. We believe similar growth will happen in North Carolina.

Where was your last assignment with Toyota?
It was at our headquarters in Plano, Texas, as the diversity officer and social innovation officer. I was able to impact the enterprise with great initiatives on helping children and to help support 360 services in all of our operating communities. I had a great time there, but when this opportunity came up, I was like wow, I’ve got to get to North Carolina.

When Toyota hires thousands of people, do you get push back from other companies already here who are saying, “I’m worried about you taking some of my people?”
Our approach is to be the best in town, and then best in the state, and then best in the country, best in North America, etc. We just keep our head down and focus on what we can control. When I’m having conversations with other CEOs in the area, I believe there’s a big old ocean out there. North Carolina is the ninth-largest populated state with 10.9 million people. So I think there’s enough for all of us.

When I think of you and when I talk to people about you, the word “leader” comes out. Extraordinary leader. You have been able to develop leadership skills that clearly have brought you up the ladder to be responsible for such a mega investment. What is it that makes you a good leader?
Thanks for the compliment. Three key things that I try to focus on are energy, excellence and evolution. I try to bring a high energy because I think team members follow people with passion.

What is energy? What does that mean?
When I wake up in the morning, every single day I’m trying to make a difference in the lives of the people that we employ. That’s a really important thing to me. Leading by example is really important. And we’re always trying to strive for excellence and being the best that we can be in any given field. And evolution, it goes back to the Japanese word “kaizen” that we use in Toyota, or continuous improvement, we’re always looking for a better way.

When you speak to young people at a college campus or some new hires, what are the traits you look for?
We hope that every applicant that wants to come to us is intrigued by something new and better. If they are, we’ve got a place for them. We’re always looking for someone with integrity. That’s a big deal for our company. And we try to sense early, are they a person that has that “respect for people” trait? Are they a person that’s a critical thinker? Are they always trying to look for a better way? If they have those qualities, we can take care
of the rest.

We have training centers in our site that can take a person who has no skill, similar to me 26 years ago. I had no automotive experience and Toyota gave me the basics and fundamentals. I will tell you, 26 years later, those fundamental traits never leave you.

What are those basics?
It’s the Toyota Way, but most importantly when you build things, it’s the Toyota production system. It’s how we actually produce things, in a “just in time” fashion, always looking for ways to eliminate waste and take care of the customer. Those principles are big deals for us because we’re doing things in seconds and minutes.

When you say we’re doing something in seconds and minutes, give me an example. What does that mean?
For example, if you went to a truck or car factory, we produce a car and a truck in every minute and a half or two minutes. You take our battery world, we’re going to be doing multiple cells in 20 to 30 seconds.

What is it that you worry about? You have a big responsibility, but you don’t look worried to me. You look relaxed.
I am, and let me tell you why. One of the things I’ve never forgotten is being a frontline supervisor. I’ve never forgotten that, and I lead that way every single day. No matter what position I’ve had in my company, I’ve always tried to have the opinion that I’ve got to take care of the line team members first. They’re my No. 1 priority. The second thing is that you’ve got to have a world-class team to help you. You can hire great leaders with the same character and principles, making your job so much easier. The other thing is the state of North Carolina has been wonderful. They’ve helped us out with everything that we’ve asked for. They’ve delivered the infrastructure and everything that we’ve needed. So it makes my job so much easier.

You don’t have any concerns about, you know, I’m not going to meet the goal for this month? I’m going to get the big guys in headquarters calling me, saying, listen, your efficiency is not as high?
Now, I’d be foolish to say there won’t be any bumps in the road. But we treat those bumps just like they are, not the entire road because we know there’s a strong journey and a pathway forward for us.

Your grandmother lived in Rocky Mount and you still have family there, right?
I still have aunts there, and cousins. I try to make my way back there to see them all the time. I’ve been very blessed, and I’m trying to represent my family as well as the team members.

Did you have adversity in your life?
Absolutely. Growing up the youngest out of seven kids, the first one to graduate high school, growing up in the inner city of Baltimore. Now since then, they’ve gone on to do great things, but I was the first to go 12 years through school and graduate, the first one to get my college degree. So I’ve seen a lot of adversity and I felt a long time ago that I wanted more and better, and I’ve been able to achieve a lot of those great things through the grace that I’ve had.

You exude excellence at every level, but as a man of color, you are an example to so many of all backgrounds. Are you doing stuff in the Black community to say to young men and young women, “yes you can”?
Absolutely. I’ve written three books. One is about my life. One is about leadership. And the other one is about a passion that I have about golf. I’ve played golf in all 50 states. It’s actually my stress reliever. It took me 20 years, but I finally knocked it out.

But to answer your question specifically on the give-back, my wife and I have a scholarship fund for underserved communities. We set it up five years ago. It’s going really well. Any time that I can speak or engage with anyone from a diverse perspective, I’m all in, because my story can be replicated, I really do believe that.

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