Japan and East Tennessee are worlds apart, but the way bridges were built between the two cultures was celebrated Friday, May 14, as Denso Manufacturing Tennessee hosted a breakfast for community leaders to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary in Blount County.
Former Maryville Mayor Steve West said the bridges were easier to build than some might think because the similarities were stronger than the differences.
“Their values are very consistent with ours,” said West. “They are family-oriented. Qualities we held dear, they also shared,” he said. “It has been a great experience.”
Steve West laughed when he recalled how when the county was negotiating with Denso to come here, the only fax machine they could use was at West’s Chevrolet dealership. Denso’s major customer is Toyota, and county officials had to do some explaining to do. “Someone from Denso asked why all the documents were going to a Chevrolet dealership,” West said.
Former Maryville city manager Gary Hensley was unable to attend the breakfast, but recalled by phone one of his favorite stories during the time Denso was being recruited. It goes back to the late Mayor Stanley “Skeeter” Shields.
“We went to Maryville College to seek advice about the do’s and don’ts of Japanese culture when having a formal dinner. One piece of advice was you don’t pat them on the back. It’s not done in their culture,” Hensley said. “So we briefed Mayor Shields. Then, the first thing he did when we met the group at the Hyatt - to the head of their delegation - was give him a bear hug. We were on pins and needles, and Skeeter was just being Skeeter. Fortunately, this guy loved it. It worked out really well.”
State Rep. Joe McCord presented a proclamation to Denso representatives at the breakfast. He told Denso officials and community leaders gathered that having Denso as part of the Blount County landscape has brought a culture change in Blount County.
“Over the past 20 years, the company has grown because your commitment has grown,” McCord said. “I hope for the betterment of everyone we can continue another 20 years. Thanks so much for what you have meant to Blount County.”
Van Saka, president of Denso Manufacturing Tennessee, said the relationship between Denso and the community is very important. “We appreciate your support. We share many of the same values such as a sense of family and a strong desire to constantly improve,” he said.
Saka said it is his dream that the Denso Tennessee plant in Blount County would continue to grow and be operating 30 years from now when the plant celebrates its 50th anniversary. “On behalf of all the presidents before me, thank you for the friendship and support you have given over the last 20 years,” he said.
Mike Brackett, vice president of corporate planning with Denso Manufacturing Tennessee, told the community leaders gathered for the breakfast that they had been an important part of the company’s success.
Brackett explained that beginning in 1990 to today, the company has had many challenges but none as tough as the ones caused by repercussions from the wide-spread recalls from Denso customer Toyota. “Our associates have gotten us through this,” he said. “We have come through this a stronger company. In April, there was a 50 percent increase in sales over the same month last year.”
Brackett shared some statistics regarding the economic impact of Denso. Every two weeks, Denso Tennessee pays $5 million in payroll. The company has invested $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion in the plant in the last 2 years, has paid $5 million in property taxes and, over its 20 years in Blount, has contributed $5 million to charitable organizations and foundations.
“As we succeed, we want to share that success with our associates and our community so that we all grow together,” Brackett said.
Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor remembered the first Japanese families who came with Denso to open the plant. “We remember teaching them to use riding lawn mowers and how to go through a fast-food drive through,” he said. “Those were exciting times.”
Bob Davis, who was county executive at the time, remembered going with the Blount County delegation to Japan to visit Denso corporate officials. “There I was -- a boy who grew up on Ellejoy Road -- visiting in Japan,” he said.
Davis said it was exciting when Denso came to Blount County and built their plant. “I’ve never seen anything like the acceptance that Blount County had for the newcomers. It was a very exciting time,” he said.
Doug Horn, president of the Blount County Chamber, said he has been impressed by Denso associates’ focus on excellence, whether it be inside the walls of the plant or out in the community. “They back up their words with action,” Horn said.
Michelle Hankes, president and CEO of the United Way of Blount County, said Denso does more than contribute monetarily to United Way and other community organizations. “It is their associates’ volunteer hours and their leadership on non-profits boards and their ability to roll up sleeves and mobilize behind a cause. That is their true power,” she said.
Hankes said the company’s monetary donations are important and appreciated. “But it’s their associates who are amazing,” she said.
Hensley said the very first meeting Maryville, Alcoa and Blount County officials had regarding then Nippondenso was with representatives from the Bank of Tokyo out of New York City. “They were doing some preliminary looks around the country for Nippondenso,” he said.
Hensley said when the delegation stepped off the bus onto Robert C. Jackson Drive to tour the property, they immediately said the road was much too narrow.
“We said, ‘No problem, we can widen the road.’ That was the way the relationship evolved. If we couldn’t do something, we would tell them. It was a great give-and-take relationship,” he said.
Hensley said the entire relationship between the city and Denso has been a good experience. “They’ve been a great community partner. We found out early on in dealing with them that you can take their word to the bank,” he said. “If they said it, you knew it was going to happen.”