In 2002, Anthony Newport became the first employee of Takahata Precision Tennessee. In those days, he worked out of an office in the Scott County Office Building. The Japanese-owned auto-parts manufacturer was working to establish a permanent location in Scott County. But they had yet to pour the first concrete slab or hire the first production employee.

Fifteen years later, Newport — the vice-president of Takahata’s Tennessee operation — takes stock of the company’s administrative offices in the Mid-County Industrial Park. “It’s not a normal factory,” he says, referring to the plant’s working conditions. “When you see the floor, it’s a clean environment. It’s high-technology, with a lot of automation.”

Newport is right. A tour of Takahata’s production floor reveals an operation that doesn’t fit the stereotype of American factory work. “Clean and structured” is how HR manager Shalenia Freels describes it, and it is that. Business Planning Manager Mike Slaven says Takahata employees “take pride in their work.”

These days, Takahata — in its 15th year of operations in Scott County — employs 289 workers. It’s one of Scott County’s largest companies; a far cry from the days of a single employee in a makeshift office in the county’s annex building. And its future is “unlimited,” as Newport describes it. All they need are a few willing and dedicated workers.

Felt like home

To understand what makes Takahata Precision Tennessee a desirable place for employees to go to work, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning. By 2002, Takahata was well established as a global leader in the precision-molded auto parts industry, and was looking to expand into North America. The Tokyo-based corporation zeroed in on Tennessee, but Scott County was not the only site being considered.

Yasuo Yamamoto was a young Takahata executive who was handed establishment of the North America plant as his first project. Scott County had plenty to pitch to Takahata: available land, an available work force, low taxes, low cost of living. Mostly, though, Scott County had mountains that reminded Yamamoto of home, back in Japan.

“His thing was the atmosphere here in Scott County,” Newport said. “The people, the mountains. It was beautiful here. It reminded him of the factory in Japan. It was like home and he decided, at that point, he wanted to be in Scott County.”

Debra Thompson, who is president of Takahata Precision Tennessee, said it was that atmosphere that set Scott County apart from other Tennessee locations, who could otherwise offer the same things Scott County could offer.

“He is 100 percent vested in Scott County,” Thompson said of Yamamoto. “He would rather come here than any other place they’re located in. He calls us his first child.”

That’s important, because Yamamoto is these days the CEO of Takahata, overseeing the entirety of the corporation’s global operations — which include three factories in Japan, three in China and three in Southeast Asia, as well as one in India and one in Australia. If he’s committed to Scott County, it stands to reason that the entirety of the Tokyo corporation will be, as well. For the workers here in Scott County who rely on their Takahata paycheck as their families’ livelihood, that means one thing: stability.

“Scott County has been good to Takahata in terms of property and the ability to expand, and we make sure Japan knows that,” Newport said. “They’ve been very pleased and there’s a commitment to Scott County because of that.”

It didn’t hurt that the late Howard Baker Jr., a lifelong Scott Countian who referred to his home as “the center of the universe,” served as the United States ambassador to Japan under President George W. Bush. Baker went to bat for the people back home, asking Takahata “to not give up” on Scott County.

“There’s a deep-seated commitment to us based on that meeting,” Newport said.

State officials have also played a role. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam recently met with Takahata officials during a trip to Japan. Randy Boyd, a former member of Haslam’s who is seeking to succeed his former boss, has met with Takahata, as well.

Thompson describes Scott County’s importance to Takahata like this: last year, Takahata held a QCC conference in Tennessee. Representatives from seven different countries were present.

“Mr. Yamamoto’s main request was, ‘Don’t take this to Knoxville,’” Thompson said. “He wanted to keep it in Scott County.”

So that’s what local company administrators did. They rented out Grand Vista Hotel in its entirety, conducted the conference’s business meeting at Historic Rugby’s theater, and toured the Museum of Scott County on the campus of Scott High School.

“We have a great relationship,” Thompson said. “It’s a great thing. If we ever need help, we pick up the phone and they’re here in a day and a half.”

In other words, Takahata probably isn’t going anywhere.

Stability manifests itself in another way, too. Thompson points out that in 15 years of operation in Scott County, Takahata has had only one layoff. That came in 2009, amid the worst economic recession America had seen in 80 years.

“We stayed in contact with our employees the entire time,” Thompson said. “We called them every single week they were off to give them the status of the company. And when the orders started coming back in, we started calling them back in.”

Excellent benefits

A worker-friendly environment and the promise of stability are important, but recruiting new workers always gets down to the nuts and bolts. And that’s what Thompson said sets Takahata apart from most other companies.

For starters, 100 percent of employees’ medical insurance is paid — a rarity in most workplaces. Employees are also given access to dental and vision insurance, receive 10 paid holidays each year, one week of paid vacation during their first year and two weeks after that, and a three percent match to their 401(k).  Company-provided life insurance is also available.

“We take licks on it,” Thompson said of the company’s decision to pay 100 percent of its employee health insurance. “We have to absorb increases. But it was established in the beginning and we try to keep it that way.”

The company-paid insurance premium is a valuable benefit to employees who need health care coverage, amounting to about $3 an hour.

That is part of what helps Takahata draw workers from McCreary, Fentress and Morgan counties, in addition to Scott County. But there is always a need for more workers.

Freels said Takahata could use as many as 40 new employees immediately, ranging from operators to molding technicians to quality control technicians and a quality control manager. The company is currently conducting an advertising blitz throughout Scott County and in surrounding communities in an effort to fill those positions. Despite Scott County’s record-low unemployment, Thompson is aware that there are still workers in Scott County who need work. They are the ones being targeted by Takahata as it advertises its job vacancies.

The sky is the limit

Takahata’s unfilled positions go back to Newport’s comment about Takahata’s unlimited growth. The company has undergone four expansions in 15 years, growing into a 250,000 square foot behemoth that encompasses a significant portion of the Mid-County Industrial Park. It has already received a conveyance of additional property from Scott County Government to make the jump to the opposite side of Marcum Parkway.

That expansion — which will be the company’s fifth — will create even more jobs, opening the door to even more contracts as Takahata seeks to expand its customer base. But that’s only possible with workers who can fill vacancies on Takahata’s team.

Over the years, Takahata has become a major player within the Scott County community, and that extends further than just providing jobs and writing paychecks. Thompson boasts of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility program. Through it, Takahata makes contributions to the community’s youth, both through the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands and area schools.

Last year, Takahata undertook a fundraising effort to build a football field house at Robbins School — the only of Scott County’s schools without a field house. Through the sale of hamburgers and private contributions, the company raised $5,000. And when that wasn’t enough to complete the project, Takahata took it upon itself to make sure the project got completed — and it did.

This year, Takahata purchased and installed a water bottle filling station at Fairview School, joining the efforts of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Board to provide the filling stations at all schools.

Takahata also welcomes tours of its plant, and routinely leads school groups on those tours.

All of that is expanding Takahata’s footprint in Scott County, and increasing awareness about the company, something Thompson said is important.

“We want them to know that this is not just ‘the Japanese company,’” she said. “It’s run by Americans, which was Mr. Yamamoto’s entire goal. He’ll always have some support staff as Japanese but he wants the entire (Tennessee) company to be run by Americans. We’re the first Takahata company to be run by locals.”

It is a strategy that has paid off to this point, with Takahata growing to become one of Scott County’s leading industrial employers. And with the right employees, it can grow bigger still.

This story is the November 2017 installment of "Profiles of a 3-Star Community," presented by the Scott County Industrial Development Board on the second week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series.

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.