“I know I have a lot of visibility being a female, and I take that as a huge responsibility.”
Susan Elkington, president, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky
When Susan Elkington is having a stressful day as the new president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, she’ll look for the chance to leave the executive offices for the shop floor.
Watching the cars come off the line at the biggest Toyota factory in the world and helping some of its 8,000 workers with the tiniest of production improvements, “that would be my ideal day,” she said in an interview.
But Elkington, 46, also has bigger duties as the first female director of the plant and as something of a trailblazer within the company. She worked her way up during 20 years at two Midwest factories and held a global manufacturing role at headquarters in Japan.
“I know I have a lot of visibility being a female, and I take that as a huge responsibility,” she told Automotive News. “I know what it’s like whenever I see some of the great women leaders that have come before me.”
One of them is Martha Layne Collins, the former governor of Kentucky and the only woman to hold that role. Collins was in office when Toyota’s plant was established in Georgetown in 1986.
“We had a conversation after I got named president, and she was like, ‘I didn’t realize I would see the first woman plant president at Toyota [Kentucky],'” Elkington recalls. “And I said: ‘If you wouldn’t have done what you did, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did.'”
Elkington has worked to promote diversity in the workplace and on programs that encourage girls in middle school and high school to explore engineering as a career.
Read more >
Her daughter, just out of college, started work as a quality engineer at Toyota’s plant in Princeton, Ind., last month. That was almost 20 years to the day after Elkington took a production engineering job at the same plant, working on Toyota’s first full-size pickup.
And yet Elkington still doesn’t have a pat answer to the never-ending question of what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry.
“I always laugh when I get that because I’ve never been a man in a man’s industry, so it’s hard to compare it,” she said with a chuckle on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show.
“I love to build things, and my big thing is I always try to do what I enjoy doing. And if you tell me I can’t do it, I’ll probably only want to do it more,” she said.
Toyota’s Kentucky plant is the automaker’s biggest in the world.
Elkington grew up in a farming community near Huntingburg, Ind., about an hour’s drive from the plot of land that would become Toyota’s Princeton plant. She was good at math in school and liked fixing broken things around the house.
She remembers building an elaborate mock farm in her family’s garden with her brothers, carefully planning the placement of each road and bridge. “And of course I was the one who’d say, ‘You can’t put the cattle over there. They need to go over here.’ ”
It was an early sign of her knack later in life for process flow, one of the principles of the Toyota Production System.
Before finding Toyota just down the road from her hometown, Elkington worked in the electronics industry in Texas, first as a design engineer and later as a production engineer. Until then she had spent her entire life in Indiana, including college at the University of Evansville.
When she heard Toyota was hiring in Princeton, she almost didn’t apply, but eventually was called for an interview. “I didn’t think it went very well, so I was really shocked when I got the call back and got an offer,” Elkington said.
After climbing the ranks at Princeton to vice president of manufacturing in 2013, Elkington was assigned to Toyota headquarters in Japan for three years.
She became the second non-Japanese executive to be general manager of production control for the automaker’s 53 global manufacturing plants and the first woman in that role.
Elkington said the experience helped open her world, allowing her to travel to different regions of the globe and learn about new cultures and different ways of doing things.
On returning to the U.S., she worked for a year as vice president of administration at the Kentucky plant before taking over when longtime plant president Wil James retired effective Jan. 1.
Elkington said that if she ever returns to an executive job at Toyota’s corporate offices somewhere, it wouldn’t end her time visiting the factory floor, adding, “I won’t be very far from a plant where I could go and visit on a regular basis.”