Toyota's president visited the company's largest North American assembly plant Thursday, telling workers that the automaker is at a "crossroads" and needs to rethink its operations to win back customers.
Akio Toyoda toured the assembly line in Georgetown before giving a brief speech to about 100 employees. It was his first visit to the plant as head of the company his grandfather founded.
Toyoda's trip to Kentucky came one day after lawmakers grilled him in a congressional hearing over the company's recall of millions of vehicles due to sticky gas pedals, faulty brakes and floor mats that can snag accelerators.
He told the workers he was "more comfortable" visiting with them and seemed to choke up during the speech, particularly when he thanked those who made the trek with him Wednesday to Washington.
"I'd just like to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart," he said.
Toyoda rode a tram through one of the assembly lines Thursday, waving to workers on his way. Then he got out and stopped at a few stations, including the one where a gas pedal is installed.
The plant's production is slated to halt entirely Friday, and possibly other days, less than a month after a gas pedal recall forced a weeklong shutdown of one of its two assembly lines.
Although he didn't talk about specifics during his speech, Toyoda told the Kentucky employees that the company needs to "rethink everything about our operations."
Earlier Thursday, he met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, repeating pledges he made to Congress this week to improve safety efforts.
Toyoda told LaHood that the world's top automaker would "advance safety to the next level" as it tries to restore customer faith in its cars and trucks that has been badly damaged by the recall of 8.5 million vehicles.
Lisa Webb, a plastics worker from Shelbyville, Ky., said Toyoda made a good impression during his visit, and when he teared up, it showed he was going through many of the same things the workers are.
"That just made me feel more inspired," she said.
The Georgetown plant employs around 6,600 people, and more than 20,000 jobs across central Kentucky are directly attributed to Toyota and its suppliers.
"It's scary, it really is, especially for a community that is this small," said shop manager John Miller, who formerly worked for Ford in Detroit. "Quite honestly, if Toyota wasn't here, I'm not even sure this community would exist."
Martha Tirlea, who has one son who works at Toyota and another who transports parts there, says she is hopeful the setback will strengthen the company long-term.
"You're always fearful, in this climate especially, about every job, but I think they will come out of it," said Tirlea, owner of Country Peddler Shoppe in downtown Georgetown.
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