Posted on April 24, 2015
Senator Lamar Alexander
Three weeks ago, I received a letter from Randy Knight, Nissan's vice president of manufacturing in Smyrna.
It was an invitation to last Tuesday's announcement that the Smyrna plant would produce the all-new Maxima. I knew right away I had to change my schedule to make it.
The story of how Nissan has transformed Tennessee's economy is one that often is told in cars and trucks and dollars and cents. Those things are important — nearly one-third of Tennessee's manufacturing jobs are auto related — but we also have to remember the human faces that help tell the story of Nissan's success over the last 35 years.
For me, the most memorable face is that of Randy Knight's mother.
During my walk across the state in 1978 to become governor of Tennessee, I spent one night at the home of Billy and Lillian Knight in Rutherford County. Mrs. Knight told me that her biggest fear was that her three sons would never be able to find jobs nearby and that she would never be able to see her grandchildren.
The next year, as governor, I traveled to Japan with a satellite photograph of the United States at night and showed it to Mr. Kawamata, chairman of Nissan. He asked where exactly Tennessee was, and I said, "Right in the middle of the lights — which is where you want to be if you want to have a plant with lots of heavy things to ship around the country."
During the summer of 1980, I skipped a meeting in Detroit with Ronald Reagan to meet in Nashville with Takashi Ishihara, CEO of Nissan, where he told me he wanted 800 acres in Rutherford County for his manufacturing plant.
The problem was, that 800 acres was owned by the McClary family and Mayme Cantrell, both of whom eventually agreed to sell their land to Nissan because it was so important to the future of our state. On Oct. 30, 1980, Nissan President Marvin Runyon called at 11:30 a.m. and said, "Lamar, we're coming to Tennessee."
The human faces of Nissan include the 300 Middle Tennesseans, who had never once built a car, and who went to Japan to spend several weeks learning to build cars the Nissan way.
It includes governors of both political parties, local officials and legislators who for 35 years have supported an environment that permits the workers of Nissan to produce quality products.
It includes the faces of employees at places like Calsonic, which was the first tier-one supplier, and those of all the men and women of Nissan over the years who have helped create the most efficient auto plant anywhere in North America.
Thirty five years ago, Tennessee had almost no auto jobs. Today, one-third of its manufacturing jobs are auto-related jobs. Then, Tennessee was the third-poorest state. Today, Tennessee's family incomes have gone up rapidly.
Then, Nissan made no cars and trucks in the United States. Today, 85 percent of what Nissan sells in the United States, it makes in the United States. Last year, Nissan spent billions of dollars in addition to the wages it paid, much of that in Tennessee.
For me, there's no better way to understand the transformation that Nissan has brought to Tennessee than to remember the face of Lillian Knight, sitting there late one evening in Milton 37 years ago worrying about whether her talented sons would ever find a job. Think how proud she would be today.
Lamar Alexander is the senior U.S. senator of Tennessee and served as state governor from 1979 to 1987.