After Capitol Hill grilling, Toyota president visits Kentucky plant

GEORGETOWN, Ky. — A day after Toyota took a pounding in Washington over delays in its massive recalls, company President Akio Toyoda visited the car maker's largest North American plant to give and get a little moral support.

"I feel better already having spent a few minutes with you today," an emotional Toyoda told a group of about 120 managers and select employees of the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky plant. "I have been especially worried about you, our North American team members, as you have seen so much bad news."

He was accompanied by Yoshimi Inaba, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor North America Inc., and Tetsuo Agata, president and COO of Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America Inc., which is headquartered in Erlanger, Ky., near Cincinnati. Neither of them spoke.

Before Toyoda talked with employees, he and his group briefly toured a part of the plant and met some workers on the assembly line. The plant, which opened in 1988, is about 15 miles north of Lexington.

This is the first time that Toyoda has visited the Georgetown plant in his capacity as president of the automaker. His visit came a day before the plant — which makes the Camry, Camry hybrid, Avalon and Venza — will be idled for a day because of the backlog of unsold cars.

After leaving Georgetown, Toyoda and his entourage were expected to visit a Toyota dealership in Lexington.

On Wednesday, Toyoda testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, where he apologized for problems that have been blamed for several deaths, including four members of the family of California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor.

"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that. I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced," Toyoda told the committee.

Toyoda said the company would establish a new quality advisory group and "invest heavily in quality in the U.S. through the establishment of an Automotive Center of Quality Excellence," among other steps. He did not specify Wednesday where the new center would be.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and other lawmakers, and Georgetown residents, have expressed support for the carmaker, which employs thousands directly and indirectly through suppliers throughout the state.

Beshear, a Democrat, met with Toyoda earlier Thursday.

"Toyota is an exemplary corporate citizen in Kentucky and throughout the United States, and I reiterated to Mr. Toyoda Kentucky's strong commitment to the company," Beshear said in a statement. "The most important priority for both Toyota and me is the safety of their customers. At the same time, it is critical that Toyota receive fair treatment from our federal government in their review of Toyota's recalls."

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