Executive Insider: Millie Marshall

TMMI President Millie Marshall says job rotations opened her eyes to the possibilities

November 14, 2017
It’s a Journey -- Millie Marshall has worked in four Toyota plants and those experiences helped prepare her to take the helm as president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana.

Millie Marshall is a straight shooter. The nearly 6-foot-tall Kentucky native’s Southern charm quickly pulls you in and makes you feel like part of the family. These days her “family” is the 5,400 team members who build Highlanders, Sequoias and Siennas at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana (TMMI), where she’s been at the helm for nearly a year.

Marshall has worked at four Toyota plants, including Kentucky, Alabama and most recently as president of the West Virginia plant. All those experiences led her to Princeton, Indiana, and have taught her that being a good listener is the key to getting things done.

Read more here about the lifelong University of Kentucky fan and check out her surprising revelations in this video.

Editor's Note: Unfortunately, you can only view the video if you're connected to Toyota's network. Sorry about that. 

Driver’s Seat: You started your career at Toyota in 1991 working in IS. How did you get from there to here?

Millie Marshall: Well, it is an unusual story. But what I tell all new hires — I meet all our new hires every single week — is, ‘It's hard to believe that a girl like me is sitting in a chair and that I've become a girl like me.’

I came from a blue-collar family. I didn’t go to college after high school because I was going be a horse trainer. But realized I was going to have to make more money to take care of the horses. I got a job at a manufacturing company in Lexington, Kentucky, and then was working as computer room operator on third shift. I hated third shift, so when an opening came up in IT as a programmer I interviewed and was selected. I figured I should get some education.

It took me four years to get a two-year associate degree in what was called data processing back then. When TMMK (Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky) started up in Georgetown, Kentucky, I moved to Toyota.

In IT, I loved problem solving and the analytical part. My boss wanted me to go to human resources as a rotation. I kind of went kicking and screaming because I loved what I was doing. However, that opened the door for me to go to our Huntsville, Alabama, plant when they were starting up, as the general manager of administration, which included IT, HR, accounting and finance, external affairs, a wide variety of things. I really do believe if I hadn't taken that assignment in Huntsville I wouldn't be sitting here today.

So, taking the risk really paid off?

Absolutely. My strategy has been that it's a journey, not a destination. There's no way I could ever imagine sitting in this chair. No way. I mean, it just was not on my radar.

But the key is as opportunities arise, you choose if that's the right path for you or not. What makes you stronger is the learning you get from the new opportunity.

That's a great message that taking those chances opens your eyes to something new.

Under One Toyota, as you know, we have five pillars. Some of them are a little bit shared, but some of them are very distinct. If you get the opportunity to work in one of them that you may not know anything about at all, that's going to give you a fabulous learning opportunity.

What’s it like to have these different plant experiences? Does it change how you lead based on the plant?

I don't lead differently. I believe I'm an authentic leader and a straightforward communicator. It is very different from West Virginia to come to Indiana. In West Virginia, we had about 1,600 team members. In Indiana, we've got 5,400 and close to 8,000 with suppliers and vendors. TMMI is a pretty big campus — it’s like a city in itself.

I see my job as eliminating barriers for the team members on the floor or the engineers. Or whoever it is, so they have the necessary tools in their toolbox.

What has been the biggest challenge in your current role?

I came here in January of 2017. And in good old Toyota fashion, we do not transition. I packed up my boxes in West Virginia before the winter shutdown and I was here Jan. 2.

What has made this job unique is I'm following a great leader. Norm Bafunno was here for 20 years. He wasn't president for 20 years, but he was here for 20 years. He knows every piece of steel. He knew everybody by name and he served on every single community involvement board. He knew everything inside and out at this facility.

At times, it's very overwhelming and intimidating. It's hard to be the one that follows the great leader. I know I can't replace him, but I’m trying to put my stamp on this facility for the next 20 years.

You grew up in Kentucky and you're a big University of Kentucky fan, I hear?

Oh, I'm a big UK fan. People either love it or hate it. It’s always a conversation starter. To me, I kind of use it as an ice-breaker, because everybody has something to say, one way or another. Growing up in Lexington, that's kind of a legacy.
Open Doors -- Marshall says she’s made some personal sacrifices for work over the years, but the learning opportunities were invaluable. She’s pictured here with her husband, Tom, at a Toyota convention.

What important event in your life meant the most to your current success?

I think the biggest point that's helped me in my career is the job rotations. And I tell everybody, ‘You’ve got to do it if the timing is right for you personally and professionally.’

But a lot of people don't like going into the unknown. What I did learn with that first move was that once you do it, then the next ones aren't so bad. Clearly, in my instance, where a couple of times I worked away from my family, and then came back and forth, that was a personal sacrifice, no doubt.

But those to me were the learning experiences that helped me to get where I am today. You get out of your comfort zone and learn new things. Having those opportunities really makes a big difference.

What do you like about TMMI?

I'm amazed at the team that we have here because we have no mother plant for the Highlander, the Sequoia or the Sienna. They're only built here. The team is fabulous and they're great to work with. I'm learning new things from them every day. There's a lot of pride here. And I think that's the culture that Norm and others helped set up. It’s that kind of can-do attitude of building ever-better vehicles every single day that drives Toyota Indiana.

Major Milestone -- Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb was on hand to help Marshall and TMMI celebrate a major milestone. He received the keys to the plant’s 5 millionth vehicle, a 2018 Sequoia, which he personally purchased.

In September, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb helped TMMI celebrate its 5 millionth vehicle. What was that like?

I'd only been here for nine months, but to feel the excitement was fabulous. It really is a testament for 20 years of all the hard working, dedicated people that come in here every single day. No question about it.
Gov. Holcomb personally bought two black Sequoias. We created a baby book for him with the pictures of his Sequoia being made down the line. All the team members who worked on the vehicles signed the book.

What’s your next milestone then?

We're in the process of retooling our plant for the TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) platform. That's the new technology and it ensures that we have the future here not only for our team members, but for our communities that we live and work in.

Production is up this year over last year and the Highlander is in big demand. What do the numbers look like this year?
Last year we produced over 400,000 vehicles and expect that number to be more than 420,000 this year. The Highlander is very strong right now. We can’t build them fast enough. What’s really amazing is every 60 seconds a Highlander rolls off the line.
We want the customer to have the perfect vehicle. It’s something that I’d want my family to drive.

What are you driving these days?

I drive a Highlander. I drove one in West Virginia, too. You have to have four-wheel drive in West Virginia. A lot of hills, a lot of mountains. I love the Highlander.
Karen Nielsen

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