Toyota Material Handling marked the 50th anniversary of its first forklift being sold in the United States by inviting the family over for a big celebration.

The golden anniversary event featured more than 600 guests from across the nation — as well as Japan, where the company is based — to commemorate the company’s start in 1967 and growth in manufacturing since then.

That includes producing more than 500,000 forklifts in the U.S., averaging one about every four minutes, at the Toyota campus in the Woodside Industrial Park. More than 800,000 forklifts have been sold by the company and its dealerships in the past 50 years.

“This feels like a big wedding — a big family event,” said Brett Wood, president and CEO of Toyota Material Handling North America, as he mingled Wednesday with visitors who were touring a forklift history exhibit in the parking lot of the company’s newly opened T+Rex Recreational Complex.

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Story of growth

The company’s local connection — rising from a Columbus cornfield — began in 1990, when the first forklift rolled off the line at Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing in Columbus.

“Now we have 1.3 million square feet under one roof. And then to use this as the showpiece of the event,” Wood said, pointing toward T+Rex.

The gymnasium of the complex, a health and fitness center with state-of-the-art exercise and recreational opportunities for Toyota employees, was decorated with flowers and finely appointed tablewear, where guests were treated to a catered lunch and some fun moments as Toyota leaders past and present talked about the company’s success.

Former Toyota Material Handling Chairman and CEO Shankar Basu, who retired in 2009 after helping leading the forklift operations to its number-one-truck-supplier ranking, credited the customers and dealer network supporting sales for the company’s success. He also thanked the associates for their loyalty, support and dedication, saying they made the Toyota dream possible.

“Thank you for making my life a wonderful journey,” Basu said to those he had worked with for two decades.

“We started with one dealer and a handful of associates,” said Jeff Rufener, president of Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc. “We grew our own brand to become the number-one forklift company in America. For a business to achieve a 50-year anniversary is a feat.”

In a whimsical note, the gym scoreboard read “50:00” with the score being 19 for the home team and 67 for the guests, representing the 50th anniversary and the first year Toyota began selling forklifts in the U.S.

An anniversary would not be complete without a gift to the community and Wood surprised the crowd with several.

He announced that Toyota would be adding 50 cherry trees to its campus in a nod to the company’s headquarters in Japan and would also donate 50 cherry trees to the city of Columbus, two of which were on the stage during the celebration.

In addition, he announced that the company would provide scholarships to 50 children to attend Columbus Park and Recreation programs.

Surprise speaker

But the biggest surprise came when he introduced guest speaker Bob Knight, Indiana University’s former basketball coach.

In a talk about “how to win,” Knight entertained the audience with anecdotes about coaching throughout the years, and what those teams and basketball players taught him.

Knight drew laughter when he called out Indiana Secretary of Commerce Jim Schellinger, who had talked about graduating from the University of Notre Dame and later using an architectural degree to help design one of Toyota’s first buildings in the Woodside complex.

“First of all, Mr. Secretary, just think of how good of an architect you would have been if you had gone to IU,” Knight said as the audience erupted in laughter. “Oh, and we beat your a– every time we played you,” he said of the Hoosiers’ basketball success against the Fighting Irish.

Although Knight kept it on the humorous side, many of his points about winning rang close to the Toyota philosophy of manufacturing.

Knight, whose teams won 902 games during his coaching career, said he often thinks back to the players he had coached and learning to listen to them.

Culture of improvement

Asking questions is a large part of Toyota’s manufacturing philosophy, which includes the concept of Kaizen (continuous improvement), explained Tom Lego, customer center manager for Toyota Material Handling, as he led a tour of the plant for media earlier in the day.

Lego explained that Kaizen includes the idea of encouraging workers to pool their wisdom and increase efficiency in a timely manner, not something performed by a manager or someone checking the employee’s work, but by all associates on a job site.

Knight also talked about working to get a little better at everything every day, including taking ownership of a leadership position.

“If you are the man or woman in charge, then be in charge,” he said. “Run the operation.”

That in a way relates to Toyota’s pursuit of “Monozukuri,” which is having the spirit to produce excellent products and the ability to constantly approve a production system in process.

“Listen to the people who have good ideas,” Knight told the group. “I always liked the phrase that ‘If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, what a Merry Christmas it will be.’ We’re going to be OK ‘if’ is a really important phrase in success.”

As part of the celebration, dealers and guests were also treated to a plant tour to learn more about the processes behind building Toyota forklifts — including the technology, methodology and manufacturing processes that led to the brand being named the No. 1 in America in 2002.

During the tour, visitors could see Toyota associates using a just-in-time delivery process to deliver parts to various areas on the manufacturing lines, the use of robotics technology and the final inspection process for each forklift.

First forklift

Toyota associates built a special gold forklift for the 50th anniversary which was outside T+Rex for guests to view. It was completed June 20 and dedicated in a ceremony that day.

A little further down the line of forklifts in the parking lot was the first Toyota forklift sold in America, bought by Charles Anderson, a grape harvester in northern California.

According to a sign, Anderson used the forklift in a variety of rugged outdoor applications, stating the truck had really proved itself over the years.

“All I ever had to do is perform routine maintenance on it, and it runs and runs,” he told Toyota officials.

Wednesday’s celebration included recognition of state, city and local dignitaries, along with a remembrance of the suffering from the flooding in Houston and noting that while nearly all the dealers were in attendance, those from the flooded area were unable to attend.

Wood promised that the company was evaluating the situation in the Houston area and would be there to help the dealership and Texas residents with equipment or other assistance.

“The Toyota culture isn’t just about building and selling products,” he said before going in for the official celebration. “It’s about sharing what we can with the community.”

Rufener said Toyota’s forklift operations have thrived for 50 years because of the company’s philosophy of honoring its culture, duty, creativity, simplicity, generosity and family.

“Together, we are No. 1,” he said. “And that’s why we will be celebrating 50 years from today.”

Anniversary gifts

  • Each Toyota associate, dealer, or guest received a miniature golden Toyota 8FGU25 Forklift as a gift for attending the celebration.
  • Toyota Material Handling North America announced it will plant 50 additional cherry trees on its campus in the Woodside Industrial Park as a gift to the community and to associates.
  • The company will also provide 50 cherry trees to the city of Columbus commemorating Toyota’s connection as a Japanese company and its continued collaboration with the city.
  • Toyota is providing 50 scholarships to youth who attending Columbus Park and Recreation programs, providing them with access to recreational programs.

Toyota milestones

1967: Toyota begins selling forklifts in the United States and establishes its first dealership in the United States.

1990: The first U.S. built forklift rolls off the line at Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing in Columbus.

2002: Toyota becomes the number-one forklift brand in America

2004: The company achieves zero-landfill status at the Columbus manufacturing facility. Proceeds from recycling at the company’s facilities are donated to Riley Hospital for Children and the Make a Wish Foundation.

2005: Toyota’s National Training and Customer Care Center opens in Columbus.

2012: Toyota Forklift’s corporate office relocates to Columbus.

2015: Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing celebrates 25 years of manufacturing in Indiana.

2017: Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing announces a $17.5 million investment in Columbus, representing a 150,000-square-foot expansion, bringing the facility’s total space to 1.3 million square feet. In January, the company opened T+Rex, a state-of-the-art health and wellness facility for Toyota associates and their families.

By the numbers

500,000: Toyota forklifts manufactured in the U.S.

800,000: Toyota forklifts sold in past 50 years.

1,500: Manufacturing sales and marketing associates in the U.S.

1,400: Toyota associates working in Columbus at the campus in Woodside Industrial Park.

$300 million: Toyota Forklift’s investment in Columbus’ manufacturing campus.

13: Number of campus expansions to accommodate forklift growth

67: Number of different base models of forklifts produced at the Columbus plant

3: Assembly lines building forklifts at the Columbus plant

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.