JAPAN'S `SECOND WAVE': PART 3. Shelbyville works to change image of `lazy American worker'

It was a stroke of inspiration, genius, whatever you want to call it for Mayor Daniel Theobald. As the clock wound down toward the last scheduled meeting between Shelbyville city leaders and officials of Ryobi, Ltd., it seemed as though something else should be done - anything really - to make the visiting Japanese feel at home.

Mr. Theobald knew the representatives of the Hiroshima-based auto-part company already had all the technical detail needed to make a decision on whether to locate its factory in Shelbyville. But the Japanese were clearly searching for something more, something that would make them certain about committing $25 million and 150 jobs to the town.

Then, a light bulb went on.

With only minutes to spare, the mayor invited Seiko Gordon, Mariko Goforth, Emiko Wildmone, and Mariko Kreinhop to the all-important meeting - four local women with no business experience - but who could give the Japanese executives a first-hand idea of Shelbyville in their native tounge.

Though she says her Japanese was a bit rusty, Seiko Gordon told visiting executives about the quality of the local schools and about living in the town for the last 34 years of her life.

``I didn't speak nice Japanese like those gentlemen,'' says Mrs. Gordon. ``But they were happy to ask me questions, because I am from the same country. I just told them anything I know.''

Gordon was a new bride when she left her home in Aomori, in northern Honshu, in 1953 to accompany her American husband to his hometown here in Indiana. She believes herself to be the first Japanese person to locate in Shelbyville in recent times.

``A lot of people here had never seen Japanese people before,'' says Gordon, who remembers the stares but also the polite efforts of townspeople to get to know her. ``They were very nice to me, the neighbors came to say welcome.''

This city of 15,000 is only one of a plethora of small towns throughout Indiana and the Midwest shifting toward a more global view of the world because of an influx of Japanese investment. Shelbyville, for example, is broadening its efforts to make a comfortable home for Japanese companies as a result of its successful cultural indoctrination with Ryobi.

Ryobi Ltd. has formed a joint venture with Sheller Globe, a US company, and has been operating for just about a year now under the name of Sheller-Ryobi Corporation.

Thus far, the sole product made inside that company's tidy factory is a die-cast aluminum transmission case built for the popular Ford Taurus and Sable car lines. But already the product has been found of such high quality that Sheller-Ryobi is doubling its plant capacity and will soon be selling aluminum parts to General Motors.

Inside the Sheller-Ryobi plant, molten aluminum is poured into huge 200-ton, automated Japanese die-casting machines that spit out about 1,000 hot, shining, aluminum transmission cases a day. Farther down the line, American workers finish the cooled cases and check them for flaws before packing them for shipment. Aluminum shavings and scrap are vibrated down a conveyor to the furnace. Very little is wasted.

Sheller-Ryobi officials say their success so far has gone a long way to debunk the myth of the ``lazy American worker'' in their own minds - and in the minds of the Japanese who work with them.

Hiroki Tosa is a die-cast process specialist who transferred to Shelbyville sans family to oversee the new operation. Working shoulder to shoulder with Americans has changed some of his ``misconceptions'' about American workers.

``I had thought that American people were very lazy,'' Mr. Tosa admits frankly. ``But I have learned in the case of Shelbyville that they work very hard, and do very good work.''

All of the Sheller-Ryobi workers and managers are American, except for Tosa and two other Japanese experts who oversee process control. The reason for high quality and high productivity, according to Sheller-Ryobi managers, has less to do with a native work ethic and more to do with teamwork, good management, and a systematic, rigorous quality control program.

``You don't have to be Japanese to appreciate what they're trying to do,'' says William McCollogh, president and hands-on factory manager of the Sheller-Ryobi plant. ``You just have to appreciate common sense methods and a decent regard [by management and workers] for each other.''

Mr. McCollogh, who worked in management ranks for much of his three decades in the US auto-part industry, now wears a plain tan short-sleeve shirt with a name badge pinned on it. Clearly, there are no big distinctions made between management and factory workers at this plant - and there is no union.

``I don't see a lot of difference between Japanese and US workers in terms of their desire to be listened to, to feel pride, to be part of a successful team,'' McCollogh says.

Indeed, the Japanese want a fresh, enthusiastic, and maleable workforce that hasn't been unionized or trained toward a confrontational style. This is an important reason why small towns receive attention from Japanese companies.

The Japanese ``try to locate away from union activity,'' says Mark Akers, industrial development director for the state of Indiana. ``So even if there is a vote to unionize, the history of the work force isn't along those lines.''

Last of three parts. Previous articles appeared Monday and Tuesay.

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