PLANO, Texas — It has been five years since one of the largest U.S. corporate relocators in memory parked in Plano.
So much has changed in those five years since Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) made the move from its former home in California.
But as we found last month on a visit to the Toyota campus, some things haven’t changed at all.
The auto industry is as competitive as ever.
In some buildings at its home base in Plano, the automaker has hallways big enough for delivery trucks to stealthily deposit secret parts and vehicles into locked bays – all out of sight of the "automotive paparazzi."
On a tour we asked if people really show up to snap photos of those kinds of items, and we were told, "They would… but we have been able to kill all of that now."
The tour guide who said that was Jack Hollis, TMNA executive vice president of sales.
Even accompanied by him, we were only allowed into one of the rooms off those delivery truck-sized hallways.
“This is a ‘code-red’ room focused on motorsports,” Hollis explained. He then told us that Toyota’s racing specimens are scrutinized in that room to find potential inspiration for future street vehicles, “What can we learn from a spring or shock? What can we learn from a certain tire or tire size? Even lights and accessories…what can we learn?”
What you and I will see on the car lot in two or three years might originate from one of the racing vehicles we saw in there. Or possibly from one of the vehicles we couldn’t see. One of them was fully draped.
Hollis teased, “Would you like me to show it to you? The answer is I am not going to. I would like them to show it to me, and they won’t show it to me, either.”
In the headquarters lobby, he was more than happy to show us the new Toyota Sequoia, "Just about ready to launch this month."
We also got a glimpse of the latest Toyota Tundra, "I'm proud of our new truck out of San Antonio." And we saw a new Lexus that hasn’t started production yet.
All of the models surrounding the reception desks were, of course, full of computer chips.
Hollis confirmed, "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of chips." Those chips make vehicles "smarter" and are necessary for so many safety systems, creature comforts and wow-factor features we have come to expect in new models.
But microchips are still in very short supply, so new vehicles are in short supply as well.
That has pushed auto prices to record highs in recent months. We asked Hollis when "normalcy" is going to return to automobile supply and demand, "We will start to grow inventory again with our dealers in 2023. But what you’re probably defining… I think it's closer to 2024, where I think there is more of an equalization between supply and demand."
Even when that happens, Hollis thinks Americans will continue to shop for automobiles pandemic style, "Right now they are in the middle of the night in their pajamas. They go online, configure their car, find it at a dealership, in fact go all the way through trade-in, finance it, purchase it, deliver it all the way to their home. That didn’t exist pre-pandemic."
Speaking of permanent changes and pajamas, Hollis also believes work-from-home is here to stay, but with one important caveat: "If we can take the hybrid workforce and make it a better outcome, then it will last. If I want this to be my workflow… then I better produce at or above what was previously expected. It’s consistent 'plus alpha.' What’s that 'plus alpha?'"
When we walked around the grounds, it was apparent that many of Hollis’ co-workers have figured out that "plus alpha." Hollis acknowledges, "It’s a lot less – you see a lot less people."
It can look almost as sparse as a pandemic-era new car lot inside. When we visited, some workplace cafes were dark, the grill at one of the food courts was not as crowded, the well-equipped company gym was one man’s private workout space and the ever-popular rock wall was available with no waiting.
Of the roughly 6,000 local Toyota employees and partners, as many as half now flex work from home on any given day instead of coming into this sprawling amenities-packed billion-dollar headquarters that was built not that long ago to house all of them.
But just a couple of years after the headquarters was constructed, the pandemic hit, and everyone had to adapt. The work has still been getting done, and many employees have found the flexible model to be a good fit.
But Hollis says more employees have recently been returning to the office. "The majority of people that we're hearing are coming back… say I just want to be with my teammates more. I miss the water cooler talk. I missed walking down a hallway and having a lunch with somebody I wasn't planning on."
From that tremendous workforce evolution, Hollis shared that Toyota is also now evolving away from just cars and trucks and SUVs.
We were intrigued and asked him to elaborate: “At Toyota we're talking about moving from an automotive company that's just focused on vehicles to a mobility company, a full mobility company based on our needs and age. What if we can create mobility for a 5-year-old and a 95-year-old? How about if I have a scooter… that we can create a different kind of scooter? Or how about somebody who has disabilities... what if they could have something that helps them walk? It means you have to stay creative on all kinds of powertrains in a vehicle. But how about you have foot power, you have electrical scooter power, but how about even AI (artificial intelligence)? The whole AI movement of things… autonomous driving… all of those pieces will make mobility safer and better for you.”
Who knows what might be in those "code-red" rooms in the Plano headquarters in the years to come…