Honda Motor Co. this month marked the 25th anniversary of the opening of its trend-setting assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, and the 9 millionth vehicle to roll off that factory's production line.
The factory was the first Japanese-owned auto plant to build cars in America, but the idea was quickly copied. Now, the United States has more than two dozen Japanese auto plants.
That first Honda plant on U.S. soil, and many other auto plants since, were built with the help of several Toledo-area companies, thanks to what you could call Toledo's Honda connection - a series of fortuitous events that began in 1979.
Richard Lee, then a vice president of the Lathrop Co., a large construction firm based in Maumee, made a sales call at the Honda motorcycle factory that had recently opened in Marysville, to see if the company had any expansion plans.
A 2008 Honda Accord coupe is driven off the assembly line at the Marysville plant that opened 25 years ago.
"I couldn't get past the receptionist," he recalled.
But, while driving back to Toledo along U.S. 33 northwest of Columbus, Mr. Lee noticed a concrete apron leading to a new ready-mix concrete plant next to a cornfield. He knew something was up.
Mr. Lee, now 71 and retired from Lathrop, soon traced the ownership of the concrete plant to Honda and discovered that Honda owned 4,000 acres around Marysville. He kept plugging away and finally got Lathrop on Honda's list of four potential contractors - based partly on the local firm's long history with Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Caterpillar, and other domestic vehicle makers.
"But Honda wanted 'single responsibility' for its assembly-plant construction," Mr. Lee said yesterday. And that meant Lathrop would have to bring architects and engineers into the project. A natural choice was Toledo's SSOE Inc.
A Lathrop Co. executive's efforts were instrumental in obtaining contracts for Toledo companies for the auto factory in central Ohio.
Lathrop and SSOE leveraged that first project into a second Honda factory in East Liberty, Ohio, followed by one in England.
But the first Japanese plant was very important, said Doug Martin, a Lathrop vice president. "Until you do one, nobody will talk to you," he said.
The success of Lathrop and SSOE rubbed off on several other local firms, including Romanoff Electric Corp. At one point in the 1980s, about 2,000 workers from this area were employed at the Honda projects.
In 1986, Lathrop was acquired by Turner Construction Co., in New York, which was itself acquired eight years ago by German construction giant Hochtief AG. Lathrop remains one of this region's largest construction firms, with annual revenue of $150 million to $200 million, according to Mr. Martin. Lathrop is working on Nissan and Kia plants.
SSOE went on to design nine Honda plants, plus some for affiliated suppliers, projects costing more than $2 billion. It also is doing jobs for Toyota and Nissan.
"Designing the Honda Marysville plant was an automotive breakthrough for SSOE," said Tony Damon, president and chief executive of the firm.
It opened opportunities for other auto work, he said. The firm, with more than 1,000 employees in 17 locations, hopes to design a Honda operation in China soon.
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