Add another first for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, the automaker’s Georgetown assembly plant.

The huge plant, an hour south of Covington along Interstate 75—that delivered the first U.S.-built Camry sedan in 1988, the first full-size Avalon sedan in 1994 and the first U.S.-made Camry hybrid in 2006—this fall will produce the first luxury Lexus ES 350 sedan made in the United States.

“Lexus is a pretty big deal,” says Rick Hesterberg, Toyota spokesman at the Georgetown plant. “We’re Toyota’s largest plant and first plant in the U.S. It’s quite an honor for the company to announce that we’d be the first plant to build this product in the U.S. It speaks to the confidence they have in our team members here in Kentucky.”

The only other Lexus model built outside Japan is the RX sport utility vehicle in Cambridge, Ontario.

Toyota, as part of its strategy to build vehicles where they are sold, has invested $360 million in a new 250,000-square-foot assembly plant at Georgetown that will produce about 50,000 Lexus ES models at capacity and has added 750 workers, bringing the plant’s full-time payroll to about 7,500.

The Georgetown plant already produces about 500,000 Camrys, Camry hybrids, Avalons, Avalon hybrids and Venzas and about 600,000 engines annually.

But producing Toyota’s highest quality brand has taken the Georgetown plant to a new level, Hesterberg says.

“When we went to Japan to study the Lexus brand they had something that’s called Takumi craftsmanship. It’s a very high level of craftsmanship that folks there take a lot of pride in.”

One example of Takumi craftsmanship: The Georgetown plant now produces a new Camry every 60 seconds. Lexus is much lower volume and what takes one team member for Camry to do in 60 seconds, it will take over 2. 5 minutes on the Lexus line.

“There are many more things the team member will be required to know, understand and perform on the Lexus line. It’s a different culture and takes a lot more training.”
A side benefit, Hesterberg says, “[is] it’s spreading throughout the entire plant here. Things we’re learning from Lexus are being applied to other lines and overall quality is the benefactor of that.”

Toyota first recruited workers for the Lexus line from veteran team members at Georgetown, and the vast majority jumped at the chance, he says.

“It was interesting to hear the team members,” he says. “Some said they’d never been involved in a startup before and wanted to be in on the ground floor, and others said they built the first Camry and wanted to be able to say they built the first Lexus [in the United States].”

Toyota is phasing out its manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger next year, affecting about 1,500 jobs there, to consolidate its headquarters functions in Texas. But about 300 engineering jobs are moving from Erlanger to Georgetown, where Toyota this spring is breaking ground on an engineering headquarters on the 1,300-acre plant site that will employ about 600.