Executive Insider: Leah Curry

This Indiana native comes full circle, returning to the manufacturing plant where she spent the first 19 years of her career with Toyota — but now as its president

March 10, 2020
Presidential Address -- As the president of TMMI, Leah Curry's new responsibilities include giving press conferences like this one in January to celebrate the new Highlander. 

With all due respect to the novelist Thomas Wolfe, sometimes you really can go home again. Just ask Leah Curry.
 
Last October, Curry was named president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana (TMMI), circling back to the plant she called her work home for 19 years.
 
But her Hoosier roots go much deeper than that. Curry was born and raised in the small town of Haubstadt, just a 10-minute drive from the plant. That’s once again where she makes her home after an interlude as president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, West Virginia (TMMWV).
 
It all makes sense, especially when you consider that Curry went to TMMWV to replace Millie Marshall, who was named president of TMMI. Then she came back to Indiana when Marshall retired. Some things are just meant to be.
 
That includes Curry’s path to TMMI. Driver’s Seat had a chance to sit down with her and learn about her journey, both professionally and personally.
 
And, if you want to know even more about TMMI’s transition to building the new Highlander, Curry and her TMMI teammates star in the upcoming docuseries Becoming Highlander.
 
 
Driver’s Seat: When you left Indiana for West Virginia, you were vice president of manufacturing. Now you’re the president of the entire plant. That’s got to be a great feeling.
 
Leah Curry: I’m very honored. But it’s also quite humbling. Thankfully, we have a really great team. I basically grew up with the people here, so we all know each other well. But it is a bit surreal. I still feel like the same person, albeit a bit older and wiser.
 
What has this plant meant to you throughout your career? 
 
Well, I’m from right here in Gibson County. I grew up in a town called Haubstadt. So I remember when Toyota announced they were going to come here. It really was the single biggest thing to happen to this area in a long, long time. I was working at Bristol-Myers Squibb, a pharmaceutical nutritional company. I started as a laboratory technician and, in 17 years, had made it into middle management. But when Toyota came to town, I could see that the opportunity for advancement was so much greater over the longer term. I really didn’t know anything about automotive manufacturing. It was this whole different technology. But I wanted to learn as much as possible and advance in my career.  So, I took a leap of faith and a $20,000 pay cut when I joined Toyota.
 
Not many people would be willing to even consider a move like that.
 
Well, Toyota was opening up a brand-new plant. An opportunity like that doesn’t come around very often. My dad opened up a restaurant in Haubstadt called Haub Steak House. It was an upscale restaurant in a very small town. He took a lot of risks and worked incredibly hard. But it paid off for him and, obviously, for me and my three brothers and three sisters. And my mom was a nurse and worked at a time when many women in our area didn’t. What I took from them is that you need to accept some risk — to give up what feels comfortable for what feels uncomfortable — if you want to take that next step. But, you know, I had four kids of my own and there were no guarantees. Just the promise of an opportunity that Toyota presented when it came to this community. Thanks to the example set by my parents, though, I just always had confidence in myself that I could continue to learn and grow.
 
Confident, yes. But you had to be nervous, right?
 
Absolutely. I was a nervous wreck getting ready for my first interview with Toyota. My dad said, “Leah, you’ve got a job now. It’s a good job. So what’s the worst that could happen?” And I said, “You know what? You’re right.”
 
Leader on the Floor -- With 19 years at TMMI before becoming its president, Curry knows many of the plant's team members by name. 

So, you got your foot in the door at TMMI. What was your first job?
 
Maintenance team leader. I was working on the equipment, programming robots, troubleshooting equipment. From there, I had the chance to move to other positions and expand my knowledge and my network.
 
So, you made the right decision?
 
Oh my gosh, it was life changing. For me. But also for my family. I mean, in the same way my parents inspired me, I believe my career with Toyota has had an impact on my kids. I feel like if I had just played it safe and stayed with the status quo, then maybe they wouldn’t have seen that you can change directions in life whenever you want to. If you have the passion behind it, you can make it work.
 
How has that experience and the impact of people like Norm Bafunno, who was the president of TMMI when you were a vice president, shaped your approach to leadership?
 
Norm is a great person and he’s been a tremendous mentor to me. He loves talking to people and really listening to them so he understands them. What I learned from him is that it’s about servant leadership. My responsibility is to make sure we have an environment where every team member feels they can be successful in their careers. We must be competitive and we must continue to innovate so we’re ready for whatever the future brings. That was my mandate when I went to West Virginia. And it’s the same here. But, to be honest, it does feel a little bit different coming back to the place where I’ve spent most of my career with Toyota. It’s just this feeling that — no matter what — I am not going to let these people down.
 
Is there anything you learned during your time at West Virginia that’s going to help you in this new role?
 
Well I learned just how important  engines and transmissions are.
 
Yeah, I guess they are kind of important.
 
Seriously, I learned that no matter what you’re producing, it’s about the people, it’s about the process and it’s about the equipment. Success depends on a lot of the same factors. You need to lead with vision and support the team as they encounter new challenges. In West Virginia there were a lot of new technologies to learn. And there are a lot of new technologies on the floor here with the new Highlander.
 
I can imagine. You kind of jumped into this role right when TMMI was making the transition to the 2020 model.
 
Yes. The key for me was learning where we were at and, if there were any issues, what kind of support could I provide to help team members address them. So I spent a lot of time on the floor. The team members here are very good at showing you exactly what the situation is. So, with their help, I’ve been  able to get up to speed pretty quickly.
 
A Celebration of Indiana -- Curry (far right), with (from left) former TMMI team member and current Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky president Susan Elkington, former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former TMMI president Norm Bafunno. 
 
Two team members in particular, Ted Brown and Brenda Helmerich, led the charge on a program at TMMI that’s creating pathways to full employment for people with disabilities. I’m guessing this is something that’s near and dear to your heart.
 
Very much so. We need all types of people to make this place work. Ted and Brenda deserve a lot of credit. But it didn’t take long before many other team members jumped on board. We have so many good people here who just want to make a difference. Fact is, you either have someone in your family, or know someone who does, who’s in this situation. People with disabilities — no matter what that might be — just want to have a job, add value and have a purpose in life. And as a parent, you just want to help them find a way to be independent. We’ve had parents come in here crying. It means so much to them that their son or daughter, or brother or sister, go to work every day with a smile on their face.
 
And I hear that West Virginia now has a similar program.
 
Yes. We started it there last year. They were able to follow Indiana’s lead and run with it. Which was so gratifying. Inclusion is really, really important — not just to the people it helps but to the success of our company.
 
You’ve also been a big champion of women in STEM-related fields.
 
I’ve always had a passion for youth. I’ve served on the boards of Project Lead the Way and the Southwestern Indiana Network for Education. I’m currently on the Manufacturing Institute and Women in Manufacturing boards. I’m always looking, in particular, to help young women understand what careers in STEM are all about and then help lead them to the training they need to get started. I’ll keep doing this work, probably until I’m in my grave. It’s extremely important that the percentage of women in automotive manufacturing reflect that of the overall community. It matters, of course, to these women. But it also matters to the companies, who need a better understanding of what female customers want. We need better representation throughout every level of the organization. Every level.
 
I’d say we’re all really happy you decided to take that $20,000 pay cut 22 years ago.
 
Ha! Thanks, it’s worked out amazingly well for me, too. Far better than I could have possibly imagined. As I said at the outset, I’m honored and humbled.
 
By Dan Nied and Dan Miller
 

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