Leading by Learning

STEP Ahead award-winner Renee Robertson continues to embrace new challenges, inspiring the next generation of women in manufacturing to follow

June 11, 2019
Dynamic Speaker -- Robertson is often called upon to address thousands of high school girls as a member of the board of Young Women Lead. Her objective: "To open their eyes to a future (in manufacturing) they probably would have never considered."

Renee Robertson doesn’t shy away from change. Rather, she seemingly thrives on it.
 
So, when in 2017 she had the opportunity to become the general manager of Production Control at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky (TMMK), she embraced it with open arms — even if her prior 25 years with the company were spent in finance, accounting, purchasing, compliance and diversity.
 
“Any time you move out of your comfort zone, there’s going to be some anxiety,” says Robertson. “But within the first week, I knew I’d made the right decision. I love learning new things. And with this job I learn something new every day. It’s endless.”
 
Robertson made the leap to the production side of the business right when it was taking on three major product launches — all-new versions of Camry, Avalon and ES — in just 14 months.
 
“It was definitely a challenge!” she says. “I was flattered that our TMMK senior leadership team had faith in me, especially given that it was absolutely essential that all three launches were successful. To the company’s credit, they were. The camaraderie of our team members is just incredible. Everyone rallies together to solve problems and to make sure we are building the highest quality vehicles for our customers. It truly is the DNA of Toyota.”
 
Due in part to that accomplishment, as well as her exemplary career since getting her start in Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1991, Robertson was honored by The Manufacturing Institute with a STEP (Science, Technology, Engineering, Production) Ahead award in April. She was joined on that short list by two fellow Toyota team members: Marie Kendrick and Shamaya Morris.
 
Go and See -- Robertson prides herself on being a hands-on general manager of Production Control at TMMK.

A Lifetime in Manufacturing
 
While Kendrick and Morris were cited as “emerging leaders,” Robertson earned her moment in the spotlight for her career of achievement. After all, she got her start in manufacturing at a very early age.
 
“My dad was in the manufacturing business, though not automotive” she says. “I practically grew up on the shop floor, where things are being created and produced. That’s what I knew and what I enjoyed, so I was very excited when I learned all those years ago that TMMK was hiring and I was able to get a position at the plant.”
 
Robertson earned a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting from the University of Kentucky and had a year’s work experience at a bank when she started at TMMK. Five years later, she transferred to a position at the then Engineering & Manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger, returning to Georgetown in 2015.
 
Family Fun -- Robertson works hard, but plays hard, too. Here's a snapshot from her family album: (left to right), her husband Keith Robertson, vice president of Demand & Supply Management at TMNA; and daughters London and Erin.

Empowering Young Women
 
At every step along the way, Robertson has gone above and beyond her daily duties to encourage young women to consider following in her wake.
 
For example, in 2011 she was one of the founders of the Toyota North American Women’s Conference. The annual event now draws together some 350 women from across the ranks of the wider Toyota organization.
 
Robertson also speaks twice a year and served on the board of Young Women Lead, a one-day leadership and life-skills conference for high school girls, an event Toyota sponsors in Kentucky.
 
“Every year I speak to an audience of 2,000 girls,” she says. “I make it interactive, asking how many have been to a manufacturing plant and how many have considered a career in manufacturing. Very few hands go up. Then I show them a video of what it’s really like on the floor of a modern plant like TMMK. And every time, the girls applaud. It really opens their eyes to a future they probably would never have considered.”
 
In a similar vein, Robertson actively supports TMMK’s “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” served on the board for Linkage’s Women in Leadership, and she helped create TMMK’s Manufacturing Development Program, which paired high-potential team members with executive mentors.
 
“I currently have five mentees across the company, not just in Georgetown,” she says. “I really enjoy these relationships. They pose questions or raise concerns and I get a good sense of how others view us as a leadership team. It’s a very good program.”
 
Simply put, this mother of two daughters is determined to help pave the way for future female leaders. Success, as she’s come to embody it, is about empowering people in the same way others have empowered her.
 
When asked about the best part of Toyota, she answered, “The people. It’s about kaizen. It’s about go and see. And it’s about continual learning. If you have a good idea, you can make incredible things happen. It’s very fulfilling. I can’t say enough good things about Toyota.”
 
By Dan Miller

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