Twenty-seven years ago when the last truck rolled off the line at the Ford assembly plant in Milpitas, Fred Carrillo lost his job.
"I never dreamt that I would be back in the auto industry," he said.
Ford closed just a year after the General Motors plant in Fremont had already shut down. Thousands of workers lost their jobs. But a year later, GM signed a historic agreement with Toyota. They would re-open the Fremont plant and call it New United Motors, or NUMMI for short. The plant would use a Japanese-style assembly line; very different from the American.
Carrillo had worked for Ford for almost 30 years. He was one of the first employees hired at NUMMI. Carrillo and 24 other Americans were sent to Japan for three weeks to learn the "Toyota way."
"When you got introduced to it, and you started practicing, the team members bought into it and they were really excited about it," he said.
Carrillo retired in 2003. He remembers the early days at NUMMI as the highlight of his career. He says the Japanese had a lot to teach them.
"The first 10 minutes in the plant there was music and we'd get out in front of our team with our group and do stretch exercises," he recalled. That was followed by an enthusiastic group pledge to safety, health and zero defects.
The Japanese used a lot more robotics than Americans. In the U.S., an auto worker would do just one job all day, but at Toyota, they were part of a team that rotated jobs. Carrillo especially liked the emphasis on building solid relationships among workers. They called it the personal touch.
"That's the name they gave it because you sat down and discussed things instead of having an adversary meeting, you just sit down. Yeah, personal touch," he said.
The years after NUMMI opened were exciting. Laid-off Ford and GM workers were hired back and they embraced the Japanese system. But by the mid-90s, Carrillo says there were a lot of new workers hired without the same training, and the plant began using temporary employees.
"It was impossible to take those people, team members that were only going to be there 89 days, to indoctrinate them into the Toyota production system and follow each step," Carrillo said.
By the time he retired, a lot of the Japanese ways were gone. However, he held on to treasured mementos like a kimono, as well as the hat he wore on the assembly line; reminders of a partnership he hoped would last a lot longer.
"It was an eye-opener, something way different than I was used to," he said.
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.