As far as birthdays go, it was a rather low-key one last week when Honda of America celebrated its 40th year of building vehicles in Ohio.
But that was fitting in a way, especially given the hush-hush nature of what went on behind the scenes four decades ago to bring the prized Japanese automaker across the Pacific Ocean and Rocky Mountains to the land of corn and soybeans.
It’s a story with many memorable punch lines: a cheap cup of coffee, a smile, and a governor who could charm a crisp $100 bill from the clutched hands of a Midwest banker. All were chapters of the economic development lesson Ohio taught the rest of the nation back then.
How Honda came to select Ohio for its first American venture was shared by Shige Yoshida during an April meeting with the Columbus Rotary Club. Yoshida was chosen by Honda in 1975 to lead a feasibility study with the goal of building motorcycles and cars in the U.S.
Unlike today’s site-selection exercises that come with pages of requirements and long wish lists, Honda had just three must-haves: flat land, easy highway access for suppliers, and a somewhat-close commercial airport.
It was up to Yoshida to figure out the rest, according to JD Malone, the reporter who covered the Rotary meeting for the Columbus Dispatch.
Yoshida told how he turned to Honda co-founder Takeo Fujisawa for advice on how to evaluate suppliers. Fujisawa believed that if employees were happy, it was a sign the company was solid. Yoshida remembered that as he toured the Transportation Research Center in Union County with then-Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes. Yoshida listened not only to what the workers had to say, but how they said it. He watched them leave at the end of the day with smiles.
“I also sat in many family restaurants, in many states, studying the people,” Yoshida told Malone and the Rotarians. “I was impressed by the people in Ohio.”
One of his stops was at McCarthy’s Pharmacy in Marysville, where a cup of coffee cost a nickel.
“Five cents! That was very impressive,” Yoshida said.
A day after visiting the research center, he asked Rhodes if any land was available near the facility. Rhodes did not need a “blue-ribbon” commission to know when to act.
At that point, those who knew Rhodes knew the deal was as good as done. This was a governor who had a long resume of wheeling and dealing. He already had built universities, branch campuses, county airports, state parks, vocational schools and much more across the state. An auto plant would be another stripe on his shirt sleeve.
Nothing could stand in the way of the Republican governor when finalizing a deal, especially politics.
“The Democrats used to say I wasn’t fit to sleep with the hogs. The Republicans defended me and said I was,” Rhodes liked to joke.
On Sept. 10, 1979, Honda in Ohio became a reality when 64 associates started producing the Elsinore CR 250 motorcycle in Marysville. Only the most optimistic thinkers of that era could have imagined the rapid growth that would follow the next 40 years.
Today, it is illustrated in numbers:
• 15,000 people employed in the Buckeye state, including 4,700 at its massive plant in Marysville, just off U.S. Route 33
• 20 million vehicles produced
• 600 U.S. suppliers
• $100 million in charitable contributions to community organizations
But perhaps what is most remarkable is that Honda has never laid off an employee in 40 years — not when car sales slowed down during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, nor this past August when it shut down a second-shift line to begin preparing for the production of electric vehicles a few years from now. Honda has always found other work its employees could do.
Ohio couldn’t have had a better salesman than Jim Rhodes in the 1970s to close the deal, or a better work force.
Clearly, when Honda came looking, Ohio had the right people at the right time.
ROSES AND THORNS: There’s 200 reasons to welcome two cousins to the rose garden.
Rose: To cousins Evelyn Sarber and Hazel Dunn, both of Lima. They each will celebrate their 100th birthday in October. Hazel was born Oct. 13, 1919, and Evelyn three days later on Oct. 16, 1919. They will be honored during an open house from 2 to 5 p.m. Sept. 22 at Old Barn Out Back.
Rose: To Kalida, Ottoville and Miller City-New Cleveland schools in Putnam County and Minster schools in Auglaize. Each received an A on the Ohio school report card.
Rose: To the Continental firefighters who climbed a three-story staircase, 37 times, to honor the emergency responders who were killed during 9/11 when they raced up the stairways of the Twin Towers trying to help those who were trapped.
Rose: To Vicki Gossman, of Delphos, who had her idea published in the nationally syndicated comic strip “Pluggers” on Sept. 9.
Rose: To John Mullins, a popular patrolman who retired from the Ottawa Police Department on Sept. 9 after 25 years of service.
Thorn: Rumors spread quickly on social media that a bearded man driving a red Mini Cooper was trying to lure children around Kalida into his car. It turns out the man was a contractor getting estimates for home basement repairs.
PARTING SHOT: “You look at Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bob Seger. All they ever wanted to do was go out there and entertain, and I’m the same way.” — the late Eddie Money, who died Friday in Los Angeles at age 70.
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News. Contact him at 567-242-0391 or at The Lima News, 3515 Elida Road, Lima, Ohio 45807.