By Thomas Brewer
After making what I thought to be the biggest personal and professional decision of my (and my family’s) life, I was given another major career opportunity that proved to be equally challenging and rewarding.
I had moved to Beijing, China, to be the Controller of a General Motors Greenfield Foundry Joint Venture with the Chinese Government. It was during the 1986 holidays that I received a call from a new wholly owned GM subsidiary planning to build the largest Industrial Project in North America. The company was called Saturn Corporation and they were recruiting me to lead the construction finance operations for this new, massive project.
Saturn had not yet announced the plant location, and 40 states were in the running. Each state presented their Economic Development Incentive packages to the GM Site Selection Committee (even Arkansas with then-Governor Bill Clinton). The site selection would determine where in the United States my family and I would call home for the duration of the project.
I accepted the position with Saturn and spent the next few months transitioning the project in Beijing.
So how do you go from living and working literally on Tiananmen Square, back to Detroit? And eventually to the rolling hills of rural, Middle Tennessee? In less than one year, I found myself in the Grand Hotel Beijing, back to my 40-acre Horse Farm in Saginaw, Michigan, then via Detroit suburbia to Spring Hill, Tennessee. My nightly experience of toasting MaoTai (Rocket Fuel) at a Beijing banquet at Beihai Park shifted to drinking beer and watching T-Ball games on Saturday nights in Tennessee.
Wild … Crazy … Stressful … and absolutely all worth it!!!
My wife was all in, and my young kids (3-5-7 years old) were extremely resilient … Let’s Go!
When we moved to Tennessee, Spring Hill had only one flashing caution light. City Hall and the Police Department operated in a double-wide trailer. The one restaurant (The Poplar House) menu special was Rooster Fries. The city’s population at that time was less than 1,000 … today, Spring Hill has a population of 40,000, growth that can be significantly attributed to the manufacturing investment by Saturn Corporation and related economic impact in the region.
I purchased a house just outside of the adjacent community in Columbia, TN, and truly loved the city. The first question asked by nearly all of our new friendly neighbors was, “Got a church yet? Come go with us Sunday!”
First time my next-door neighbor came over to introduce himself, he was wearing blue jean overalls with no shirt and unlaced boots. He demonstrated genuine Southern hospitality in that interaction and invited me to play golf that weekend. It was my first Saturday in Tennessee when I joined my neighbor in his custom golf cart, listening to AM/FM radio playing country music, enjoying cold beer from the built-in cooler. We drove two miles down the main highway in the golf cart to get to the course. I was in heaven.
The Spring Hill residents weren’t sure what to make of the new development at Saturn Corporation’s manufacturing site, including the people associated with the project. At the local Kroger, I signed up for their Video Club and identified my employer to be Saturn Corporation. The young lady asked which construction company I worked for, to which I replied that I didn’t work for a contractor but worked for Saturn. She replied, “Oh, you’re One of Those!” Yep, I guess I was.
So, I began introducing myself as “one of those Saturn people.” I wore a suit and tie and drove a company car, a shiny new Cadillac, which stood out in my new community. When I stopped to get coffee at a local gas station on my way to the plant at 5:30am, the clerk was curious about me. She said, “Are you a movie star? You look like a Movie Star.” I defaulted to my new identity by saying, “No ma’am, I’m just one of those Saturn people.” She smiled.
Beyond navigating my own integration into our new community, our team with Saturn Corporation (General Motors) was also faced with merging the largest corporation in the world into rural Tennessee’s culture and economy. How would we manage that challenging integration? Community Relations.
As part of our community relations with Spring Hill, Maury County, and the State of Tennessee, Saturn Corporation invested in a new City Hall, Police Department (with donated Police Cars), and two new Fire Stations. We donated 50 acres to Maury County to build a new high school. We became a committed supporter of community safety and education.
In conjunction with financial investment, we focused on protecting the local environment as a part of our community relations and responsible corporate citizenship. Saturn/GM assured the communities of Environmentally Friendly Policies, which led to Saturn Corporation winning many state and federal Environmental Awards and obtaining a Certified Wildlife Habitat designation for the site. Saturn implemented a policy that NO tree could be cut down on the property without the written approval of the Site Manager. Further, Saturn developed its own onsite Rock Quarry, producing all sand, gravel, fill and concrete; this resource eliminated over 30,000 heavy-duty trucks from the public highways.
There were 7,000 new Saturn team members associated with this project. How would those “transplants” (myself included) integrate into their new rural Tennessee homes? Our team supported local involvement at the corporate and personal levels. Over the 30 years living in Columbia, I did what I could to serve my neighbors. I was involved in my church as a deacon, member of the choir and church personnel committee. I was involved with the Hospital Board of Directors, United Way Board (as President), Chamber of Commerce Board, Local Workforce Board, and Leadership Maury Program. My kids’ activities gave me a chance to coach (soccer, baseball, football), referee youth sports, and serve as School Board Treasurer.
I am proud of what my team and I were able to create with the Saturn Corporation. I am thankful for the introduction to my Middle Tennessee home base with such a pivotal career opportunity. I am equally grateful for the unique experiences in Beijing and other unique, diverse destinations my works has taken me. During those moments in Tiananmen Square so long ago, I would have never guessed how much living and learning was in front of me.
Thomas Brewer is President & CEO of Intelligent Mobility Planning LLC. Tom spent 34 years with General Motors where he held various positions including Controller and Planning Administrator at the Spring Hill Manufacturing Complex. He was responsible for executing the GM Global Launch Process for all new vehicle platform architectures and led 23 separate launches. Tom went on to serve as Managing Director for the Workforce Development and Conference Center at Northfield in Spring Hill, TN, to focus on economic development in the Southern Middle Tennessee region. He then transitioned into the role of Associate Vice President at Tennessee Tech University prior to starting his consulting company. Tom currently advises manufacturing start-up ventures and works to advance a TN-based Automotive Proving Grounds concept among a collaboration of stakeholders.
High Value Manufacturing is proud to collaborate with Intelligent Mobility Planning LLC to deliver a full-range of consulting services for manufacturing startups. HVM Resiliency Partners combines the industry expertise and experience-based services of these firms to help domestic and international companies launch manufacturing facilities within the United States, thereby strengthening supply chain resiliency.
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