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Putnam's Japanese companies thriving after last year's disaster

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Toyota broke ground on its plant in Putnam County in 1996, other Japanese companies soon followed.

Some of those companies emerged in Putnam to specifically meet the needs of Toyota's Buffalo plant. But others arrived with no ties to the company at all.

Now, all of Putnam's eight Japanese companies have a connection to Toyota, and like Toyota, they have all recovered from last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Nippon Thermostat didn't necessarily establish itself in the Putnam Business Park in Fraziers Bottom because of the nearby Toyota engine plant.

"When [Nippon] built the plant, they didn't supply any parts to Toyota at Buffalo," said Gary Walton, director of Putnam's Development Authority.

Nippon announced last month it would double the size of its operations in Fraziers Bottom and create an additional 30 jobs.

"Now, [Toyota] creates the bulk of their work and has for almost the last three years," Walton said of Nippon, which makes automotive thermostats.

Toyota is also in the process of increasing production at the company's plant in Buffalo and creating an additional 80 jobs.

Last month, Toyota's top U.S. sales executive said he predicts his company will add jobs and build more models in North America as a hedge against a strong yen, according to an article by The Associated Press.

About 18 months after Japan was hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese automotive industry seems to have bounced back.

During Toyota's 15-year celebration in October, only about eight months after the disaster in Japan, the company announced production had been returned to normal levels.

Then, almost exactly one year after the earthquake and tsunami, Toyota announced its most recent expansion that adds the 80 jobs.

"The earthquake and tsunami had an impact worldwide because some parts manufactured for Toyota vehicles are manufactured in Japan," Walton said.

Some of Nippon Thermostat's plants north of Tokyo suffered from the earthquake's aftershock, Walton said.

Putnam County has more Japanese companies than any other county in the state with eight of West Virginia's 23 companies, Walton said.

After the earthquake, another Japanese company located in Putnam, Diamond Electric, which makes ignition coils, was forced to scramble to send parts to Japan, said David Pakulski, director of purchasing.

"For a brief interim, a lot of Japanese transplants dialed down production," he said.

"But now business is back," said Dave Bagnall, director of community affairs for Diamond. "We went from a slight downturn to the point now where we're working seven days a week, 24 hours a day at our Eleanor plant. We have 375 employees now."

Bagnall said he doesn't expect Diamond's Putnam location to expand in the near future, but notes that shouldn't be a sign of the company's success.

"We've got plants in Japan, China, India and Hungary, in addition to ones in the U.S. that we can lean on if we need more room," he said.

Like Nippon Thermostat, when Diamond arrived in Putnam, it wasn't doing business with Toyota, Bagnall said.

"When we first built the company in 1996, it was built to serve our customers just outside of Chicago at the Chrysler plant.

"Since then, though, we've had the opportunity to secure business with Toyota, and I think having our plant close to the Buffalo engine plant certainly helped," he said.

"It was only natural, Toyota and Diamond are both Japanese-owned companies, and so they formed a close relationship."

Green Metals, Toyota Tsusho, Meiji Corp. and Okaya, all Japanese companies in Putnam, all service Toyota.

"Toyota has worldwide recognition," Walton said. "Companies don't necessarily want to locate right next door, because any company right next door is competing in terms of wages, and Toyota pays a darn good wage.

"But that doesn't mean a company can't locate three, four or five miles away, and that's what these companies have done, and been successful doing," Walton said.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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