Tough in Transition

After 19 years at TMMI, Leah Curry is adjusting smoothly to life as president of TMMWV

March 29, 2017
Hands On Learning --  New TMMWV President Leah Curry (left) got a crash course in transmissions from team member Nancy Lawson (right). That devotion to genchi genbutsu prepared Curry for such an enormous job. 
 
Change is inevitable. The key is how you handle it. For Leah Curry, spending 19 years at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana (TMMI) – where she rose to vice president of manufacturing – prepared her for her next challenge. On Jan. 3, Curry took over as president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, West Virginia (TMMWV).
 
Going from a vehicle manufacturing plant to a transmission and engine plant brings challenges of its own, let alone the fact that while Curry has found her footing at TMMWV, much of her family remains in Indiana.
 
So how’s she doing? Well, read our interview to find out about the transition, Curry’s leadership philosophies and a whole lot more.
 
Driver’s Seat: What's been the toughest part of the adjustment from TMMI to TMMWV?
 
Leah Curry: I think just getting to know people and the product. You want to build your relationships as quickly as you can. I was at TMMI for more than 19 years. Pretty well knew everybody. At TMMWV, everybody's very friendly. It's a great work environment. Very strong technical people. I think the hardest thing is that you just want to add value as quickly as possible, but you need to spend time with people and build those relationships. 
 
You came from Indiana and I guess that's a bit ironic because Millie Marshall went from TMMWV to replace former president Norm Bafunno in Indiana. And you ended up replacing Millie.
 
Yes, very ironic. Millie has been very helpful. It's very interesting and thought provoking to see things from different perspectives. TMMWV is different because it's an engine and transmission plant versus a vehicle plant. I get to see the other side, how we make components. We build 650,000 engines and 740,000 transmissions annually. We are the only plant in Toyota to build both.
 
Now, the vehicle plant's my customer, so it's a good opportunity to broaden my skill and knowledge, but also see what I can bring from the vehicle side to the unit side in order to support West Virginia.
 
How familiar were you with TMMWV before you came out here?
 
I had been to West Virginia several times in the past, but as far as the production of the engine and transmissions, I wasn’t very familiar with the plant. It's all about the people and the product. You also have some differences in the business model. There's a lot of similarities in manufacturing no matter where you go because you need to develop your people.  Setting a vision and creating a good work environment for everyone is vital for growth.
 
Community Pillar -- Curry speaks at West Virginia Bridge Valley College's Introduce a Girl to Engineering day. 

What's the key to developing good people?
 
There must be a sustainable development system. Our members must understand why it’s important to learn the subject matter. Your system has to be structured in order to teach the “why,” so no matter what changes, there is a structured system in place to continue to teach the history and the “why” behind what we do. 
 
I am also passionate about applied learning, because I am a product of a skilled maintenance internship program. You can't just attend a class on a subject and know how to apply the knowledge. You need to be able to apply the skill in the real world as you learn the theory. Since my background is in skilled maintenance, I try to teach our youth to understand the opportunities in STEM, especially in manufacturing.
 
When you came to West Virginia what was the biggest surprise?
 
It wasn’t a surprise, but the team members are very passionate. I was impressed by the depth of their technical knowledge, which is evident by the command of their equipment.
 
Family Ties -- Leah and her family outside her father's steak house in Haubstadt, Indiana. 
 

Was there a mentor or family member that got you excited about or inspired you to go into this line of work?

Well, my mom and my dad both were very hard workers. My mom was a nurse when we were young. There were seven of us kids. I have three brothers and three sisters. She worked when a lot of women didn't work. She always inspired me to learn. My dad started a restaurant when I was young. It was a very successful steak and seafood place called Haub Steak House in Haubstadt, Indiana.
 
I started working in the restaurant on weekends when I was 9 years old, washing dishes by hand. I was making my own money, so I had a lot of independence early. From a female perspective, to be independent is a great attribute that I think that we need to be able to teach all our kids, whether they're boys or girls. From that I learned how to work hard because, in the restaurant business, it's about customer service. My father owned that restaurant for 47 years. Just sold it last April. Then in June he found out he had cancer, so as a family, we are coping with it, much like many other families who are struck by cancer.
 
I'm sorry to hear that.
 
It's terrible. I feel for anyone with cancer who doesn't have someone to take care of them. I don't know how they do it. This has really opened my eyes to some of the support systems – like Gilda’s Club – for people going through cancer who don't have family to help them.
 
Happy Times --  Leah with her parents, Larry and Shirley Haley, and her husband, Dave. 
 

Where do your parents live now?

They live in Indiana. I have four children. I have one new grand baby on the way, my first one, in July.
 
Congratulations!
 
Thank you. Everybody lives in Indiana. I make the trip back on some of the weekends. Not every weekend, but as often as I can.
 
Was it hard to make the decision to move to West Virginia with all that going on in your personal life?
 
It's obviously very difficult when your father's very ill and you know you're having your first grand baby. But Toyota supported me. With that support, I've had no problems. It's always a difficult decision, but it was a great opportunity. I love West Virginia. It's in the mountains and Indiana is very flat. I love the people. They’re very hard working, extremely kind people. West Virginians really welcome you with open arms.
 
Who made the move with you?

My husband is going back and forth because I have a special needs child. She's 24. She has a job and he has always taken her to work. He'll come here certain days of the week and then we'll go back to Indiana on the weekends. But this really pushed us to get her to become more independent. She just got her driver’s license and she's now driving herself back and forth to work. This is the first week of that, so all my prayers are going to make sure she's safe. With challenges, you do some things you didn’t think you could. If you would've asked me two years ago if she was capable of driving, I would've told you no. This made us really think about how to get her to be more independent.
 
You've got to concentrate on what's going on in West Virginia now. That's just such a big task. How did you approach it?
 
Well, you know the first step was I just started meeting with the general managers, understanding from their viewpoint the current culture and the things they're working on, what kind of challenges are ahead, what is their vision of what West Virginia should be doing. Then I met with every manager on the floor, reviewed their area. I am working on getting to know all the team members at West Virginia. And of course Millie Marshall. We had many conversations back and forth. I would talk to her about Indiana, she would talk to me about West Virginia.
 
What's one thing that you do on a regular basis that people might find surprising?
 
I like to get older pieces of furniture and antique them or do chalk paint, change it to look different. It's really therapy for the mind and it gets your creative side out. The problem is, I like to do dressers and my husband's like “you can't buy anymore dressers.” I'll keep doing a dresser and give it away to one of my children or somebody. 
 
What's your favorite TV show, book or movie?
 
I have two. My book is Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I really related to her and I've done a lot of teaching on Lean In, just to help women relate to what we need to do differently to engage ourselves in a business environment. What are the things that hold us back?
 
Then the other one is a Ted Talk by Drew Dudley called Everyday Leadership. I love Ted Talks, but that was one of my favorites because it takes leadership and makes it about things that you do every day, the impact you have on people whether you know it or not. It's a great perspective on leadership and I feel like everyone is a leader or has the capability of being a leader, whether they know it or not.
 
A Proud Day -- Leah (third from right) at her son's wedding. 
  
Anything else you’d like to add?
 
One thing. I have three sons and a daughter. I adopted my daughter from Romania when she was three. Before that, I had one son who died of a heart problem. He was 1 day old. I learned at that point that everyone's grief is different and you can't compare. Everyone’s grief is their own. That really changed me.
 
When people are going through rough times, you should be compassionate and supportive, but understand, that you don't know what they're going through, and we each deal with grief in our own way.  
 
Because of that, I ended up adopting my daughter. I probably would've never adopted her had I not lost my son. Sometimes things just happen in life you can never explain, and it's really what you do going forward that is most meaningful for your life and your family's life.

By Dan Nied
 
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