The Ties that Bind: Toyota’s Partnership with a Family-Owned Business

  • xlogo icon
  • facebook icon
  • linkedin icon
  • email icon

Building a trusted vehicle takes collaboration with trusted partners. Toyota works with a wide range of outstanding suppliers who provide many of the materials, services and innovations that help us make cars with the high standards of quality and safety that our customers expect.  

Toyota’s suppliers are not only our business partners, but an important part of the Toyota family—and many are family-owned businesses themselves. Kirk Lewis is the owner of three Toyota supplier companies that he runs together with his son Joe Lewis: Blue Springs Metals in Blue Springs, Mississippi; Georgetown Metal Processing in Georgetown, Kentucky; and Madison Metal Processing in Madison, Alabama.  

Kirk, a veteran of the automotive industry, founded Blue Springs Metals in 2012 after spending nearly a decade developing a relationship with Toyota through his work with the Detroit-based Bing Steel. Today, his three companies are NMSDC-certified, full-service steel processing centers that supply steel and aluminum blanks to Toyota.  

“When I started working with Toyota as a supplier, it was like a breath of fresh air because of the relationship I built with them over eight years of us talking about putting this facility together. I really got to know them, and they got to know me, so there’s a real level of trust,” Kirk recalls.

Kirk and Joe agree that being part of the Toyota family is similar to a real family dynamic: there’s a robust built-in support network, plus the kind of give and take that creates strong relationships and clear communication on both sides.

“Toyota is a tough customer, which is good, but they’re also very fair and straightforward with you. You can work with that,” says Kirk.

Adds Joe, “Toyota excels at bringing their people and suppliers together through events or other social interactions. That’s helpful because manufacturing is fast-paced, and strong relationships make it much easier to work through issues together.”  

The senior Lewis’s roots in family businesses run deep. At an age when he was just big enough to work the cash register at his father’s barbecue restaurants in Detroit, Kirk began to help where he could. It was a full family affair, as his mother served as the restaurant’s bookkeeper. Following in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps, Kirk has now created the chance to work alongside his own son every day.

“It’s a wonderful thing to be able to work shoulder-to-shoulder with your son,” Kirk says. “I’ve seen him grow and mature and we’ve gotten very close. Every day he surprises me. I think he’s much smarter than me, and he has a different perspective on things than I do.”

As an example, Kirk points to Joe taking the lead on moving to a more flexible work environment during the pandemic. “I was an old school guy who went to work every day and didn’t leave the office until my boss left, and then I’d stay to make sure they didn’t double back to the office,” explains Kirk, laughing. “Joe said we needed to transition to working from home and giving our team more flexibility.”

Joe, who serves as vice president for all three companies, agrees that bringing a fresh set of eyes helps to smooth out some of the “generational twitches,” as he calls them, that arise in a combined workforce of more than 200 employees.

On the flip side, the younger Lewis values his father’s deep experience in the industry. “Dad has been in this business for forty years and has been through every challenging scenario you can possibly imagine,” says Joe. “With all that expertise right next to me, I’ve been able to piggyback off his knowledge.”

The inter-generational structure of the Lewis’s enterprises keeps the future squarely top-of-mind, a boon for growth and sustainability. The father-son duo is currently two years into a five-year plan to transition from Kirk to Joe as the formal head of the business.  

“One of the things that’s very important to Toyota and to me is legacy, and for me that’s having the ability to pass this business on to Joe,” says Kirk. “Right now, he’s running 60% of the day-to-day, and I try to stay out of the meetings because people always look to me to make the decisions. Joe has to be the one that makes the ultimate decision.” 

Adopting Toyota’s philosophy of always getting better and better, Joe is asking questions about how the auto industry will meet the technological change anticipated over the next decade. As Joe sees it, “Our company makes body parts. If it becomes possible to make a whole car in one punch, what does that do for our company?” Creativity and innovation are going to be central to adaptation in the constantly changing environment. “We need to be thinking now about what we can do differently,” he says, “whether it’s 3D printing or simplifying our current processes.”  

As for dad Kirk, family is always part of the big picture. His six-year-old daughter Kate is “who we all really work for,” according to Kirk. And his daughter Thais, a freshman Spanish major at University of Mississippi, is already on a pathway to a role in the family business. “She’s fluent in Japanese, and our thought is for her to work with Toyota before joining the rest of us. Those kinds of opportunities give your child a different perspective and a better understanding of our customer. She may not be able to do that with other OEMs. Because Toyota views us as partners and family, we can all grow together.”