Tennessee’s tenth largest private employer (2001 figures), the Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corporation, U.S.A., is headquartered in Smyrna. It initially represented the single largest foreign investment by a Japanese corporation anywhere in the world. Led by Marvin Runyon, president and chief executive officer, the company broke ground for its Smyrna facility in February 1981. Middle Tennessee’s location, available transportation networks, and affordable labor were key attractions to the Japanese. Tennessee’s “right-to-work” laws were another factor influencing Nissan’s selection. Despite repeated efforts by the United Auto Workers, Nissan’s Smyrna plant remains nonunion. In June 1983 the first Nissan truck rolled off the modern assembly line. At that time, 1,736 employees worked at the factory, which had an annual manufacturing capacity of 120,000 trucks. Resting on a 778-acre site, part of which was once a local stock car “Circle 8” racing track, the factory contained 5.1 million square feet and the overall company investment totaled $760 million.
In May 1984 Runyon announced that the Smyrna factory would start producing the Sentra passenger car, which would be the first Nissan passenger car produced in the United States. The following March, the first Sentra car was completed; the factory’s production capacity reached 250,000 vehicles a year. When the company added a night shift in June 1985, Nissan employed some 3,000 workers.
The next major shift in the company’s fortunes came under the direction of new president and chief executive officer, Jerry L. Benefield, who assumed his position in December 1987. The following April, Benefield announced a $31 million improvement project to assemble engines and axles and to build bumper fascias. A year later, he announced that the factory would begin producing a new vehicle in 1992, requiring a $490 million expansion that would create another 2,000 jobs. In July 1989 the Smyrna facility produced its one-millionth vehicle.
During the 1990s, Nissan rapidly added new products to its industrial output. The first Altima passenger car rolled off the assembly line in June 1992. Two months later the factory began the engine assembly for the Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager minivan. Nissan’s two millionth vehicle was produced in March 1993. While expanding into new products, company officials also updated old models. In November 1994 the company launched an all-new Sentra model while reintroducing the once popular 200SX sports coupe. Plans for a Nissan Powertrain Assembly plant in Decherd, Tennessee, were announced in 1995 and the factory went into production two years later, with a $50 million expansion planned for 1998. The Frontier light truck first rolled off the assembly line in September 1997.
By the time of the release of the Frontier truck, Nissan had developed into a major force in the Tennessee economy. In 1996 the company produced a total of 414,031 vehicles, including 141,000 Altimas, 105,000 Sentras, and 30,000 200SX coupes. Three years later, the company undertook several important changes. It stopped producing the Sentra car at the Smyrna plant in March 1999. That same month, French automaker Renault invested $5.4 billion in Nissan as it merged with the struggling Japanese automaker. The following month, April 1999, the Smyrna plant produced its first Xterra sports utility vehicle, a model that has proved popular with customers across the nation.
The Renault investment in Nissan led to various corporate changes in 1999 and 2000. Longtime company CEO Jerry Benefield retired in April 2000. In July the company announced new investment and expansion for both the Smyrna and Decherd plants, and that fall Nissan hired 1,000 new employees for the Smyrna plant. By the end of the year, in December 2000, the Smyrna plant had produced its 5 millionth vehicle. In 2001 the company counted 6,400 employees at its Smyrna and Decherd plants.