Toyota Australia president Dave Buttner today reaffirmed his company’s commitment to building cars right through to its planned 2017 shutdown, with export production still a major part of that schedule.
Surrounded by international executives and industry ministers during a special ‘line-off’ ceremony for the new-look 2015 Camry at the company's Altona facility, Mr Buttner was full of praise for the assembled manufacturing team.
“It is important that I take the time to offer my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to each and every one of our valued employees, thank you for your ongoing commitment and dedication throughout this most challenging of times," he said.
“There is no denying that today is bittersweet: the simple fact is that this will be the last car we’ll build at this facility.”
“But I have every confidence, every confidence, that this will be the best car that we have ever built. And when we achieve that goal, you will have clearly demonstrated that you are the very best.”
The average length of service for workers on Toyota's Australian assembly lines is 15 years. One worker, an 83 year-old, has been with the Japanese brand for 42 years.
Speaking with media after the new-look Camry’s unveiling, Mr Buttner said that he expects market demand here and overseas to keep the local manufacturing program operating right through to the end of Australian manufacturing in 2017.
“We've got an overall production volume of around 90,000 a year over the next three years, and that's for both our domestic and export markets," he said.
"That's very important to our local suppliers; we need them to stay the journey with us and they need a certain volume to recoup their fixed costs. In discussions with them, we believe that's an appropriate volume and a volume we can maintain for the next three years."
Around 70 percent of the locally-built Toyotas will be exported to the Middle East, New Zealand and Thailand. "That's been around about the historic split,” Mr Buttner said.
Around 2000 to 3000 of the exported Camry models will be sent to Thailand, supplementing the Kingdom's own Camry assembly - which could later become Australia's source for the midsized sedan when local production ends.
"There's around seven locations around the world that build Camry, but, frankly, a decision has not been made as to where we will source the car from beyond 2017," Mr Buttner said.
Toyota Australia already sources models like the popular HiLux utility and Corolla sedan from Thailand, while others like the Yaris, Corolla hatch and RAV4 come from Japan. Most recently, the local operation began sourcing its new Kluger from the US.
Full details of Toyota's plans for transitioning to an import-only sales and distribution company have not been revealed, but Mr Buttner was clear today that the Camry, along with the reputation of the Camry name, will be a key part of that plan.
"Whether you're a private buyer or a fleet buyer, I think the biggest asset you have across the life of a car is its residual value. So if there's no continuity of the name, that doesn't instill confidence in private or fleet buyers," he said.
"Our commitment to continuing the name, albeit in an imported capacity, means that hopefully we've given confidence to those fleets".
Mr Buttner said that Toyota Australia executives and sales staff met with major fleet buyers in the days that followed last year’s announcement of a 2017 exit, to speak about the brand’s commitment to the market.
“We spoke to each of them about our intention to continue the brand name, to give them that confidence that they can buy a Camry and know that the brand will be there tomorrow,” he said.
"We haven't seen any negativity. Fleets, these days, they're very astute, very focused on value for money in comfort, convenience and safety. We genuinely believe that Camry will continue to be strong among fleet and private customers."
Asked if Australian buyers factor production origins into their purchase decision, and whether ending Australian manufacturing will impact on Camry sales, Mr Buttner appeared less confident.
"There's been a lot of research there over the years, there's varying reports, but I think that at the end of the day, we'll understand that best in 2018."
Toyota is a leading brand in just about every segment that it plays in, with its Corolla and HiLux ranges occupying the top rungs of the Australian sales ladder.
Of the locally manufactured family cars, Holden’s large Commodore (7999 sales year-to-date) is outperforming the midsized Camry (5219) and large Aurion (715) in 2015, and both comfortably shade the Falcon and Territory (4401).
But, while falling sales for the Australian-built Holden and Ford models leaves a cloud of uncertainty over the scheduled production end dates for both, Toyota’s strong export programme should help the company keep its promise of a 2017 finish.