<p>A TOTO factory worker in Clayton County smooths out a toilet fresh from the molding machine.</p> Trevor Williams

A TOTO factory worker in Clayton County smooths out a toilet fresh from the molding machine.

[Enlarge]
<p>A 2,100-degree kiln as long as a football field slowly bakes and hardens seven different toilet models.</p> <p>A residential toilet at a showroom in Fukuoka, Japan, opens up automatically when it detects body heat in the bathroom.</p>

This story is part of GlobalAtlanta's exclusive Japan special issue. Click here to read more.

When Japanese toilet maker TOTO put a factory in Georgia in the early 1990s, the economy in its home country was about to swirl down the drain.

Japan was entering its "lost decade," a period of economic malaise from which it still hasn't fully recovered.

In the ensuing years, as many Japanese manufacturers pulled out of the U.S., outsourcing production to China and other low-cost countries, TOTO gradually expanded its facility in Morrow, Ga., which sits just off Interstate 75 about 15 miles south of Atlanta.

Though highly mechanized, the factory and North American headquarters now employ about 600 people. Large machines use a slurry of kaolin and other clays, some mined in Georgia, to form molds for seven toilet models. Workers speaking six languages tend the malleable pieces along the assembly line, smoothing out seams in the clay with the care of artisans.

The toilets move into a kiln as long as a football field where 2,100-degree heat bakes the moisture out of the glazed clay, shrinking and hardening it into a near finished product. Workers test the toilets for leaks, add a patented flushing mechanism and send them to be boxed and prepared for shipment.   

The factory is operating at full capacity, with each shift putting out more than 300 toilets, adding up to about 21,000 per month. While some models saw slight sales dips during the recession, its overall effects were minimal, said Bill Strang, TOTO USA's vice president of operations.

At the height of the downturn, the factory temporarily moved to four-day weeks but avoided cutting any jobs. In fact, the company eventually added more space to accommodate growth.

"I did that seven months ago. At the height of the downturn, I added more brick and mortar to this operation," Mr. Strang told GlobalAtlanta in an interview.

TOTO's resilience amid a tough economy can be traced to many factors, Mr. Strang said.

For one, the company isn't dependent on new home construction, which was slammed during the downturn. Most of its business comes from remodels as consumers upgrade to more luxurious and energy-efficient fixtures.

That was intentional; from the beginning, TOTO has made it a point to stay away from being tied to bulk home builders, instead focusing on higher-end products, Mr. Strang said.

It helps that TOTO's toilets are seen as a "green" solution as consumers and companies grow more conscious about energy usage. By installing TOTO's products, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport saved 3.7 million gallons per month, which is especially critical considering Georgia's ongoing water disputes with TennesseeAlabama and Florida.

TOTO has also learned to take advantage of its decades of experience in markets like China, Indonesia and Thailand while continuing to localize its manufacturing process in each new operation, said Daijiro Nogata, president of TOTO USA.

"Investing in the local economy sets TOTO apart from other international manufacturers that simply import their products," Mr. Nogata said. "Throughout the world, each time TOTO launches a subsidiary, it sets down roots, becomes a member of the community, and contributes to the local economy."

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