In late 1984, Henry Cisneros, then mayor of San Antonio, got a call from Robert G. Marbut Sr. that would change the economic trajectory of San Antonio. Marbut, then CEO of Harte Hanks Communications, was calling from Denver. He asked Cisneros to clear his calendar the following day because he wanted to fly a Japanese couple to San Antonio to meet with him.
Cisneros, who said he first visited Japan in 1974, was a fan of that country’s industrial development and export strategies. He said he “always had it in the back of my mind to try to harness that” for San Antonio when he became mayor, so he was immediately intrigued by Marbut’s request.
“I want to bring them tomorrow, but I need a rock-solid promise from you that you’re not going to waste my time or theirs,” Cisneros recalled Marbut telling him. “So that Saturday, he showed up with Naoko Shirane, who is just one of the most unforgettable persons — and dear persons to me — that I have ever met.”
Mrs. Shirane, as she was always called, would be instrumental in creating a sister city relationship between San Antonio and Kumamoto, Japan, and forging long-term relationships with some of Japan’s biggest industrial leaders. That included Shoichiro Toyoda, the son of Toyota’s founder, whose wife was a cousin of Shirane’s.
Toyoda was critical to the automaker’s eventual selection of San Antonio as the site for what became a 2.2 million-square-foot manufacturing plant on the city’s South Side, said Cisneros — and Shirane was critical in connecting Cisneros with the Toyoda family.
On Wednesday, Toyota and local officials will celebrate 20 years since that deal was inked. Its impact, on San Antonio and Texas, is hard to overstate.
It can be quantified in numbers: Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas and its on-site suppliers together employ roughly 9,400 people. Toyota has invested more than $3 billion in its factory — most recently $391 million in 2019 to upgrade assembly lines to produce the Sequoia alongside the Tundra. The automaker reports another $50 million in community donations.
The total estimated economic impact on Bexar County’s gross domestic product from Toyota’s move and its ripple effects is projected to be $208 billion through 2035, according to city-supplied figures. That’s in part because Toyota’s presence here kickstarted a growing manufacturing sector in the region, including 26 suppliers to the automaker, truck manufacturer Navistar and Caterpillar, among others.