Chattanooga Volkswagen plant was 4th in Don Jackson's career

photo Don Jackson, President of manufacturing at Volkswagen of Chattanooga, speaks to new hires inside of the company's training center.

AT A GLANCEReared: Elizabethtown, Ky.Age: 56Education: Eastern Kentucky UniversityWork: Clark Equipment, Toyota, VolkswagenPersonal: Married to wife Jerre, three childrenQuote: "I love to do things hands-on and be in a manufacturing environment. That's always been the strength of my career."

When Don Jackson was thinking about joining Volkswagen four years ago -- later playing a key role in starting up the automaker's first U.S. plant in decades -- he decided to first drive a VW.

"I'd never benchmarked a VW," said Jackson, who was then a top official at Toyota's San Antonio, Texas, production plant. "I got in the car and said, 'This is pretty nice.'"

Jackson then made the move from a long career at Toyota to Volkswagen. He became the German automaker's president of manufacturing in the U.S., where he helped launch Passat production in Chattanooga last year.

With the $1 billion plant now producing over 600 cars a day, the 56-year-old auto veteran last month decided to step aside.

"You wonder about when is the right time to do something different," Jackson said in a recent interview, adding he plans to take some time off and also work with and support local companies with his expertise.

The Kentucky native said the VW plant was the fourth factory he has helped build in his long career, having been the 292nd Toyota employee in North America when he joined the Japanese carmaker in 1987.

Jackson brought extensive experience in quality control to the Chattanooga facility. He had held top management slots in quality at an automotive supplier and with Toyota.

"We were able to take the best from Toyota, Nissan, GM, Chrysler," he said, along with VW. "We took all of their best practices and tried to do them here."

Michael Macht, a Volkswagen board member in charge of the carmaker's production worldwide, said during the plant's grand opening a year ago that "quality is the most important thing that we are targeting" for the automaker's revival in the U.S. market.

"If we do not achieve a good quality in this product, then we are really in deep trouble," Macht said. "This is how we installed the processes here and everything we are doing with our management team and our staff is to ensure that we have a strong focus on quality."

Lack of quality was one reason cited for the failure of the company's Pennsylvania production plant in the 1980s.

Jackson recalled that he knew about 10 people from Toyota who had worked at the Pennsylvania factory.

"I talked to them directly," he said.

Jackson also said he and plant chief Frank Fischer had talks surrounding what happened at the Pennsylvania plant along with the VW board.

"We tried to understand what went right to carry on here and what were the improvement points," he said.

One of the most important factors officials discovered was trying to make a better connection between the German leadership and Americans, Jackson said.

"The product [made in Chattanooga] is designed for the U.S., whereas in the past it wasn't," he said.

Jackson said he's proud of the team VW has put together in Chattanooga, where the plant will employ about 3,500 by year's end.

"We really scrutinized and looked at people," he said. "We looked to promote internally and give them a chance to develop skills and transfer knowledge."

The former VW manufacturing chief also cited the Passat, the midsize sedan upon which the automaker is pinning many of its hopes for its rebirth in America.

He noted that over 85 percent of the car is sourced from North America, and it has received recognition as "Car of the Year" by Motor Trend magazine and earned other citations.

In terms of VW's future, Jackson said it's vital for the automaker to spur people to try driving a VW -- as he did four years ago.

"The key thing is to get customers into our cars," he said.

Business Editor Dave Flessner contributed to this story.