Japanese U.S. transplant automakers make strong cases for their progress in becoming American companies. While levels of local content and enormous operational investments are beginning to support that case, American workers are the building blocks.

Some Japanese automakers are passing the gavel to their American counterparts, empowering them to govern the bulk of the business including vehicle design, development and production. And a growing number of women are taking the gavel. That trend eclipses traditional Japanese culture, which limits women, and it demonstrates a sensitivity to the growing role of women in the American workplace.

Cheryl Jones, 32, is one of the chosen. In early 1987, she left her job at a Kroger grocery store to become the first woman to work on a Toyota Motor Corp. assembly line. Ms. Jones spent four months training at Toyota's Tsutsumi plant in Japan to learn the Toyota lean-production system and the rigors of fulfilling Toyota's unrelenting quest for kaizen, or continuous improvement.

The training programs are designed to round employees and enable them to impart crucial know-how to transplant operations abroad. When Ms. Jones arrived, Toyota took a crash-course as well: installing ladies' restrooms at Tsutsumi.

After completing the program, Ms. Jones returned to the States to become assembly group leader at Toyota's Georgetown, KY, plant, in August 1987. She worked on the pilot program in 1989 and was later promoted to assistant manager. When a second Georgetown facility was built in 1993 for the all-new Avalon, she was promoted to plant manager, making history again as the first woman in the entire Toyota realm to reach that level.

Meantime, this wife and mother of one pre-teen son was busy earning an associate degree in business management at Lexington (KY) Community College.

"I'm tickled to be where I am," she says. When I first worked at the Tsutsumi plant building Camrys, I would have team members from the night shift come by in the morning to watch me work on the line to see if I could actually do the job," she says.

Guiding output of Avalons and Camrys is challenging. Ms. Jones spends 11 hours a day monitoring run-ratios, parts-sequencing and conveyance, equipment modifications, quality and workability problems.

Ms. Jones looks forward to her next major role: supervising production of the new 1997 Camry. Also on tap in mid- 1997 is the all-new front-drive minivan replacing the Previa.

Most of all, she savors her work environment with its pervading Japanese flair, although less than 1% of her co-workers are Japanese nationals. She initially had doubts about working in a male-dominated business and in what she believed would be a hard-line Japanese atmosphere.

"When I hired on, I had this image in my mind that I had to do things differently and become really thick-skinned. But that's not the way it is," she says. "What helps me is the team spirit and the Japanese philosophy that teaches that it's okay to make a mistake. They really look at mistakes as opportunities to learn."

Ms. Jones' jump from Kroger to Toyota's assembly line was a long one, and her success underscores that women can thrive against seemingly long odds. Never let anybody tell you that you can't do it," she advises other women. "I got in on the ground floor, and just to be here makes me very happy. I'm not really concerned about whether I'm going to be an assistant general manager or a general manager. It's actually more rewarding to see the people working for me get promoted."

Amy Hiroshige

Amy Hiroshige's creative passion surfaced when she was 10. in a desperate attempt to convince her mother that poor design, not poor posture, made her slouch at the dinner table, she went to her room and sketched her ideal chair.

More than 20 years later, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. (MMC) discovered her talent. She spends her days managing design at Mitsubishi's design center in Cypress, CA, the only woman in the automaker's worldwide operations in such a position.

Look inside a Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe and you will see the fruits of her work. She designed the interior of the 1995 Eclipse, but it wasn't a shoo in. She competed with designers from U.S. manufacturing partner Chrsyler Corp. and crafters from Mitsubishi in Japan for the final nod from MMC President H. Nakamura in 1989.

Chrsyler adapted the design to fit the Eclipse-twin Eagle Talon and Sebring and Dodge Avenger coupes. All three cars are manufactured at Mitsubishi Motors Mfg. of America (MMMA) in Normal, IL.

Ms. Hiroshige earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California and later graduated from the renowned Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Designing now comes easily to the Hawaiian-born artist who gets ideal from museums, nature and shopping.

However, the most challenging aspect of her job is trying to tailor her automotive visions to the harsh realities of budgets and engineering parameters.

"everything comes with a pricetag, and there are a lot of politics involved. But if you can contribute something, get it through production and out to the world, your work will be appreciated," she says.

Her automotive design resume also includes the 1994 3000 GT interior and several show cars. She's in the midst of crafting the interior of a new vehicle that will be built at MMMA for the 2000 model year.

Forget the battle of the sexes, she suggest.

"It might be harder for a woman, but if you show enthusiasm, work hard produce good things, people will eventually respect you, no matter what."

Olga Reisler

More than a year ago Olga Reisler took the reins as the first female regional vice president at Nissan Motor Corp. USA's Infiniti Div. and she's the first woman to take responsibility for regional business in Nissan's entire corporate structure. And if that's not enough, she's also the first female to do the job for any Japanese import company in the U.S.

Ms. Reisler keeps tabs on 50 dealers in 22 states in the middle third of the country, and 40 people in her regional office in Naperville, IL, making sure they execute Infiniti's long-term strategic direction.

Ms. Reisler earned a bachelors degree in economics from the University of Arizona and a master's degree from the American Graduate School of International Management. The 19-year auto industry veteran left ford Motor Co. in 1985 to climb Nissan's ladder. She has since held the positions of business management leader, merchandising special projects manager, special projects manager, filed sales manager, regional sales manager and regional marketing manager. But she says there is no match for what she does now.

"This is the greatest job you could possibly have. It's the best of both worlds. you are exposed to dealers on daily basis, which is what the people that have gone through the filed live for, and because of the level of my position, I have strong corporate interaction. Unlike other auto companies where the most junior people start out the dealer-contact level, the individual closest to dealer are the most senior and experienced people at Nissan and Infiniti," she says.

Ms. Reisler came to Nissan amid great change. The company had turned its U.S. operations upside down to funnel numerous key business facets from the national level to the regional level.

"The reasoning for the localization program was so that the budgets, marketing strategy and dealer business could be dealt with the local level and decision-making would not need national concurrence. In fact, decisions are made at this level with the dealer operations managers and it very rarely needs to go past me," she notes.

Despite the sinking posture of luxury makes in the U.S. in recent years, Ms. Reisler believes the segment is the corner-stone of automotive competition.

She says the extent of the Japanese influence in Nissan America is in the exceptional quality of the vehicles it produces. The Japanese may own the company, but American executives run it."

The auto industry is all Ms. Reisler has known since the dawn of her professional life, and she says other women can excel within it if they do three things: "Start out the same way a man would and hold every position that they have, work hard, and keep a good sense of humor."