After 10 years away, Carol Suckow is back home.
But the Portland native's time is mostly spent walking the massive new Subaru of America parts distribution center along Northeast Hogan Drive in Gresham.
The regional manager prowls the shiny concrete floor, talking to supervisors and training workers charged with receiving, sorting and shipping hundreds of thousands of car parts.
"I'm very hands on," Suckow said. "I need to be here and out on the floor. I'm trying to build a team."
After 18 months of construction, the 601,000-square-foot, $40 million warehouse started accepting parts in October. But it might not be until April that the warehouse is operating as she wants it.
"I got the chance to come home so I promised them two more years," said Suckow, who spent the past 18 years working in and managing Subaru parts centers in Northeast Portland, Georgia and Indiana. "I love the opportunity; it's a huge challenge."
Subaru is the first major tenant in the Gresham Vista Business Park, which is owned by the Port of Portland. The city of Gresham helped land the warehouse with $2 million in tax breaks and fee waivers. Subaru's arrival helped jump-start development in the park, which is now seeing more than 1.5 million square feet of new warehouses planned or under construction.
The Subaru facility is part of the company's drive to more quickly get car parts to dealers around the United States. All that is spurred by year-over-year record sales — 615,000 cars sold in the U.S. in 2016 — for its all-wheel-drive line of automobiles.
Until the Gresham plant opened in October, Subaru of America had just one national parts distribution center — in Lebanon, Ind. near its only U.S. manufacturing facility. The primary job of the two national centers is to get car parts — everything from emblems to engines — to seven company-owned and three independent regional distribution centers.
In most cases those regional centers provide parts to more than 620 dealerships and thousands of repair shops around the country.
But the Gresham plant also represents a major change in how Subaru of America distributes its parts.
Although it is expanding its Indiana plant, half of Subaru cars sold in the U.S. and almost all of its parts are made in Japan. Until the Gresham warehouse opened, if a regional parts center needed a Japanese-built part it had to come from a warehouse in Japan.
Now, Subaru is clearing out its Japan warehouses and moving those parts to Gresham, said Ray Matusiak, the company's national parts distribution manager.
From now on, once a part is manufactured in Japan it will move quickly to Gresham.
"It's more of a 'just in time' distribution process," Matusiak said.
The key indicator to parts demand, Matusiak said, is the number of 4- to 7-year-old Subarus on the road.
"Because of increasing sales we're adding exponentially to the demand for new parts," said Michael McHale, a spokesman in company headquarters in New Jersey. "It's all driven by the number of vehicles on the road."
Subaru needed a West Coast location for its newest parts center, so it looked in California, Washington and Oregon. It eventually focused on the Portland area because of the success of a regional parts center on port property in northeast Portland, Matusiak noted.
"Everything just fell into line and it worked out perfectly for us," he said of the Gresham location. "We had a target opening date of October and they hit that date. We're very happy."
But it takes work
When hiring is complete, there will be 50 Subaru employees, including Suckow, working at the Gresham warehouse. Ten of the 50 have been hired, the rest are temporary workers who Suckow is seeing if they can make the grade.
In order to get the five-year tax break from the city, Subaru has to have a wage and benefits package of nearly $20 an hour. Subaru's benefits are extensive: medical, dental and vision plans, 12 paid holidays, two weeks vacation, and both a pension and 401k retirement plans.
Generally, work shifts are eight hours a day, although there's lots of overtime now to get the plant up and running. Suckow said there are no plans for a second shift or a 24/7 operation like many warehouses.
"Subaru doesn't like to work their people all day and night. There's a good work-life balance," she said.
Anyone wishing to be hired has to have an attention to detail, know computers and meet performance and attendance standards. Passing muster can be difficult.
"It's a very detailed-oriented job," she said. "It's just not about moving pallets."
Containers from Japan — currently about 15 a day — arrive on the north side of the building where they are inspected for U.S. Customs. Once cleared, they are unloaded, sorted, often repackaged, and then stored until a request comes in from a regional center.
Those requests are then boxed, bundled and leave out the south side of the building by truck or eventually rail.
Also inside the warehouse is a subcontractor with 40 employees who repacks Japanese packages that don't meet U.S. shipping standards.
When fully operational, Suckow said, there will be 50,000 unique parts in the warehouse; currently there are just 8,200.
"It was a challenge at first to get everything working the way it needed to," she said. "But I love the opportunity; it's a huge challenge, and we're making good progress."