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Toyota heir takes the helm

2009-06-24 08:20

Tokyo - His appointment to the top post at Toyota Motor Corp has been compared to the momentous return of imperial rule in Japan in 1867.

That's the kind of weight Akio Toyoda will carry as he takes over the carmaker founded by his grandfather and led in the past by his father, uncles and other Toyodas before non-family members held the fort for the past 14 years.

And he is sailing into uncharted waters: Toyota is headed for its biggest loss ever amid a global recession of scale none of his forefathers experienced and one that has claimed two US car giants this year.

Toyoda will also be steering a company that has come to symbolise Japan's economic might, and which last year overtook the now-bankrupt General Motors as the world's top-selling carmaker. With a market capitalisation of $130 billion, Toyota is Japan's most valuable company and one that Kiichiro Toyoda, who founded the firm in 1937, would barely recognise.

Path to the top

The younger Toyoda, a car enthusiast and active amateur racer, has taken a circuitous path to the top.

In a departure from common practice in Japan, he joined Toyota mid-career in 1984 after earning a master's degree in business administration from Babson College in Massachusetts, and a brief stint overseas consulting in investment banking.

Once at Toyota, his roles ran the gamut of car operations, from manufacturing to marketing and beyond. His assignments were seen as a test of whether he was fit to take the helm one day.

The ascension was fast: the board of directors welcomed him in 2000 after a relatively short 16 years at the company.

Having successfully spearheaded the gazoo.com sales and servicing website and led Toyota's nascent Chinese operations, Toyoda quickly rose through the ranks to become senior managing director three years later and became one of eight executive vice presidents in 2005.

His predecessor, Katsuaki Watanabe, took almost twice as long to occupy each of those posts.

"Not like us salarymen"

Company elders have never pretended that Akio's climb to the top was unrelated to his family name, which was altered to the more auspicious Toyota for the company.

When Akio's promotion to vice president raised the question of whether he was next in line for the top post, Senior Adviser Hiroshi Okuda answered that the Toyoda family played an important role as a flag-bearer and binding force for the carmaker.

Chairman Fujio Cho later told reporters that Toyoda family members were special, "not like us salarymen".

Toyoda, 53, is keenly aware of the weight of that responsibility.

Whatever scrutiny his three previous predecessors, Watanabe, Cho and Okuda, faced from the Toyoda family, that would be magnified for Akio from the rest of the company - and shareholders - as he is tasked with nursing Toyota back from record losses.

While former presidents such as Eiji Toyoda and Shoichiro Toyoda command God-like respect from employees, Akio will be allowed few missteps as long as there are sceptics who believe the family's small holding of around 2 percent in the company does not merit a career advantage for those who bear its name.

Too much power

Some Toyota watchers already worry that Toyoda's special status may give him too much power with a new management team that may be less inclined to go against him.

And critics may be all too ready to find fault even, for example, when it comes to his passion for sports cars, saying Toyota could lose its focus at a time when it should be concentrating on cash cows such as the Corolla sedan.

Toyoda, who raced in the Nurburgring 24 Hours endurance race for the third consecutive year last month, says he's determined to live up to the name.

"I was born as a Toyoda, and I had no part in that decision," he said when his appointment was announced in January.

"I don't see myself as a flag-bearer at all. All I can say is that I will do my best to be remembered as a flag-bearer maybe after 20, 30 years."


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