Akio Toyoda

Dec 15, 2008
*Special to asia!
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In the office he wears the ubiquitous white button-down shirt and dark blue suit and behaves as modestly as any other salaryman. Behind the wheel he is a demon.

His co-workers were seriously shocked when he redlined a Lexus LS300 in the legendary 24-hour race in German’s Nürburgring tracks last year. For most Japanese workers, an open display of split personalities is a sackable offence. But to Akio Toyoda, these might just be the traits that qualify him for the most important job in the automobile world.

In late June, Akio was named head of overseas business of Toyota Motor, making him the third or fourth most important man (no women) in the company founded by his grandfather Kiichiro Toyoda 71 years ago.

Akio was also made chairman of the underperforming European operations. This, more than any other part of his new responsibility, will make or break the 52-year-old. As scion of the founding family – which holds only one percent of the shares but wields immense influence – Akio has been on the fast track for the 24 years he has worked with Toyota. But it has been made clear that his further advancement would be based on his performance.
If Akio manages to turn around the business, there is a good chance he will be made president of Toyota when the incumbent, Katsuaki Watanabe, retires in a few years. Failing which Akio would be condemned to remain where he is, never attaining the post held by his father Shoichiro Toyoda for a decade.

Isaac Newton famously said that he was able to see further than many because he “stood on the shoulders of giants”. Akio has four giants looming before him – his grandfather, his father, Watanabe and his mentor and former president Fujio Cho, current chairman of Toyota.

The four men built what was an offshoot of a loom maker into a global automobile giant. This year Toyota is set to overtake General Motors in sales by number and snatch from the hands of GM the coveted title of the biggest automaker in the world. Size notwithstanding, Toyota is highly profitable – it makes more profit than all the American automakers put together – and its Toyota way, a combination of lean production and emphasis on quality and developing talent, has made it the envy of manufacturers all over the world.

It would be a tough act to follow in ordinary circumstances. But Toyota is facing a triple whammy of high oil prices, economic slowdown in many countries and a challenge from the bottom by India’s Tata, whose new super-cheap Nano (US$2,500) threatens to totally rewrite the dynamic of automobile manufacturing and places Toyota on the defensive to come up with ways to make its cars cheaper and yet not at the expense of quality.

Akio does have things going for him. He is unassuming and reportedly well liked by colleagues. He has done much to ensure gain share in the all-important American market, he is fluent in English and, perhaps more importantly, he loves to drive. The last could prove to be the single most significant trait that connects him to current and prospective Toyota customers. If he manages to leverage his fondness of cars into improved sales in Europe, the top job is likely to be his for the taking in two to three years.


lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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