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Founder’s grandson may take over struggling Toyota

TOKYO – As Toyota Motor Corp. faces its biggest crisis, speculation is growing that the charismatic grandson of the company’s founder may take over leadership of the automaker sooner than expected.

Japan’s nationally circulated Asahi newspaper reported Tuesday that Akio Toyoda — long groomed for the top job — will replace current president Katsuaki Watanabe as soon as April. The newspaper did not cite sources and Toyota denied any decision has been made.

At a news conference to unveil a new compact Thursday, Toyoda evaded questions about his possible promotion, but apologized for the public worries his company had caused with its dreary earnings forecast for the fiscal year.

“I am deeply sorry,” he said. “Everyone in our front lines is working hard to keep going with energy and smiles.”

On Monday, Japan’s No. 1 automaker, which produces the Prius hybrid and Lexus luxury cars, said it was sinking into its first operating loss in seven decades — a stunning reversal of fortunes for the icon of Japan Inc.

Then Wednesday, Toyota reported that global vehicles sales had plunged 21.8 percent in November — its biggest drop in eight years.

The 66-year-old Watanabe was peppered with questions about his possible resignation at Monday’s news conference, after he forecast an operating loss of 150 billion yen ($1.66 billion) for the fiscal year through March.

Watanabe, the president since 2005, brushed them off, saying the timing wasn’t right and his priority was to steer Japan’s biggest automaker through hard times. Unlike their Western counterparts, Japanese executives are widely expected to resign to take responsibility for dismal results.

Watanabe’s possible successor, Toyoda, is an executive vice president and grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, who founded the automaker.

It’s no secret that Toyoda, 52, is a best-bet candidate for future president — a position in Japanese companies that wields great decision-making power and is the equivalent of chief executive in the U.S.

The friendly and unpretentious Toyoda, who has appeared before reporters in a racing outfit — unusual among staid suit-clad Japanese executives — has come to symbolize the rejuvenation of Toyota’s management.

Called Toyota’s “prince” by the Japanese media, he has been among the youngest executives to join the board in 2000. He became one of the company’s eight executive vice presidents in 2005 — a number that has since been reduced to five.

Toyoda’s resume reads like that of a president. His jobs span Toyota’s global empire, including its China operations, Japan sales and the Internet business. Earlier, he served as vice president at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a Fremont, California-based joint venture between Toyota and General Motors Corp., giving him key experience in the U.S.

The founder’s family name is spelled with a “d,” but the company name was changed to read Toyota as that was considered luckier according to Japanese superstition, Toyota says.

Company employees say the Toyoda family name holds special meaning, although the Toyodas own only a tiny portion of the stocks. Akio’s father Shoichiro Toyoda, a former president, still wields considerable influence in the company.

That kind of morale boost may be exactly what Toyota needs as it faces what Watanabe called “an unprecedented crisis requiring urgent action.”

“There was no question really about his (Toyoda’s) presidency. The only question was when,” said Mamoru Katou, auto analyst with Tokai Tokyo Research.

While Toyota generated rising profits, it seemed likely that Toyoda would move into the top post around 2010, Katou said. That may have changed now, but Watanabe, a procurement and cost-cutting expert, is probably not being replaced immediately, he added.

Before the U.S. financial crisis erupted this year, Watanabe had overseen Toyota’s stupendous expansion, riding on the success of its fuel-efficient models. Toyota’s global vehicle sales have grown for nine years straight — a string that will almost certainly end this year.

Watanabe has now promised to halt expansion plans, cut thousands of jobs in Japan, slash costs and postpone the start of a Mississippi plant, while focusing on green technology and developing small cars and hybrids to prepare for the next growth opportunity.

“Things are so horrible I don’t see what a personnel change would achieve,” said Tsuyoshi Mochimaru, auto analyst with Barclays Capital in Tokyo. “It would make more sense to have a new president after things calm down.”

In recent years, Akio Toyoda has often been asked about heading the company. He smiles but says the thought has never entered his mind. Appearing power-hungry would be unbecoming in Japanese culture, which values humility and understatement.

The last three presidents at the company have not been a Toyoda family member.

In recent years, there has been some speculation about another succession scenario: An older executive would serve as president for a few years after Watanabe — before Toyoda takes over. That’s partly because it’s rare for major Japanese companies to be headed up by presidents in their 50s.

Other possible candidates include Mitsuo Kinoshita, who oversees Toyota’s personnel and finances, and Takeshi Uchiyamada, a technology expert known as “the father of the Prius.”

At this week’s news conference, Akio Toyoda tried to sound upbeat by comparing the company’s woes to a baseball game that could still be won.

“I am hopeful we’ve reached the bottom of the seventh inning,” he said. “The sales declines we are seeing are clearly abnormal.”

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