NEWSMAKER-U.S. grilling to test Toyota chief’s mettle

(For more on Toyota’s safety recalls, click [ID:nN27231388])

By Chang-Ran Kim, Asia autos correspondent

TOKYO, Feb 22 (BestGrowthStock) – Two days after his appointment as
president of Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T: ) last June, Akio Toyoda
delivered his vision for steering the company founded by his
grandfather: make better cars to contribute to society.

Just eight months later, Toyota is preparing to defend
himself in front of U.S. lawmakers convinced that the world’s
biggest automaker was working to much less lofty ideals.

Allegations that Toyota not only failed on its much vaunted
quality front but that it deliberately avoided recalling
millions of defective cars to save money have shaken confidence
in the once-admired carmaker.

Toyoda’s initial absence from the public eye as the crisis
unfolded last month exacerbated the damage already done to
Toyota’s image, raising questions over whether the 53-year-old
was fit to play flag-bearer for Japan’s largest company.

Toyoda will on Wednesday become the highest-profile
Japanese executive to testify before a U.S. congressional
hearing, where he will be asked to explain Toyota’s safety
missteps that led to more than 8 million vehicles worldwide for
problems with sudden, uncontrolled acceleration and faulty
brakes.

Though groomed for years to take the reins at Toyota, Akio
Toyoda’s appointment was controversial in its timing, coming at
the height of the financial crisis.

Most observers had thought his rise to the top was a few
years away, and doubts persisted over whether the baby-faced
scion, nicknamed “Toyota’s Prince” by Japanese media, had
enough experience to lead a group-wide staff of more than
300,000.

That was in spite of a public backing by company elders
such as former presidents Hiroshi Okuda and Fujio Cho, who said
that overcoming the once-in-a-lifetime financial crisis
required a founding family member as a binding force.

Such comments highlight the respect and exalted position
the Toyoda clan holds at Toyota, despite holding a stake of
only around 2 percent in Toyota, currently worth around $125
billion.

BOLD STEPS

The latest of six Toyodas to run the company since it was
established in 1937, Akio outlined bold, specific steps to
reverse what he described as a stretched expansion that had
weakened Toyota’s traditional strengths.

Toyota would reduce the number of models sold worldwide and
concentrate on core environmental technologies among other
steps aimed at going “back to the basics”, the racing
enthusiast said in that first June speech as president.

Many believe Toyoda was a key force behind the automaker’s
controversial decision to lower the price on the newest Prius
last year to compete head-on with rival Honda Motor’s (7267.T: )
Insight hybrid.

But as Toyota became engulfed in an escalating safety
crisis last month, Toyoda didn’t appear to be getting the
message that his presence was needed.

“It seems to me that there was nobody there to forcefully
tell the president that he needs to be out there taking the
lead (on the recall issue),” said Yasuhiro Matsumoto, senior
analyst at Tokyo-based Shinsei Securities.

“Maybe there was some hesitation because he is a Toyoda.”

His father, Shoichiro, who led the company for a decade
from 1982, was mindful of that danger.

Aware of the respect he commanded, the elder Toyoda
deliberately shied away from making decisions, stepping in only
at the last minute on the rare occasions when he believed the
issue was too big to ignore, one insider said.

“He never let on what he was thinking,” the person said,
requesting anonymity. “He knew his words carried weight so he
rubber-stamped every decision that came his way, even if he
didn’t agree.

“Akio Toyoda would do well to learn from his father’s
style. There seems to be arrested decision-making at Toyota
now,” the person said.

LEARNING FROM MISTAKES

Despite criticisms over his handling of the crisis,
Toyoda’s role as president is highly unlikely to come under
threat thanks to his name and the support of his predecessors.

Toyoda himself says he is already learning from his
mistakes.

“I am aware of the criticism about my not appearing before
the public much earlier,” he told reporters, repeating himself
at the three news conferences he held over a two-week period.

“My being here now is a result of the kaizen (improvement).
I hope I can be judged by my actions from here onwards.”

Investing

(Editing by Lincoln Feast)

NEWSMAKER-U.S. grilling to test Toyota chief’s mettle