Akio Toyoda: Thinking about cars whether awake or asleep

Now is the time we should go back to the basics of “wanting driving to be more fun!”: “Akio Toyoda” and “Morizo” are car-loving kindred spirits.

Although a lot of top business managers have appeared in this magazine to date, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a top manager who speaks more joyously and with a sparkle in his eye about the attraction of his company’s products as this man. He recommends to customers the company products he loves. Although hardly surprising behavior for a manager, in the Japan of old there were many venture company managers who loved their company products that they worked so hard to make more than anyone else, who loved their staff, their customers, and who loved their company itself. Other than being top manager of “worldwide Toyota,” Morizo (his racing name) is first of all a man who likes his car and tries to keep it going. The sudden recovery in Toyota’s results would not have been possible without Morizo’s smiling countenance. This passion of Morizo, who says “I would like to have Japanese people love cars once again,” is also the grass roots of Japan’s monodukuri (manufacturing) tradition of “wanting to make good things.”

Photographs: Kousuke Tsuruta, Reporting: Kazuyuki Komiya

Toyota’s “Ethos of Betterment” for a Flourishing Future

Akio Toyoda, who currently serves as Chairman of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association and also as President and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation – a company that represents our country worldwide – has two faces: one is the “president” face that he wears as an unmistakably top business manager; the other is his “car racer” face – the face of a man whose fondness for cars grows and grows whether awake or asleep. He holds a Toyota-accredited advanced level driving license and careers around the circuit under the racing name “Morizo” – a driver name known by those in the field – leading the GANZOO Racing team.

However, the hardships Toyoda has faced as President to reach where he’s at today have been no easy matter.

Since he assumed the post of President in June 2009, problems started piling up one on top of the other: first there was the drop into the red that followed the Lehman shock in America; then there were the mass-product recall problems in America, the majority of which were resolved with a 95-billion yen ($1 billion) settlement payment at the end of last year; then there was the Great East Japan Earthquake and the flooding in Thailand; added to all that were problems such as the high yen value. His tenure as President certainly started as a voyage into stormy seas.

About two years ago, he touched on that subject in private correspondence to this writer, noting that “Although apologies followed one after another, I was supported by so many people that those apologies started to turn into gratitude. I am full of gratitude.” Those were his own words, sincere and from the bottom of his heart.

“These real-world problems were testing issues that continued one after another once I’d assumed the role of President,” Toyoda says, “I was struggling. Well, I’m still struggling even today! However, those at the top of company management cannot show any sense of pessimism. In the three years after I took over as President, I told myself that I always had to wear a smile and never show any sense of pessimism. To be honest, there are various testing issues that are still ongoing, which is hardly the thing to put a pure heartfelt smile on one’s face. Even so, living with a smile brings out smiles from those around you, and helps everyone feel brighter and more cheerful. That’s precisely why smiling is important.”

It was early afternoon on December 25 last year. After holding a lively presentation for journalists on the new generation Toyota Crown, the President gave a frank and direct interview about the joy of cars. One of the new Crowns presented was colored a vibrant pink, which totally overturned the Crown’s former image of a “premium car for middle-age men” and dazzled the eyes of the attendant journalists.

The keyword was “Reborn.” To welcome the 75th anniversary of the company’s foundation, President Akio Toyoda emphasized this word over and over again in his in-house “new year’s address.” “Last year, to welcome the 75th anniversary of this company, we talked about laying a floral tribute before the bust of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda during the commemoration ceremony. But I was concerned about what I should personally say to Kiichiro as I laid the floral tribute. To be honest, I thought about it constantly. To all the employees who had fought desperately against the odds with smiles on their faces these last three years, I’d kept on saying just two things: ‘Let’s be of one purpose,’ and ‘Let’s make great cars.’ But what was that ‘one purpose?’ What should I say? While asking myself this question, I tried to cast my mind back to the time of the company founder.

The pink Crown that literally epitomizes Akio Toyoda’s belief that “if it doesn’t excite, it’s not a car.” The car quite possibly got resounding thumbs down at the board meeting, but as Toyoda declares, because this Crown has both the potentiality of Toyota and the power of Japan behind it, factors which transcend age groups and generations, the sales target is “all Japanese drivers.”

“For me,” Toyoda laughs, “When I was a student, cars were also a place where you could make contact with the opposite sex! Naturally, a car offered the optimum mobility when inviting someone out on a date. For middle-aged and older people, I expect cars also harbor fond memories of their family and youth.

“All people, whoever they are, have the psychology of wanting to show off a little bit, to look cool. In that sense, a car isn’t just any old industrial product – it can also be thought of as a product that provides a status symbol-like satisfaction. That’s precisely why we seek out the sense of emotional satisfaction of ‘if it doesn’t excite, it isn’t a car’ and ‘if it isn’t fun, it isn’t a car.’ Of course, to that end, improving technological levels is essential. “Perhaps because attitudes from the age when cars were a luxury item still linger, currently nine different types of taxes are imposed on cars in Japan, and total some eight trillion yen. There are already things such as revenue set aside for road construction to encourage infrastructure development, while looking from the car user’s point of view, I sometimes wonder whether there is a need for nine types of taxes. Cars are no longer luxury items – they are indispensable for ordinary society or for living in the rural areas. The car industry hopes that the sense of unfairness that surrounds the taxes from a user point of view can be resolved.

“I pledged that, not seeking the best from the outset, I would never stop the pursuit of betterment nor let up my effort to sow seeds that would bloom in the future.”

Akio Toyoda
Born in Aichi Prefecture in 1956. Earned a degree in law from Keio University in 1979. Earned a master’s degree in business administration from Babson College in the United States in 1982, after which he worked at an investment bank. Joined Toyota Motor Corporation in 1984 and was mainly responsible for production control and management. Spearheaded a shake-up of sales via measures such as cross-developing the ‘Kaizen’ program for sales departments. Vice-president of NUMMI merged venture with GM before assuming role of CEO in 2000. Assumed role of President in June 2009. Also serves as Chairman of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.

“Recently, ‘young people migrating away from cars’ is a theme occasionally featured in media programs. But I reckon that if they showed young people images of senior drivers enjoying driving, that would work as a trigger to also making young people feel that driving a car could be fun. In my case, I grew up in an environment where cars were familiar, so the fun of driving cars is deeply ingrained. There are various opinions on this, but I think that young people will naturally go on liking cars whatever the era. I sensed that at the Odaiba Gakuen Festival, too”

My adviser and Alter-ego ‘Morizo’

“It’s often said that one’s personality changes when one drives a car. One must naturally pay the utmost attention to road and traffic conditions, and as such, I keep it in mind to brush up on my own driving skills. Sometimes I change into my racing overalls as ‘Morizo’ and zoom around the circuit. When racing on the circuit at high speed, presence of mind becomes the key. The speeds on the circuit can’t be experienced on regular roads, but once your speed climbs to 180-200 kilometers per hour, your hands start getting damp with sweat. Then, once you’ve gone past 200 kilos and hit the 300 kilo mark, conversely, you start to feel as though between 250 and 260 kilos is the safety driving region. The width of your field of vision suddenly widens. Although people just don’t ordinarily have the opportunity to experience racing on a circuit, when you start gripping that steering wheel yourself, your driving skills improve.

“Actually, since I became President,” Toyoda laughs, “When I drive cars around I do sometimes receive criticism from inside the company along the lines of ‘You’re the President, you should look after yourself,’ However, I also feel that there’s nothing wrong with the president of an automobile manufacturer taking the wheel himself. Although the number of opportunities to drive has fallen since becoming President, I consider offering the very best products to be my mission as the top business manager of an automobile manufacturer, and so I personally test drive the new vehicles, which includes checks on features such as ride quality and design. That’s why, when I find the time, I show my face at the factories and call out ‘Let’s build cars that are more fun!’ More than anything, as a car user who likes cars, I continue thinking about cars and the Company every day, whether awake or asleep. “After all, the spirit of Toyota’s ‘reborn’ is a desire for the Company to be a public institution for better society. Both I and alter ego Morizo would like to focus all our efforts into addressing the management of the testing issues we face every day so that we can respond to the expectations of all car users and provide society with ‘fun cars’ and ‘exciting cars.’ We’d like to ask for your continued support.”

The “Reborn” campaign is filled with the resolve to recreate Japan as well as Toyota. Akio Toyoda’s words “Our efforts today create smiles in the future” are steeped in the actual experiences of a business manager who has overcome testing issues, and serve as motivation for the shop-floor workers who fight alongside him.

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