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Posted by: Ian Rowley on January 28, 2010
When Toyota said Akio Toyoda, 53, would take over from Katsuaki Watanabe as the company’s President and CEO in December 2008, it hoped workers, especially those in Japan, would rally around its new leader and reinvigorate the company. After all, it needed help, posting a first loss in six decades in May 2009 and Akio, the grandson of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda, has Toyota DNA running through his veins.
A little over year on, worries over safety and faulty accelerators are dwarfing the specter of more losses. Indeed, the crisis may have started in the U.S. but the problems are now worrying enough for talking heads in Tokyo to be questioning whether Toyota’s woes will hurt Japan’s Inc. hard-earned reputation for making good quality, reliable products.
But what about CEO’s role as the public face of the company? Since succeeding Watanabe in June, Toyoda’s public appearances have been relatively few and usually in controlled situations, such as a speech at the Tokyo Motor Show where he read prepared comments. In fairness, other speeches, such as one shortly after he assumed the mantle of Toyota chief and another at the National Press Club in Tokyo in October, were followed by question and answers sessions, but Toyota has repeatedly turned down requests for interviews with its CEO from Japanese and foreign media. Toyota also opted not to hold its usual end of year press conference in Nagoya in December. That event had been fronted by Watanabe in recent years.
Does it matter? Well, in his defense, Toyoda’s handlers say he prefers to focus fixing the company rather than talking about it to reporters. Meanwhile, as Tatsuo Yoshida, an analyst at UBS in Tokyo points out, when General Motors and Ford undertook large recalls in recent years, their CEOs didn’t see fit to apologize publicly. And Toyoda expressed condolences to those hurt in incidents involving Toyota cars in the October National Press Club speech and promised the company would make better cars.
Still, surely it couldn’t hurt to be more visible. For one thing, despite the recall problems, Toyota has made progress under its new CEO and may yet post a full-year profit this year one year ahead of schedule. The median estimate of 22 analysts that cover Toyota suggests it may tiptoe into the black for the year ending March 2010, although many may now make downward revisions. Under Toyoda’s guidance the company appears to listening to those that said it needs more fun-to-drive models. For instance, it is promising a new reasonably priced sports car based on the FT-86 concept model shown at the Tokyo Motor Show last year.
What’s more, top executives at Toyota’s main rivals do a pretty good job in the limelight. Honda CEO Takanobu Ito seems as comfortable in the spotlight as when chatting to engineers. And Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, long regarded as a charismatic leader, has emerged as the driving force behind the Yokohama-based automakers push for electric vehicle in recent months. When asked by Bloomberg News about the recalls, Irv Miller, U.S. group vice president for corporate communications, said he didn’t know whether the decision to halt production was made by Akio Toyoda. “He is certainly aware of the issue,” Miller said.
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.