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Akio Toyoda waves family flag, heir makes crisis personal challenge

Wed, 24 Feb 2010 00:00:00 -0800

The reclusive Akio Toyoda is taking the rare step of waving the family flag, as the scion to Toyota Motor Corp.’s founding dynasty tries to steer the world’s largest car company out of a spiraling safety crisis.

In testimony prepared for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, President Toyoda pursues a rare personal tack on the emergency, saying “my name is on every car.”

“As you well know, I am the grandson of the founder, and all the Toyota vehicles bear my name,” Toyoda says in prepared comments circulated ahead of Wednesday’s committee hearing in Washington. “For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well.”

The intimate reflection is a departure for Toyoda, who has spent most of his career sidestepping public discussion of his lineage. Yet appearing in a country steeped in the legacy of Henry Ford and Ford Motor Co., Toyoda--the son and grandson of previous Toyota presidents--is now painting his company’s challenge as his personal one.

“My name is on every car,” Toyoda says. “You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers.”

Toyoda was groomed for decades to rise to the top of the automaker his grandfather Kiichiro Toyoda founded in 1937. Akio Toyoda’s father, Shoichiro, was himself president from 1981-1992 and now serves as honorary chairman. Yet, Akio is the first Toyoda in the driver’s seat since 1995, when his uncle Tatsuro Toyoda stepped down.

The Toyoda family owns only 2 percent of the company's stock but benefits from a hard-to-measure extra clout that the Japanese call “plus-alpha.” It goes beyond the respect Japanese usually reserve for their CEOs.

Family flag

In fact, when the young Akio first asked to join his family’s namesake company, he was initially rebuffed by his father. “Nobody will want to be your boss,” Shoichiro told him, goes the unofficial corporate lore. The implication: People would handle Akio with kid gloves.

As Akio climbed the ranks, his last name was the elephant in the room. Everyone was aware it was there, but the accepted protocol was to pretend it didn’t matter. Handlers routinely shot down any outside interview that threatened to tread upon his family roots.

Now the company is facing its biggest crisis ever in what has traditionally been its most important market, the United States. Since fall, Toyota has recalled 8.5 million cars worldwide, and the company’s top executives are being hauled before Congress for a public grilling.

The company is battling lawsuits, plunging sales and a grand jury subpoena.

Akio Toyoda appears to be cashing in on his family name to win back trust. The goal: Make a personal connection to safety problems linked to more than 30 deaths in cars made by his company.

At a press conference in January 2009, after Toyoda was named the next president, Akio called his father a "flag" around which the company traditionally rallied in tough times.

The son then added: "I am not yet that flag, but I intend to do my best so that maybe 20 or 30 years from now, people may look back and refer to me as a flag.”

Akio Toyoda’s testimony before Congress will be a first step toward that vision.

By Hans Greimel- Automotive News