Is Toyota's boss ready for heat from U.S. lawmakers?

TOKYO — Toyota president Akio Toyoda, known as "the prince" in Japan, was groomed for years to head the automaker his grandfather founded.

His appointment in 2009 was full of promise — a morale booster for the rank and file who expected that a youthful Toyoda in the hot seat would help steer the carmaker through a brutal slump in the global auto market.

About a year later, he's slammed as slow and indecisive as Toyota grapples with the worst crisis in its 70-year history — massive global recalls ballooning to 8.5 million vehicles in a matter of weeks and its once-sterling reputation for quality in tatters.

Critics are questioning whether Toyoda is up to the challenges he now faces. It's one thing to lead a company at its peak and another to pull it through such a dire crisis.

Toyoda, 53, said Friday that he plans to testify at a U.S. congressional hearing next week about the automaker's recalls in the United States.

That came just two days after he said he wasn't going and follows an onslaught of criticism from both the Western and Japanese media about his reluctance to go to Washington.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, R-N.Y., chairman of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, issued the invitation Thursday for Wednesday's hearing, and he received Toyoda's acceptance the same day. By issuing the invitation, the committee had essentially forced Toyoda to testify or face a subpoena.

Whether Toyoda — or the chief of any Japanese company — can deftly handle a hostile grilling by U.S. lawmakers is in doubt.

The U.S. government has opened a fresh investigation into Corolla compacts over potential steering problems. Toyota's earlier recalls have been over sticky gas pedals, floor mats that ensnare accelerators and faulty braking programming.

Toyoda's earlier decision to send in his place Yoshi Inaba, the head of Toyota's U.S. operations, to the congressional hearings, as the best person to deal with the questions, was a clear outrage to some Western-style crisis-management experts.

"This is the place where you want to have your top guy," Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, said of the congressional hearings.

"If you have a leader who isn't capable of handling global issues of this magnitude, he probably shouldn't be in the driver's seat," he said.

Approachable in person, Toyoda is vocal about his love for sports cars and racing. He has appeared in racing outfits and zipped around test-drive courses in prototype vehicles.

An active blogger until the recent crisis, he spearheaded a Web campaign in Japan in the mid 1990s to build the Toyota brand on the Internet, when such moves were relatively novel in the industry.

Toyoda has headed Toyota's operations in China, and also served as head of Toyota's joint venture with General Motors Co., the New United Motor Manufacturing, or NUMMI, plant in Fremont, Calif., which was ended last year.

He has always voiced a humility about his position and played down his influence even as his rise to presidency became imminent. That kind of unpretentious behavior is valued in Japanese corporate culture.

Toyoda will have to respond to quite different, and much tougher, expectations in the United States, said Ulrike Schaede, professor of Japanese business at the University of California at San Diego.

"America is funny in that we apply different standards to the largest company," she said. "This is not an assignment anybody would want. But he has to do it. He is the man."

Some Japanese companies, like Sony Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., have become relatively more Westernized in recent years. But Toyota has remained largely insular, with a tight-knit board of directors that includes no foreigners.

A graduate of Japan's prestigious Keio University, Toyoda holds a master's degree in business administration from Babson College in Massachusetts.

Toyoda, initially criticized for being absent as the recalls surfaced in the United States in October, has become more vocal lately, holding three news conferences this month. He gave answers in faltering English at his first news conference, but he has been more prepared in the last two appearances and has read from an English statement.

Akio Toyoda | Toyota president

• 53, grandson of Toyota Motor Corp.'s founder.

• Named Toyota president in January 2009.

• A graduate of Japan's prestigious Keio University, Toyoda holds a master's degree in business administration from Babson College in Babson Park, Mass.

• Toyoda has headed Toyota's operations in China, and has also served as head of Toyota's joint venture with General Motors Co., the New United Motor Manufacturing, or NUMMI, plant in Fremont, Calif., which was ended last year.

Is Toyota's boss ready for heat from U.S. lawmakers? 02/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2010 10:46pm]

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