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Hans Greimel of Automotive News has a new feature on Akio Toyoda, always good to get a perspective into what Toyota has planned.
Akio Toyoda has both feet in the future
Crusading against corporate Empire in brave new world
Toyoda: Seeks leaders with 'passion'
TOKYO — Akio Toyoda's penchant for stirring things up dates to his days as a lowly section chief in the 1990s, when he tried to get Toyota to sell used cars online.
Fixated on the future, the young Toyoda — grandson of Toyota's founder — says he felt like a Jedi going up against an Empire ruled by the traditionalists at his family's namesake company.
Today, at 61, Toyoda is still preoccupied with the shapes of things to come as he leads Toyota into an era when old-guard metal benders face a cataclysm of change, from autonomous driving and electrification to the new competition from Silicon Valley.
"The automobile industry is changing at a speed far greater than anyone anticipated," Toyoda said in an Oct. 29 interview. "If we are satisfied with the way it is now, I think Toyota's growth is going to stop. ... Now I'm the president, but I feel like a Jedi."
Toyoda is hardly alone in confronting a rapidly changing landscape. Strategies are as myriad as the companies making the cars, and the view from Toyota is no less cloudy.
The worst peril, he insists, is standing still.
"Thinking that 2030 or 2050 is far in the future and doing nothing is the biggest risk," he said.
With all the uncertainty, a top Toyoda priority is cultivating a corporate culture that keeps things fresh and feisty.
He is trying to reinvent one of the world's most bureaucratic mega companies as one of its biggest little startups. He's investing aggressively in all arenas triggering today's angst and buzz: artificial intelligence, online services, big data analytics, electrified drivetrains and self-driving systems.
Last year, Toyoda began breaking the empire into subcompanies, each empowered to act as a self-contained unit. Small cars are handled by a Compact Car Company, commercial vehicles by the CV Company, connectivity by the Connected Company, and so on.
The goal: faster, nimbler decision-making for faster, more turbulent times.
"I want those people with the greatest passion and knowledge for a particular field or region to make decisions for that area," Toyoda said. "I want to make that kind of atmosphere."
He recently told investors, "The automobile industry is changing at a speed far greater than anyone anticipated."
For car-crazy Toyoda, a test driver as much at home in his racing suit as his business suit, the future brings an especially chilling wind: the risk that cars become just A-to-B commodity runabouts.
If cars drive themselves and the electronics under the hood are indistinguishable, what will sustain the emotional connection that, to Toyoda, is that all-important love of cars?
"Even Dyson is saying it wants to produce an EV," Toyoda said, referring to the U.K.-based vacuum-maker's new plans. "Now is a major turning point."
Automakers such as Toyota, he says, have a special responsibility to keep cars fun for the next 100 years. That will help them stay one step ahead of interloping rivals from outside the industry.
"That's why we're fighting this fight now," he said.
But restructuring the organization flow chart won't be enough to ensure success.
And it is difficult for any chief executive, even the family scion, to reboot an entire corporate culture, especially at a behemoth such as Toyota.
A radical idea
Still, Toyoda has a history of subverting the system. And that's where the Jedi spirit comes in.
It started in the 1990s, when Toyoda was tasked with boosting domestic sales. Toyoda floated the then-radical idea of listing pictures of used cars on something called the Internet.
"People said you can't sell cars just with pictures. The kaizen system may work for manufacturing but not for dealerships," recounted Senior Managing Officer Shigeki Tomoyama, who worked with Toyoda closely in the early years and now heads a slew of divisions.
"Back then, it was incredibly difficult to bring about change in the face of strong opposition."
Corporate elders wouldn't let the upstart attach the Toyota name to his gambit. But Toyoda went ahead with his idea anyway. For his fledgling online selling platform, he adopted the name Gazoo, a play on the Japanese word for image, or gazou.
Today, Gazoo's website is one of Japan's biggest online automotive malls.
And Toyoda insists he is still taking risks as he focuses laserlike on the distant future.
"Although there may be no precedents," he said, "I believe there is always a better way.
"Several decades from now, how are future generations going to evaluate us? That will be determined by the challenges we take up now. Do I want them to say that those who were working at Toyota before them squandered all the resources?"
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