Column: As CEO of the automaker to the world, Toyoda has no time for BS

This article was originally published HERE


LAS VEGAS — After Akio Toyoda took the stage at the Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay and demonstrated his “happy dance” — a couple of steps that looked to my eyes like a joyous folk dance from Spain or Poland — he lavished much praise on recently retired American sales chief Bob Carter.

I was among a handful of journalists shown an edited video of his address to the annual dealers’ meeting before we interviewed the CEO of the world’s largest automaker, whose brands have consistently topped the charts in the National Automobile Dealers Association’s twice-yearly surveys of franchisee satisfaction.

Carter spent 41 years with Toyota, and his career culminated with the unexpected U.S. sales win over General Motors amid the turbulence of the global pandemic and a chip crisis that the Japanese company had prepared for, though maybe not quite as well as it had thought.

But it wasn’t for the U.S. sales crown that the CEO praised his longtime U.S. executive. It was for his honesty in the worst of times.

“What I appreciate about Bob,” Toyoda said, recalling 2009 when he became CEO and Carter delivered the monthly sales reports, “is that he told me the truth, without any bullshit … or detarame … as we say in Japan.”

Having been through those hard times together, sticking with a winning strategy and filling up the bank accounts of Toyota Motor North America’s 1,800-plus retail partners in the process, made the two very close over the years. Toyoda literally called him his “brother by another mother” and rechristened him Bob Toyoda.

And yes, he clarified for me that it was the family name, not the company name: “I spell it with a ‘d’!” he said in English. Most of his other comments were in Japanese, through his longtime translator Keiko Morita.

Like all of us, but perhaps more than the rest of us, Akio Toyoda embodies a unique combination of traits and responsibilities.

He’s more personally and generationally attached to his automaker than anyone except maybe Bill Ford.

The automaker he runs is one of only five truly global ones.

And even in a remarkable era of car-racing auto executives that include such names as Farley, Tavares and Reuss, he stands out as his company’s “master driver” in addition to the expansive visionary who decides to build an AI-run city of the future and hires a foreigner to guide the reinvention of the company.

For a generation, his semi-eponymous auto brand was a beacon of environmental industrialism on the strength of an iconic if quirky vehicle that popularized new words like “hybrid” and “electrified.” And yet this is the guy defending the continued burning of gasoline for the greatest good of humanity and the planet.

Akio Toyoda doesn’t come to the dealers’ meeting every year; he has attended more than 10 times since he became CEO. But it was the first time he sat down with American journalists to try to convey his message more clearly to the English-speaking media and through us to news consumers.

It’s at least a little funny that while he was there for a meeting with dealers he kept talking about Toyota as a “B2C business.”

Setting aside any quibbling over various states’ franchise laws, his point is that they make a product for consumers. And consumers — also known as humans — are not all the same. Some have a lot of resources, others don’t have much. Something like a billion people on this planet — many of them in the 200 or so countries where Toyota does business — don’t have reliable access to electricity. (And no, that’s not counting Texas in a blizzard.)

On his trip to Las Vegas, Toyoda said he visited Target and Whole Foods stores to observe shoppers’ attitudes and behaviors. When he comes to the U.S., he said, he always tries to go to Whole Foods and In-N-Out Burger. I guess that’s kind of a yin and yang of American eating.

With the responsibility of not only his company and his country on his shoulders, Akio Toyoda has millions and millions of diverse customers looking for transportation. They don’t all have the same needs, which is why he describes his business as an “automotive department store.”

“We as the department store, should not tell people ‘you can buy this product, not that one,’ ” he said.

I suspect what he’s really worried about is regulators forcing the stores to deny customers certain products.

As Akio Toyoda sees it, a focus on carbon-neutrality should try to reduce the most carbon.

A wealthy Californian might think that since an EV emits no carbon, then that would be the obvious solution for all vehicles.

But the availability of lithium and nickel and other critical minerals are more or less finite, especially in any given slice of time, like a year or a decade. Especially this year and this decade.

Toyoda’s math is about as compelling for carbon-reduction as it is confounding for the simple political solution: He says Toyota can produce eight plug-in hybrids with 40 miles of electric range for every 320-mile battery-electric vehicle and save up to eight times the carbon emissions.

The “up to” is an absolute-best-case scenario, but based on the experience of Chevy Volt owners I’ve known, it would be at least seven times the carbon reduction — and that’s a lot.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the investors and regulators and their EV enthusiasm; I suspect they fail to recognize the truly unique phenomenon that is Elon Musk’s Tesla. (Toyota, as you may recall, was an early investor in and partner with Tesla. The Japanese giant unloaded its UAW-organized factory to Tesla via GM’s bankruptcy and netted a nice profit on the stock — though in hindsight it also left billions on the table.)

But the point remains that no one else is Tesla. And if everyone had Tesla’s lineup — with an entry-level sedan that starts around $48,000 — we’d be looking at a profoundly smaller auto industry with millions fewer employed people in multiple countries.

Toyoda is polite, of course. He describes certain zero-emission vehicle goals as “very difficult” and “rather difficult” rather than using more definitive or salty language.

It isn’t natural for him to be assertive, he insisted. But in the face of this EV passion or fanaticism, he knows he needs to be more direct: “It is also necessary for us to present the hard facts to those people who are making and laying down rules for us.”

Just like his brother Bob: No BS.