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Business News/ Companies / People/  The Tearful Executive Who Tapped the Brakes on Electric Cars at Toyota
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The Tearful Executive Who Tapped the Brakes on Electric Cars at Toyota


Chairman Akio Toyoda faced skepticism in his early years. His latest challengers want him to speed up the company’s EV transition.

Toyota Motor Corporation Chairman Akio Toyoda. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha (REUTERS)Premium
Toyota Motor Corporation Chairman Akio Toyoda. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha (REUTERS)

TOYOTA CITY, Japan—Akio Toyoda was crying. Again.

At Toyota Motor’s annual shareholder meeting earlier this month, the automaker’s longtime leader broke into tears as he recalled how he felt scorned by other executives in his early years at the helm—and how the experience helped him bond with the rank and file.

“As the son of the president, I was a presence that people felt they should avoid as much as possible—an untouchable presence," Toyoda said of his early years at the company’s top. “The people who supported me through that were those working at the grassroots," he said, pausing to stifle tears.

Toyoda, 67, has made it a tradition to cry at shareholder meetings, which he has said he sees as once-a-year occasions to look in the mirror and re-evaluate. These moments from the self-proclaimed “prone-to-tears president" reveal a self-image quite different from what the world might assume about the scion of an auto dynasty.

Akio Toyoda’s grandfather, Kiichiro, founded what is now the world’s biggest automaker by vehicle sales. Akio Toyoda’s father, Shoichiro, who died recently at age 97, ran the company for a decade.

But in Akio Toyoda’s telling, his assumption of the top job in 2009 after a series of nonfamily leaders wasn’t welcomed as the coronation of the rightful heir. He recalled at this year’s meeting how he felt “unwanted by everyone." Tears followed. “My heart broke many times and more than once or twice I thought about quitting," he said.

Toyoda’s perception of himself as facing off with disparaging elites mirrors how he talks today about the auto world’s transition to electric vehicles. In December, Toyoda said he was standing up for a “silent majority" in the auto industry that questions whether it is right to make EVs the sole option for car buyers.

Many people, he added, hesitate to voice their reservations about EVs because of pressure they feel from pro-EV groups.

According to Toyoda, it was his experience of feeling discriminated against that taught him to tap in to such channels of opinion.

Toyoda took the chairman’s role at Toyota in April, passing the president job to 53-year-old Koji Sato, the former head of Toyota’s motor-sports division and luxury Lexus brand.

When Toyoda started as president in 2009, the global financial crisis was pummeling Toyota’s sales and profits. Toyota at the time was also in turmoil over unintended acceleration and other problems with its cars.

Toyoda hunkered down in his early years and began cleaning up problems he said were caused by his predecessors’ efforts to expand too quickly. He cut costs and began reversing what he saw as an overly bureaucratic culture in which deskbound executives in Japan planned out one-size-fits-all global car models.

Toyoda introduced a number of cars tailored to regional needs, such as an affordable line of trucks for emerging markets, and expanded Toyota’s global footprint. The company returned to the black in his first year and grew from there.

Along the way, he paraded his love of the racetrack and the tactile joys of driving, appearing more relaxed when chatting with race-car drivers and mechanics and doing some stunt driving in high-performance cars.

Toyoda has often commented throughout his time as president about his love for the smell of gasoline and sound of an engine. The collision of these passions with pressures to reduce carbon emissions has led the carmaker to enter races with hydrogen-burning engines, a technology Toyoda loves to tout.

Outside of shareholder meetings, Toyoda has cried publicly on a number of occasions, including a 2010 meeting with American dealers in the midst of a big recall. The meeting was credited with showing his sincerity and commitment to fixing problems.

Toyoda cried again in 2020 when the company was able to forecast a profit for the fiscal year despite Covid-19 related disruptions. “Being president is a lonely task," he told shareholders that year. “Yet in defiance of the mainstream, I was somehow able to make progress."

Outside the company, Toyoda once again sees himself as challenged by elite figures who look down upon the common sense he embodies. This time, the encroachment is coming from regulators, environmental groups and a few shareholders from places like Scandinavia, New York and California.

At Toyota’s annual meeting on June 14, several U.S. and European funds sought to oust Toyoda from his board seat. They cited governance issues and the role they say he played in keeping the automaker from going all-in on EVs.

Toyoda easily beat back the challenge, earning re-election to the board he chairs with an 85% majority. Still, that was down from 96% a year earlier.

Toyoda has advocated what he calls a more practical approach that entails offering many types of environmentally friendly vehicles. While the company is hastening its push into EVs, it plans to continue offering consumers hybrid-electric and hydrogen-powered cars as well. That is in contrast with other automakers including Honda and General Motors that have set dates for when their lineups will be all-EV.

Speaking on the sidelines of an auto show in January, Toyoda said he was keeping in mind customers in regions of the world where charging infrastructure is inadequate and electricity is generated with carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

“There are certain groups that seek to use the name of the environment as an opportunity," Toyoda said. As head of a global company, he said, “what I’m preaching is based on the reality of users in a number of markets."

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said he voted against Toyoda’s re-election to send a message to Toyota management. Under Toyoda’s leadership, Toyota is “sending a signal of resistance to the climate transition," Lander said.

Looking ahead, many Toyota watchers foresee a bigger role for Toyoda’s son, Daisuke, who holds a prominent position at a Toyota division but is still in his mid-30s.

In the meantime, Akio Toyoda has pledged to guide newly appointed President Sato in his role.

“I received one piece of advice from Chairman Toyoda: Being president of Toyota is lonely and very hard," Sato said at the shareholders meeting.

Then it was Sato’s turn to fight back tears.

“I absolutely don’t want you to have the succession experience I had," Sato said, describing Toyoda’s words to him. “You have many allies. You aren’t alone."


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