It is often said that Akio Toyoda likes surprises. The Toyota president and CEO is fond of racing, and is one of the few corporate leaders who will eagerly don a helmet and climb behind the wheel of his company’s competition machines. However, he often wouldn’t announce his participation in a race until the day of. Well, Toyoda-san has done it again. Today, the grandson of founder Sakichi Toyoda, announced he is stepping down as CEO of Toyota Motor Corp.
Toyoda’s departure sent shockwaves across the industry. It was expected that Akio Toyoda, 66, the grandson of founder Sakichi Toyoda, would helm the company for many years to come. He was one of us, a true car enthusiast, and held a position of great influence — maybe even the greatest imaginable. Toyota is not only the biggest Japanese car company, but the biggest company in Japan, period.
Toyota essentially sets the agenda for the entire Japanese auto industry. In addition to sitting in the captain’s seat at Toyota, Akio Toyoda was also the head of the Tokyo Motor Show and chairman of the Japan Auto Manufacturer’s Association.
According to Toyoda-san himself, his decision was prompted by the resignation of Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada. Toyoda will take over that role, leaving day to day operations to Koji Sato, as of a day ago the head of Lexus and president of Gazoo Racing. However, perhaps the move isn’t as surprising as analysts are making it out to be. It was just over a 14 years ago that Toyoda took the reins, making him the second-longest serving CEO in the company’s history.
Toyoda joined Toyota in 1984. It was likely pre-ordained, although it is said that his father, former CEO Shoichiro Toyoda, tried to dissuade him. He worked in a variety of departments, such as procurement, sales and marketing, and in stints at NUMMI, Toyota’s joint-venture with GM in Fremont, California, and at Toyota’s subsidiaries in Asia covering markets such as Taiwan, China and Vietnam.
Along the way he founded Gazoo, originally an online portal for buying used pre-owned vehicles traded in at Toyota dealerships. A pun that translates to “picture zoo”, it allowed buyers to shop thousands of used cars via images at the dawn of the internet age. Toyoda used its marketing budget to establish a small racing division within the corporate juggernaut, giving Toyoda an outlet for his motorsports passion. Of course, it eventually grew into Toyota’s funnily named global performance division.
Starting in 2002, Toyoda trained from Toyota’s development driver Hiromu Naruse. Under his tutelage, Toyoda achieved the status of Master Driver within the company and obtained an international Class C racing license. Toyoda initially kept his motorsports activities low key, racing under the alias Morizo. Word eventually got out about his participation in circuit, endurance, and rally competitions, behind the wheel of everything from Toyota 86s to JZA80 Supras to Lexus LFAs.
Toyoda was promoted to CEO in 2009, just after the global financial crisis. The company’s stock price plunged in to the red, but Toyoda helped right the ship even as Japan’s economy was hit a second time by the Tohoku tsunami and earthquake of 2011.
During his tenure Toyota also built up partnerships with former competitors like Subaru, Mazda, Suzuki, and Isuzu. Toyoda said on multiple occasions that it was his dream to have “three sports car brothers” in the lineup. It seems he has achieved that, depending on how you feel about rebadging, with the GR Yaris/Corolla, GR86, and GR Supra despite a market that’s increasingly hostile to traditional sports cars.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about the Toyoda’s exit without considering criticism of Toyota being slow to embrace electric vehicles. Nearly every western business reporter has linked it with the perception that the company is behind on the EV transition. Many are saying this is an opportunity for Toyota to discard its negative image and have a fresh start.
“I like cars that stink of gasoline, get poor gas mileage, make lots of noise, and are full of wildness,” Toyoda once said during an interview at the Tokyo Motor Show. In more recent appearance, such as at the unveiling of the new Crown, he seemed to have grown weary of the job. “As everyone knows, Toyota is a company where no one listens to the president,” he quipped.
Today, in his resignation announcement, he seemed to be aware that his passion for cars might be holding the company. “I am a carmaker, through and through. I believe that’s how I have successfully transformed Toyota. However, a carmaker is all that I am. And I see that as my own limit. The new team under upcoming President Sato has a mission to transform Toyota into a mobility company.”
With such towering figure handing over the keys, there is naturally some concern about his replacement. Many outlets have already expressed concern about Koji Sato (above, left). Some are saying that it will be difficult for the young CEO to make any real changes, especially under Toyoda’s shadow. Others wondered how many other lifers had been passed over, saying only that someone with his name on the building could have made this appointment.
But Sato is one year older than Akio Toyoda was when he took over the company. In his announcement today, Toyoda made a point to say that Sato “loves cars”. He may even have slightly undercut Sato’s task of turning Toyota into a mobility company when he said, “I think that Sato, too, is a carmaker like me.”
From an enthusiast perspective, we need not worry. Sato does not seem like the type of person that would burn Toyoda’s legacy to the ground. Plus, Sato-san even attended the Japanese Classic Car Show and said it was “amazing”. Not only that, he recently became the new owner of an AE86 Corolla Levin and is currently restoring it.
Akio Toyoda officially steps down on April 1, 2023. His new role as chairman will allow him to serve in an advisory role while letting go of some of the day-to-day tasks that come along with running a multinational company that employs 370,000 people. No one can predict how it’ll affect Toyota the company, but Toyoda the man will be better served in this capacity. At least it’ll give him more time to do whatever he loves, whether its race, mentor his son (who is also a competitive driver), or simply drop in on a local cars and coffee event and render the owner of a TE27 utterly speechless. After all, he does love surprises.