A Non Toyoda In The Driver's Seat

Hiroshi Okuda never seemed like your typical Japanese executive. As vice-president of Toyota's finances, he was brash, outspoken and quick to laugh. But since becoming Toyota's president in August, he has become more subdued, trading in his sporty blue Aristo for a conservative Crown Majesta. The job, he says, "is squeezing me."

Okuda is the first professional manager to rise to the presidency of Japan's No.1 auto maker since 1967. It may be some time before the factory folks in Toyota City learn to love a president who is neither a manufacturing man nor a member of the Toyoda family. So the challenge for Okuda is to take on the coloring that's expected of a Toyota president, while retaining his decisive, energetic style. That's precisely what Toyota needs. "The company is at a transition point," Okuda says.

He succeeded Tatsuro Toyoda, who was known to be difficult to work for. His indecisiveness combined with a compulsion to micromanage created a bottleneck at the top. The reason he got the president's job in 1992 was that his older brother, Shoichiro, wanted him to have it. Shoichiro, then chairman, departed two years later to head Japan's leading business group, Keidanren.

But leaving Tatsuro alone at the top just wasn't working. A stroke in April left him partially paralyzed, which provided a face-saving excuse for a reshuffle. Okuda is well-liked and respected by both Shoichiro and the quasi-retired Eiji Toyoda. They engineered his move up.

Some insiders hope Okuda is an interim figure who will hold the reins only until the next generation of Toyodas is ready. But Okuda is a lively 63 and expects to remain in his post for more than a single two-year term. He recognizes that one day he will pass the job to a younger person. But not before he has set Toyota on the right track.

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