Japan's Akihiro Wada

Akihiro Wada, 64, has always been a car guy with a mission. Recruited as a young engineer by Toyota Motor Corp. some 40 years ago, he has devoted his life to outmaneuvering his company's rivals. Wada's first crusade began in 1961, when he was put in charge of remodeling the Crown luxury sedan. Wada overhauled the Crown's assembly line to prove that Toyota could put cars together as quickly and nimbly as its American competitors. "I poured my heart into that," he recalls.

Before anyone concludes that Japan is in permanent decline, he or she should contemplate the drive of executives such as Wada. Today, as head of research and development, Wada is working as hard to make Toyota the world standard for automotive excellence.

He cruises through auto shows worldwide, scrutinizing every inch of competitors' models for hours. And he drives his suppliers and engineers hard. In 1996, Toyota stunned the automotive world by racing out a totally new car--the Ipsum minivan--from design to the real thing in 14 1/2 months. Last year, under Wada's prodding, Toyota became the world's first carmaker to mass-produce a "hybrid" car powered by gasoline and electricity. Wada just keeps pushing the envelope.